Reviews The Gulag memory. The sites and places of commemoration

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 2019:2
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 19, 2019

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Although the number of books concerning the Russian memory of communist terror in the former Soviet Union has been increasing, none of them has so far presented a complex analysis of sites of this memory in locations where communist concentration and labor camps with their cemeteries were once situated. Polish sociologist and cultural anthropologist Zuzanna Bogumil has written the first study of this kind and expressed an admirable ambition to study a large number of places and issues connected with the “Gulag memory” in four regions from the White Sea in the north of European Russia to the far eastern edge of the Asian part of the country, symbolizing more or less the entire “Gulag landscape” in Russia. The four chosen regions are of particular historical significance: The Solovetsky Islands with the Solovetsky monastery and the territory of the former SLON, the Solovetsky special purpose camp, at the center, the Komi Republic (especially Vorkuta, the “Russian Buchenwald”), the Perm Krai/Region (Perm-36 in Kuchino) and Kolyma (with the “Russian Auschwitz” — Magadan — in focus). The site of memory in Moscow’s suburb of Butovo is also partly included, while other sites in the Russian capital (such as the Lubyanka and Butyrka prisons and Kommunarka, for example) are left aside.

 

The author studies the “return” of the Gulag memory to Russian society mainly during two initial periods — the first that could be described as the time of “careful memory” during perestroika in the Soviet Union before 1989, and the second from the end of the 1980s to the early 1990s. During the first years of Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, the memory of communist terror was carefully described only as a memory of “Stalinist repressions” without further references to the oppressive character of the entire Soviet system. At the same time, it was still forbidden to include even Lenin’s period in power in the process of terror that was cautiously being revealed. Inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin, Russian philosopher and literary critic, Zuzanna Bogumil calls the second period a “carnival of memory” because it was then that the “memory revolution” in Russia became particularly intense, colorful and multi-layered. The sense of the necessity of bringing the memory of political terror into the center of that time’s Russian historical culture can be illustrated by the fact that even the KGB, the Soviet state security and political police, did not oppose and sometimes, as in one case in the Perm region, even actively supported some actions within this memory carnival. Thus, the Solovetsky Stone that linked the Soviet capital with one of the first important Soviet concentration camps in the White Sea appeared in central Moscow in 1990, just in front of the KGB headquarters in Lubyanka where it soon symbolically replaced the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet oppressive forces. As Bogumil shows, the symbolism positioning the Solovetsky Islands at the center played an extremely important role both in spreading awareness about Soviet terror in general and in the development of a special narrative of “new martyrdom”, developed by the Russian Orthodox Church after the “carnival of memory” period.

Zuzanna Bogumil convincingly shows that sites of memory of Soviet terror situated on Russian territory lacked a common narrative and strategy and were constructed with very different focuses in the minds of their creators. Important factors behind these differences were, for example, whether or not the former prisoners and their descendants remained in the regions where they were persecuted and where the memory was to be kept, or whether the exact locations of the camps and cemeteries where the victims were killed and buried were known. While mutual coordination of the memory processes was poor, the ambitions, on the contrary, were very high. A number of monuments built during this time were originally intended only as temporary solutions until more permanent sites of memory could be built. However, when society started to focus on different priorities during the economic transformation of the 1990s, these temporary solutions unintentionally became permanent.

A rich variety of commemoration strategies during the “carnival era” was developed by a rather rich variety of actors. This process not only showed the great pain that was previously “hidden” or at least openly invisible in society, but also led to some forced compromises and extraordinary paradoxes. As shown in the case of the Komi Republic, for example, the memory of Soviet terror became combined with the memory of heroism supporting the Soviet economy, where the prisoners simultaneously became both victims of political repression and “heroic conquerors of the taiga” in the name of a bright future of the same Soviet system. Moreover, it was not rare that various exhibitions and memorials that became dedicated to the Gulag memory were originally intended and developed as sites of positive Soviet memory but included unofficial Soviet propaganda.

Two groups are particularly important for the author of the study: The Memorial Society, focusing on human rights and liberal political values, and the Russian Orthodox Church. While they were able to collaborate and work for similar goals in the beginning, the contrast between them in the long run is striking. The Church, as Bogumil concludes, has managed to create its own coherent interpretation of the Gulag memory, operating on multiple levels, which aims to ensure that a response in a desired direction can be found on any question related to the meaning of the repressions. Since this interpretation is very close to the goals of the current Russian political leadership, the Orthodox Church has become one of the most important actors of the Gulag memory in the country. On the other hand, as the author stresses, Memorial was not equally able to create a meaning-laden system capable of delineating a framework for a civilian community and responding to such questions as “What made the Gulag possible” or “How should we live in the future?”This criticism of Memorial, that has been fighting for its survival against numerous restrictions from the Russian state, might sometimes seem too strong. On the other hand it provides an explanation of why the liberal-oriented form of the Gulag memory remains relatively limited in contemporary Russia.

 

In THE individual chapters of the book, Zuzanna Bogumil studies the development in the four regions already mentioned separately and without mutual or continuous comparisons and confrontations. This, however, leaves some important questions unanswered. While she mentions, for example,  the contribution of foreign organizations to the memory of the Gulag in the case of the Perm-36 museum, she does not analyze the same aspect in the case of the Solovetsky Islands at all, despite the fact that the Solovetsky Monastery was the very first Gulag memorial in the territory of the Soviet Union to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Moreover, the author sometimes seems to struggle between the fact that her main research was conducted in the years 2006—2008 and the ambition to update the context as much as possible and to include even the newest developments in Russia. The analysis of recent developments thus sometimes lacks the depth of the analysis of the 1990s. These partial weaknesses, however, by no means overshadow the fact that Zuzanna Bogumil’s thoroughly and well-researched book represents a major contribution to the field of her study and cannot be ignored by any serious scholar who is interested in sites of memory of communist terror in the post-Soviet world and in this memory in general. ≈

 

  • by Tomas Sniegon

    Historian and senior lecturer in European Studies at the University of Lund, Sweden. Currently working on a project about Soviet dictatorship, financed by The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences.

  • all contributors

Gulag Memories. The re-discovery and com-memoration of Russia’s repressive past, Zuzanna Bogumil New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books 2018. 302 pages.