Features Gulag part of Europe’s history

The new virtual Gulag museum in Paris appears in many languages and transcends national boundaries.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 44, 2 2011
Published on balticworlds.com on June 30, 2011

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A new virtual Gulag museum was officially launched on March 11 in Paris (see http://museum.gulagmemories.eu/). The museum, part of the Sound Archives—European Memories of the Gulag initiative, is the result of a collaboration between Alain Blum, director of CERCEC1, Marta Craveri, a researcher at CERCEC, and Valérie Nivelon, a journalist and the producer of Radio France Internationale’s La marche du monde.

As the Web site clearly shows, many inhabitants of countries that have recently joined the EU experienced life in the Gulag. The museum seeks to make this experience part of Europe’s collective memory in order to show that the Soviet labor camps and special settlements are not only part of Russia’s history, but also part of Europe’s history.

The project was coordinated by CERCEC and brought together thirteen European researchers from a variety of backgrounds. Anthropologists, geographers, historians, and sociologists collected archival materials, statements from survivors, and personal effects and documents connected with the deportation to the USSR of citizens from “countries in Central and Eastern Europe that were annexed, occupied, or ‘liberated’ by the Soviet Union before and after the Second World War”.

Visitors can navigate the virtual museum in three ways: by topic, by location, and by date. The topic option is based on two types of records presented in virtual “rooms”: testimonies about deportation and a series of information pages organized by topic (work in deportation, places of resettlement, hunger, forest, death of Stalin, journey to resettlement, life after the Gulag, becoming Soviet, childhood in the Gulag, etc.). The date option has a timeline showing significant events in the USSR from 1939 until 1960 and the various periods of Stalinist repression. The location option is the most innovative of the three and allows visitors to gain access to testimonies according to deportees’ place of origin, place of deportation, or current location. Visitors can also retrace the steps of a former deportee on a map of Europe.

This highly ambitious virtual museum project stands out from existing virtual, or online museums in the way that it takes the Gulag experience beyond the national level.2 And unlike some of the other sites, it is available in four languages: English, French, Polish, and Russian.

However, the site would benefit from a few changes. For example, the sources and references for the documents available online could be made accessible in a more systematic way. The site’s creators could follow the lead of the virtual museum of the Russian Gulag’s site, where detailed information pages allow visitors to trace the path of the objects on display online, from their acquisition and use by detainees, to their appropriation by a museum and subsequent appearance online at http://gulagmuseum.org/.

The audio material would also benefit from some improvements. First, the site users would gain more from the interview extracts about the concentration camp experience if some reflection on the problem of articulating a special
settlement experience in language were present at the site. Second, further researchers would benefit from a presentation of the methods used by the interviewers to collect evidence, as well as the general context of the interview. Indeed, an unstructured conversation about one’s life cannot be used in the same manner as a structured interview in which the researcher’s questions provide the storyline. It would also be good to have access to the online corpus. This would give more credibility to the eyewitness accounts. How were the witnesses chosen? To what extent could the choice of witnesses influence the collection of memories and impressions, especially in light of the fact that many witnesses are active in associations seeking to preserve memories of the Gulag, or that the vast majority of witnesses were children at the time of their detention?

Others might also regret that this new virtual museum of European memories of the Gulag, initiated by France, devotes only a few pages to the experiences of the thousands of French citizens who were forced into the German army and held in Soviet camps during and after the Second World War, especially given that the last, conscripted Alsatian was not returned from Soviet exile until 1955. Showing the existence of links between the Gulag and the GUPVI (Chief Administration of Prisoners of War and Internees) would have the advantage of showing that the Gulag system tried to extend its influence beyond its initial domain of internment based on a single criminal conviction. Not doing so could also plunge the fates of thousands of victims of Stalinism into oblivion. ≈


  1. CERCEC: Centre d’Etudes des mondes Russe, Caucasien, et Centre-européen, at EHESS/CNRS.
  2. For Russia, see http://gulagmuseum.org/ (Virtual Gulag Museum), http://memorial-nic.org/ (St. Petersburg Memorial), and http://www.memo.ru/ (Sakharov Center). For Latvia, see www.occupationmuseum.lv/ (Museum of the Occupation of Latvia). For Lithuania, see www.genocid.lt/muziejus (Museum for the Victims of Genocide). For Poland, see www.karta.org.pl (Karta Center). For Hungary, see www.terrorhaza.hu/ (House of Terror). For Estonia, see www.memento.ee/ (Memento Association). For the Czech Republic, see http://gulag.szmo.cz/index.html (Opava Museum).
  • by Florence Fröhlig

    PhD in ethnology, Södertörn University. Focus on memory and mourning processes. Postdoctoral researcher in the Norface project TRANSWEL, and project researcher in “NuclearLegacies: Negotiating Radioactivity in France, Russia, and Sweden”.

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