Gulag: Life and Death Inside the Soviet Concentration Camps
by Tomasz Kizny
Firefly, 496 pp., $69.95
Yellowed, dusty, covered in thick cardboard, and held together with string, the Gulag photo albums stored in the Russian State Archive look, at first glance, like nothing more than old family albums kept too long in the attic. But even when opened, their true function isn’t immediately clear. Many have whimsical introductions, elaborate calligraphy, painted illustrations. One, for example, displays a watercolor painting and a hand-lettered dedication on its title page: “Thank you great Stalin for our happy childhood!” Another features a poem:
The sun shines in their Stalinist fatherland
The nation is filled with love for its leader
And our wonderful children are happy
Just as the whole young country is happy.
In these two particular albums, the photographs that follow were taken in the children’s nurseries that were once attached to camps of the Gulag. They show tiny babies in iron cribs, crammed together in undecorated rooms; nursing mothers in prison garb, wearing “hygienic” white face masks so as not to infect their children; solemn-faced toddlers lining up to go for a walk, with a camp fence and a bleak landscape in the background. Some of these expressionless children would have been born in camps. Some would have been “arrested” along with their mothers. Many would later be taken away, possibly never to see either one of their parents again. In the photographs, most of them have shaved heads, presumably to protect them from rampant lice. Despite the calligraphy and the flowery rhetoric, the effect is to make them look like the little prisoners that they really are.
A similar glaring falsity is evident in many of the other photo albums too. One 1957 album, for example, was dedicated to “self-motivated artistic activity” in one of the camps. It contains photographs of stage sets, men with accordions, dancers in Russian national costume, musicians with saxophones and guitars. The prisoners in the pictures look frozen, humorless, as if cast in stone. Another, from a collective farm camp in Central Asia, dated 1939–1942—years of famine and hardship throughout the Soviet Union—contains pictures of happy, well-fed prisoners holding up their biggest pumpkins, camels pulling plows, smiling indigenous people beside prize sheep, as well as charts showing the camp’s rising productivity.
Clearly, neither the pictures, nor the captions, nor the calligraphy, nor the graphs tell the full story of any of these camps. But that was not their purpose. Most of these albums were, in effect, internal propaganda. With a few exceptions, they were not meant to provide straightforward, systematic, or even accurate historical documentation. They were intended, rather, to show the bosses back in Moscow how well things were going. Like all but a few of the photographs taken inside the Soviet Gulag, they were never meant to be seen by outsiders.
Sometimes, it is true, the NKVD—as the Soviet secret police were called in the 1930s and 1940s—took photographs not exactly to show how happy everyone was, but in order to record the type of work carried out in a particular camp, or the state of its physical plant. The Moscow archives contain a couple of such albums from Vorkuta, one of the largest and most lethal camp complexes. Although not showing many prisoners, these photographs do portray shabby wooden camp buildings, snow-covered landscapes, and one rudimentary hospital ward. Dozens of pictures, widely published at the time, were also taken of prisoners working on the White Sea Canal, one of the earliest major Gulag projects. Although few of these show the prisoners’ faces, some do show prisoners using “hammers” (a rock tied to a stave) or “wheelbarrows” (a single plank), illustrating well the primitive technology used to complete the project.
Traveling around the former Soviet Union, looking at regional and provincial archives, the Polish photographer Tomasz Kizny collected a wide and eclectic range of such pictures. That collection served as the foundation for this unique album, the first of its kind. Among them are some classic, posed propaganda pictures, such as the photographs taken to commemorate the writer Maxim Gorky’s visit to the Soviet Union’s first political camp on the Solovetsky Islands; pictures of a “First of May” parade in the city of Magadan, one of the Gulag’s hubs; and snapshots of a “sports club” organized by the wives of White Sea Canal camp bosses, complete with women doing handstands on parallel bars, toes pointed upward. There is also a large collection of photographs taken of the Gulag’s theatrical performances. Ostensibly part of the camps’ “reeducation” programs, these shows were largely put on for the entertainment of the camp commanders, and often involved famous actors and musicians who had played in the theaters of Moscow and Leningrad before their arrests.
But Kizny has also collected some of the more prosaic documentary pictures, not only the well-known photographs from the White Sea Canal but many previously unknown pictures of prisoners working on the late 1940s railroad construction project remembered as the “Road of Death.” Seventy thousand prisoners worked on this project, which was supposed to link the Arctic cities of Salekhard and Igarka, crossing 1,300 kilometers of tundra which had never been mapped or surveyed. Although thousands died in the process, the railroad was never finished: the tracks sank into the permafrost, the stakes implanted cracked in the freezing winter. One of the photographs, showing the spring floods washing over some half-built tracks, illustrates far better than any document could the obstacles that were never quite overcome. Everything is jerry-built in these workplaces. Nothing is made to last.
During his travels, Kizny supplemented his archival photographs with photographs taken and collected by prisoners. Such pictures are stored not in state archives but in private homes, in bottom drawers, and, occasionally, in unofficial or private archives such as those organized by the Memorial society in Moscow or the Karta foundation in Warsaw. Though they do not document camp life, these pictures can sometimes be oddly moving. Most are portraits of prisoners after they had been released, or after they had been sent, following imprisonment, into exile. The amateurish, blurry shots show weathered faces, sometimes smiling in a field, sometimes somber in front of a barbed wire fence. They record all of the possible moods that release could bring: joy, hope, despair at all that has been lost.
Occasionally, prisoners got hold of their mug shots—or archivists gave them away—and these can be powerful too. Despite rough film, blank backgrounds, and the dehumanizing impact of the prisoner’s identity number, they sometimes manage to convey some sense of the person in the picture. Kizny has included a mug shot of an Orthodox priest, with sad eyes and a scraggly beard; a former tsarist officer, shot in 1929, still sporting his handlebar moustache; and an actor, nineteen at the time of his arrest, with beautiful high cheekbones and an expressive mouth. Although they were not intended to do so by the photographers, these pictures accurately illustrated just how diverse, physically, culturally, and intellectually, were the inhabitants of Stalin’s camps.
Still, given the size of the book, the high quality of its reproductions, and the lofty aims of the photographer and his publishers, well illustrated by the choice for the preface of three distinguished writers—the historian Norman Davies, the human rights activist Sergei Kovalev, and the writer and Holocaust survivor Jorge Semprun—there are some odd omissions. Kizny does not use many of the photographs available in the Moscow archives, for example, although they are easily accessible and, in a couple of cases, more evocative than ones he did include. He also leaves out some of the pictures collected by Memorial, most of which come from provincial archives similar to the ones he visited. Clearly, he preferred to rely on pictures that he had collected himself. As a result, the book feels slightly skewed. Nearly half of it is devoted to three unusual, early camps, on the Solovetsky Islands, Vaigach Island, and the White Sea Canal. Most of the other photographs come from three far northern camps: Kolyma, Vorkuta, and along the “Road of Death.” Even if it conveys some sense of human variety, the book does not therefore give much sense of the Gulag’s geographic variety. There were, after all, camps near most major cities, in Central Asia, in Georgia and Ukraine. There were also fishing camps, collective farm camps, and factory camps. Not all prisoners lived in the far north, and not all of them worked in mines.
But the most important reason the book feels incomplete isn’t Kizny’s fault at all. What is really missing, from this collection and from all of the archival collections, is the kinds of photographs that British and American photographers took when their armies liberated the concentration camps run by the Nazis: photographs of atrocities, of mass executions, of punishment cells, of starving prisoners. Although there are pictures of prisoners working in snow and mud, there are no pictures of emaciated prisoners falling under the weight of the coal they were supposed to be carrying. Although there are pictures of brass bands playing on construction sites, there are no pictures of the morgues that would have been located not far away. It would be surprising if no such pictures were ever taken. Certainly Wehrmacht soldiers and SS officers had no qualms about taking gruesome photographs of Jews they had murdered, even sending them home to their wives. We know from more recent experience that American soldiers in Iraq don’t mind photographing atrocities either. But no NKVD photographs of this sort appear—yet—to have survived.
Perhaps to compensate, Kizny has filled about half of his book with an extensive collection of his own photographs, all taken on his trips to the farther-flung corners of Russia. His “Road of Death” pictures, for example, show train tracks sinking into the tundra, the remnants of barracks with the skeletons of wooden bunks still intact, abandoned locomotives, and rickety watchtowers. In their way, these modern pictures tell more about the pointlessness and waste of the project than do the old pictures. Kizny’s pictures of simple wooden prisoners’ graves, overgrown with vines, and of trash heaps containing hundreds of pairs of rotten leather shoes, reminiscent of Auschwitz, evoke the death and suffering that are absent from the archival photographs as well.
In a different way, Kizny’s photographs of the people who still live in these desolate places reflect a deeper sense of tragedy than the amateur photos prisoners took on their release. Kizny has photographed, for example, the remaining inhabitants of Vaigach Island, where an expedition led by secret policemen and staffed by prisoners dug for gold in 1930 and 1931. Most of those who still live on the island are Nenets, members of an Eskimo tribe. Nenets tribesmen still live in the house once occupied by the expedition leader, a secret police boss called Fyodor Eikhmans. More than seventy years later, it is still the sturdiest building on the island. There is an element of the surreal about Kizny’s photographs of its current inhabitants, with their fur boots and lined faces, standing in front of a house built by Gulag prisoners more than seventy years ago.
But if the Vaigach expedition left only a few primitive buildings behind, in Vorkuta the entire camp infrastructure remains. Kizny has photographed the Vorkuta miners, who work in the same mines as prisoners did, as well as women sorting coal in a building that was the site of one of the Gulag’s most famous rebellions. Even further east, near Magadan, Kizny has photographed the completely empty landscape, the utterly deserted mines, the barbed wire fences guarding nothing at all. Stalinism came and went, and left nothing but misery and poverty and an Arctic desert in its wake.
Taken as a whole, though, the effect of the book is a strange one. For along with tragedy, there is something else missing too: the daily lives of the prisoners themselves. In the archival photographs, we see mostly faceless prisoners working, or else heavily rouged and powdered prisoners singing and dancing. In the contemporary photographs, we see empty spaces, crumbling buildings, crooked train tracks, elderly survivors. What we mostly don’t see, anywhere, is the prisoners’ lives: the places they lived, the food they ate, the hospitals they died in. What did their faces really look like when they were marching off to work? What did they really wear when they were inside the barracks? How did their bodies look when they were sick or starving?
It’s a significant absence. In their introductions, Davies, Semprun, and Kovalev all speak of the need for the world to remember the Gulag. Davies writes of the need to lift the “cloak of secrecy” that hid the camps for so long. Semprun describes the Western intellectuals who helped prevent the story of the camps from being told. Kovalev talks of the “long shadow” that the Gulag continues to cast on Russia. Yet Kizny’s book itself illustrates why it is so difficult for either Westerners or Russians to remember that. There just aren’t many pictures. In a world where visual imagery counts for more than the written word, that means the subject doesn’t fully exist.
Although this is certainly the widest-ranging and most complete album of Gulag photographs ever published, the truth is that remembering the Gulag still requires a great reliance on a form of visual archaeology that is rarely practiced nowadays. For despite the quantity of pictures, and despite their often high quality, you cannot merely look at the photographs in this book and understand automatically what it is that you are seeing. Instead, you must look at them while simultaneously intuiting, or imagining, or inventing all of the things they do not, cannot, show. You must look at the back of a man pushing a railroad car full of coal and remember that he might have been a high school math teacher from the Baltic states. You must look at the pictures of musicians in a brass band and remember that they were probably covered with lice. You must look at the children and remember that they will soon be separated from their mothers.
Finally, you must look at Kizny’s pictures of the empty, snow-covered tundra around Magadan and remember that badly fed, poorly clothed people actually lived, and died, in that desolate place, which takes some effort. Not all of these photographs are dishonest, but they do not tell the whole story.