Album from Hell

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…

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