- Picturing the Gulag
The opening of the Soviet archives has brought to light thousands of photographs of the Gulag. Yet many of these images, which range from documentation of construction to portraits of prisoners and their overseers, are little known and seldom reproduced.1 Visually, Soviet repressions and forced labor camps remain largely defined by the mug shots from the Lubianka files, as well as the infamous propaganda films and photographs of the Gulag, primarily of Solovki and the White Sea–Baltic Canal, produced in the late 1920s and early 1930s for both domestic and international audiences.2 The Lubianka head shots—each prisoner photographed in his or her own clothing both in profile and looking directly at the camera—are endlessly shocking, for here we come face to face with the victims of Stalin’s secret police. These photographs show, above all, individuals, laying bare the human toll of Stalin’s purges.3 This is the side of the Gulag hidden in official [End Page 476] propaganda, which attempted to present the camps as a humane system and a productive collective enterprise through a multitude of omissions and a variety of photographic and cinematic techniques.
In contrast to the tragic singularity of the Lubianka mug shots or the careful assemblage of propaganda films and photo-essays, the archival photographs of the Gulag, now kept at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) and regional archives and museums, at first appear almost ordinary. They are usually collected into portfolios with succinct captions, adhering to a format that was used to document the accomplishments of Soviet factories and collective farms, a common practice from the 1920s onward. Most focus on the camps and special settlements’ production and infrastructure: here, felled trees or close-ups of rock strata, a new road cleared, a group of prisoners in a barebones but clean canteen. These prints are often small, grainy, and poorly preserved. Yet many are also carefully mounted and meticulously hand-colored, and the pages of the albums that contain them frequently decorated with colorful drawings and elegant penmanship. These albums, although they can provide us with information about the camps, are, first and foremost, documents of the extraordinary degree of state control over the Gulag. The magnitude of the system’s brutality is entirely missing from this photographic record: the cramped train cars used to transfer prisoners are never shown; the barracks, when pictured, are neat and decently appointed; and the internees themselves are rarely tired or thin and are—always—alive.4 If the GPU/NKVD did photograph executions, critically ill prisoners, dead bodies, or mass graves, these images have yet to be found (by contrast, official camp records—even if in greatly suppressed numbers—do register illness and mortality in the Gulag).5
Little is known about how the surviving photographs and photo albums of the Gulag were made. Some of the camps had their own photographic labs, but their day-to-day operations have not been documented, and the names of the photographers, likely prisoners in most cases, were rarely recorded. The albums usually had a commemorative purpose and were often sent to Moscow as evidence of a site’s achievements; as such, they are clearly staged and carefully curated, propaganda created by the state for the state. [End Page 477] We thus have no photographs of the Gulag as atrocity; because the camps were phased out slowly, and many became regularly functioning prisons, there was no outside witnessing and documenting of the Gulag (this lack, which could have only been filled during a moment of historical rupture, also points to the continuity of the state apparatus responsible for the Russian penitentiary system). The contemporary photographs of the Gulag, including those reproduced in this issue, were conceived as instruments of occlusion as much as revelation and hence are not documentary representations of the conditions in the camps and special settlements. These frames offer selective and sanitized views that, as both material artifacts and archival records of the Gulag, ask for a close and careful reading that keeps the photographs’ omissions firmly in mind. [End Page 478]