Oblivion and Photographs

Thomas Kizny, “Gulag”, with Dominique Roynette, introduction: Norman Davies, Sergei Kovalev, and Nicolas Werth, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, Fudacja Picture Doc, Warsaw 2015

Setting Communism in its Stalinist variant against Nazism is often thought to be “controversial.” Many historians and commentators regard such a claim as obvious, but for some researchers and columnists it almost amounts to blasphemy. Arguments surround even what seems to be absolutely indisputable: the scale and methods of repression used by both regimes (although the system of prison and slave labor camps created by Soviet authorities, not quite accurately, but commonly referred to as “the Gulag,” functioned incomparably longer and claimed more victims than the death camps and concentration camps of the Third Reich).

Despite all that, the legitimacy of comparing Auschwitz to Magadan and the Ukhta-Pechora conglomerate to Dachau is repeatedly questioned. While not denying the existence of the Gulag, many polemicists fear the demobilizing or demoralizing impact of the information about millions of victims on leftist sympathizers. A classic example of such “gauchiste paternalism” is Jean Paul-Sartre with his famous appeal: “Do not crush the hopes of workers from Billancourt” with the truth about the Gulag. Multitudes of journalists, historians and lawyers scrutinized and questioned the very existence of the Gulag, the number of prisoners, its scale, severity of repression—and they have never been called “deniers,” no bolt has stricken them out of the blue. Attempts at reaching the world with the truth about the existence of the system of destructive camps started in the 1930s, with the publications of the first reports from the escapees from the Solovetsky Islands, but the breakthrough (which does not mean success) came with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s trilogy.

These arguments were excellently presented by Dariusz Tołczyk in his book Gułag w oczach Zachodu [The Gulag in the Eyes of the West] published a few years ago. It is true that “Gulagology” has its classics, faculties, recognized academic studies, and even several scandals related to falsifying sources or fame-seeking charlatans. But despite all that, it has remained a strictly academic discipline, a specialization of a shrinking group of “historians of Russia under Communism,” which no longer stands a chance to reach the headlines and collective consciousness.

To reach such a conclusion, it is enough to page through a few albums from the category, popular among publishers, “Photos that Shook the World” or “The Icons of the Twentieth Century.” Next to the airship “Hindenburg” on fire, the blissful Princess Diana and sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square, they will certainly include the poignant image showing emaciated inmates of Auschwitz in striped uniforms staring at their liberators through barbed wire. Soviet themes will definitely include a smiling Gagarin, Khrushchev at the UN pulpit and maybe a grim Stalin with the short Yezhov at his side. But we will certainly do not see piles of frozen bodies arranged like tree trunks or dokhodiagas in torn quilted jackets, pulling a wheelbarrow up a muddy slope of the future White Sea-Baltic Canal.

A chance to see the former picture will at best be provided to us on the day when all post-Soviet archives are opened to the last file; it is quite rational to assume that it might happen only on the Judgement Day, when we might be preoccupied with other, more urgent things. But the latter photograph can already be seen today—thanks to the determination of the people from the Russian “Memorial” and the Polish photographer Tomasz Kizny. As it turned out, not only manuscripts do not burn (as Mikhail Bulgakov promised to the world); also some copies managed to escape from paper shredders and fire.

This is all the more remarkable if we bear in mind that one of the most obvious reasons for the “disproportion of memory” about the two totalitarianisms is their different end and its consequences. As we know, the end of the Soviet Union was the result of degradation, implosion and ultimately transformation of the political and economic system. There was no mention of any systematic bringing of Communist crimes to justice or even systematic documenting of them by the government, and the fate of the Gulag Archipelago is the most striking example of that. The work of Zuzanna Bogumił Pamięć Gułagu [The Memory of the Gulag] (Universitas, 2012) published a few years ago leaves no doubt here: in an area once proudly described by propaganda as “one sixth of the globe,” the fingers of both hands would more than suffice to count all the monuments commemorating the death of millions. The largest and most famous of them, “The Mask of Pain,” designed by the dissident sculptor from the Khrushchev era, Ernst Neizvestny, landed in Magadan—a few blocks away from the bust of the founder of the Magadan and Kolyma Gulag network, Eduard Bierzin, erected through the efforts of the city fathers.

The situation is no better with other instruments of enhancing memory. Millions of dead people are commemorated with few small monuments—usually put up by families or the Memorial Association, modest self-made things, created with similar resources (and with a similar aesthetic effect) as the toolsheds in the dachas… Sturdy oak crosses (on today’s Solovki, inclined and rotten from the sea breeze) have been put up only in the European part of Russia and in Belarus. In the Chukotka-Arkhangelsk-Kazakh steppes triangle, an area, where several hundred most severe prison camps were located, is not a single “place of memory” which would name the number of victims.

What about museums? Russia as a state has not made the slightest effort to “mount an exhibition,” or even to make an inventory of or safeguard the remaining barracks, skeletons of beds and railway tracks leading to nowhere from sinking into the permafrost, which is getting mushy in the summer. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, in a few western Siberian towns the Memorial activists managed to put enough pressure on the councilors to allocate some municipal funds for building a fence around the former prison camp and sometimes to put up a few lamps and employ a janitor. Bare walls, located at best on the outskirts of towns in post-industrial zones, did not attract tour operators; and at the end of the last century, when the political climate changed, the authorities quietly withdrew from maintaining them. The only place which at a pinch could be called a “museum of the Gulag,” the Perm-36 Centre—in fact an expanded memorial hall, in the recent years run only at the cost and through the efforts of the Memorial—was closed down in March 2015, this time on the express orders of the provincial authorities.

Memory and oblivion—such is the ultimate posthumous “split” of the fate of Bergen-Belsen and Ozerlag, Majdanek and Vorkuta, Dachau and Salekhard. Almost as troubling is another fact stemming from different ends of the two totalitarianisms: photographs from German concentration camps were usually made as an element of post-war journalistic and prosecutorial documentation used in the courts of law. If they originate from the period of the Third Reich, they are instruments of cold, bookkeeper’s reporting: a dozen bowls, sixty wheelbarrows, ten prisoners. Photos which survived the Soviet gulags from the 1930s and 1940s were made in order to proclaim the glory of “education through labor,” the concept of creating the new man developed by a teacher in the pay of the NKVD, Anton Makarenka. Pictures made by professional photographers were attached to reports sent by wardens of particular camps to the authorities in Moscow—and in the liberal 1990s they were dug out by Memorial activists either from ministerial archives or, in a few cases, from trunks in attics. Thomas Kizny published several hundred of them in his album—juxtaposing them with his own photograms, to which I will return in a while.

We are not quite ready for the impact of these archival photographs. Knowing the results of studies by researchers of Nazi concentration camps, we are prepared for quite a lot: we expect the sight of extremely emaciated bodies of “Muslims”, perhaps an execution, perhaps a hanged man, we definitely expect sights which under the tacit agreement of publishers are not to be found in popular books or high circulation newspapers.

If we thought like that, we have the not learned the lesson taught by Alain Besançon, who in the 1970s spoke about the “superreality” created by the Soviet system; he spoke about the system being able to lie to itself, prodigally and needlessly creating a narrative not so much trivially propagandist, as showing the world “as it should be,” that is unreal, imagined, different.

And this is how the world of the camps looks like in the lens of Yakov Fomin, R. (full name unknown) Erlich, a dozen anonymous employees of Foto-Kino-Buro, appointed by the Board of Construction of the White Sea Canal, and even the pet of historians of the avant-garde, the great Alexander Rodchenko, the father of constructivism and no less talented photographer of White Sea-Baltic Canal locks, which he framed from unusual angles. Smiling to us from the photographic films and printed photos is Maxim Gorky, a visitor to the Solovetsky Islands, also smiling are members of the editing board of Stiengazieta (composed of prisoners), labor leaders from the Gulag, Nenets guarding other prisoners and tannery workers, spending twelve hours a day amidst the stench of leached leather. Even Eduard Bierzin is smiling (for some discarded photos were found in private collections): his big bright eyes shine in the bearded face.

It would seem that the biggest impression would be made by one of the few photographs close to the popular notions about “camp” pictures: in the photograph taken in 1943 in Nizhny Tagil in the Sverdlovsk circuit, you can literally count the ribs of prisoners reclining on wooden bunks. The nodules of shoulders, elbows and knees allow us to evaluate the extreme emaciation of the hands, necks and legs of the dokhodiagas. Photographs of so badly emaciated people can sometimes be seen, but very rarely with the following caption: “Patients in the sanitary and prophylactic wards make use of every sunny day. Only in the month of April 2886 persons were restored to work in the san-prof wards and infirmaries.” You need special qualifications to present a group of dying prisoners as convalescents or (as one of the inmates quoted in the album recalls) to make a dozen well-fed Chekists pose in a Solovetsky infirmary. It turns out, however, that other scenes may be more moving.

As we discover, in the Gulag camps—except maybe for the last circle of hell, the goldmines and uranium mines in Kolyma—there were dozens of theatres, on the one hand enhancing ceremonies and academies, on the other satisfying the nostalgias and small ambitions of higher ranking functionaries, who—as prisoner Grigory Litynski recalls—“habitually go to the theatre every evening like to a restaurant. They listen to their favorite arias and return to the diner, where they quench their thirst with champagne.” Performing on the stage were the best actors from Moscow theatres, hunted by “scouts” in halfway camps, rescued from the mines or tree- felling, but escorted back to the barracks after the performance.

What the audience saw on stage was agitprop and, what a surprise, Gorky’s “The Lower Depths,” satirical couplets about the camp kitchen were sung, while an illusionist and a female contortionist presented their tricks during the interval. But as luck would have it, the best photos in the section “Theatre in the Gulag” illustrate several vaudeville performances with the participation of a star—Valentina Tokarska.

The first one is a close-up shot from the operetta “Mam’zelle Nitouche” by Hervé (Florimond Rongere) from 1883. Mam’zelle in a hat with ostrich feathers, strong makeup and pearls is courted by four gigolos. The make-up artist had done a better job with them than with her: they look like four brothers in identical racing jackets and top hats, with moustaches, blackened eyebrows and slightly haughty, distant smiles of lordlings from a Parisian good family, who went whoring.

The second frame—this time it is a collective scene—documents the final scene of the operetta “Violet of Montmartre” by Imre Kálmán. Two pairs of soloists are surrounded by a crowd of smiling soubrettes, harlequins, sailors, fairies and Pierrots. The harsh light of the flash very clearly shows the narrow ribbons of streamers, clouds of powder, fancy haircuts of humanized faces of cats in pointed hats and flanges, and finally the satin of the raised curtain.

The caption under both photographs is “Vorkuta 1946.” And that is when we begin to imagine how life might have looked in the Republic of Saló.

Thomas Kizny did a gigantic work as a documenter, reaching dozens of private and institutional collections to acquire, reproduce and describe photographic films from several decades ago. The second part of the challenge he was faced with was even more daunting: how can you supplement and visually comment on the scene from “Mam’zelle Nitouche” and dokhodiagas on a bier, when there is and probably will be no new collection or testimony: the museum is gone, the archives are closed again, the last witnesses are reaching the end of their days?

The photographer chose perhaps the most elementary move, considering that the human mind has always been fascinated by parallelism: we have all kinds of “parallel lives” and parallel histories. Whenever possible, Kizny tried to stand in the same place where the reporter from the 1930s had stood. And he did not aspire to have a perfect frame like Marcin Dziedzic, one generation younger Polish photographer, who last year, on the 70’s anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, prepared several photomontages, very precisely superimposing photographs of well-known Warsaw streets from August 1944 and the summer of 2014 (www.teraz44.pl). The documenter of the Gulag allowed himself to move a few steps away, to climb into a truck and helicopter.

First he looked at the faces. But not at the faces of inmates from that time: only eye-sockets and jaws remained of them. Alluding to the poignant images of Solovki prisoners, the Gulag “mugshots” (“Viktor Fedorovich Khorodchinsky, born in 1913, poet; arrested at the age of fifteen, prisoner of Solovki camp in 1929–1931, one year after his release again imprisoned in Solovki, executed in 1937”), Kizny photographs today’s inhabitants of Yermakov on the Yenisei, Magadan, Medvezhyegorsk on the White Sea Canal. Inhabitants- cum-victims, for everybody is a victim, not only Anastasia Timofeyevna Kalinina (a “retired mooring officer in the tenth lock.” She was fifteen when her family was deported from the Ukraine to work on the construction of the White Sea Canal. She spent all of her life in a housing estate by the ninth lock), but also Vitaly Petrovich Alexandrov, “head of the Board of the White Sea Canal in his office” with an impenetrable face: the top of his large desk shines like a sheet of ice.

Above all, however, Kizny tried to focus his camera on what remains now. It is very difficult to photograph nothingness; decay is only slightly easier to photograph. We will find both in the “The Gulag” album: in the Solovetsky monasteries an icon of Christ and the facade of a building (previously housing the Management Board of Solovki Special Purpose Camp, situated in the Gulf of Good Luck—a more adequate name could not be found!) are crumbling with the same rustling of paint flakes. The immense ranges of the Chersky Mountains are covered with snow, year by year, while the few remnants of the mine shafts, wagons and prison bars are corroding, and thereby re-joining the unhurried cycle of the world of minerals: the landscape, empty as far as the eye can see, no longer contains anything human. This is the choice available to the memory of the Gulag: it rots or vanishes. It rots in anonymous, lichen-covered villages, among rubbish dumps, scraps of tar paper, rotting wood—or vanishes together with the last brick building crumbling into the waves of the North Pacific, with the embankment swallowed by marshy tundra.

Photographing the last shreds of the Gulag, Kizny is aware of the incredible memory disparities between the Kolyma and Auschwitz. He knows that he is unable to overcome them: he photographs places which COULD become “icons of the system,” if history of the world took a different path: a pile of men’s shoes mentioned at the outset, cast iron beds on which, in order to save space, three persons at the time were dying, a swing overlooking the prisoners’ barracks, on which Sopka, daughter of the camp commander Captain Maleev, was playing.

But who knows, maybe the most impressive is Kizny’s photo-report from the “Road of Death:” the Salekhard-Igarka Railway built for eight years and abandoned as absolutely unviable a few weeks after Stalin’s death. Engines and carriages, half sunk in the mud loom in the lush tundra, were in the 1950s carried from the cargo decks of ships to the tracks on the shoulders of prisoners. The embankments and stations completely melted away in the mud: on photographs taken from a helicopter you can see the line of the tracks by tracing a band of thinner vegetation.

But the barracks have been remarkably well preserved: birds-eye-view photos show how the slanted arctic light casts strange, oblique shadows of leafless birch and aspen. This view seems surprisingly familiar, but it takes a moment for the memory to suggest a clue: this is similar to photos of Siberian forests scythed by the fall of the Tunguska meteorite. Tomasz Kizny did his best to photograph a different disaster, which was, however, equally cosmic in its scale.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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