Indian Summers, Kazakhstani Winters: Thoughts on “Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives,” and Notes from a Cambridge Fall

As an Indian summer sweeps through Cambridge this weekend, this Californian abroad wonders when he’ll once again experience the much-hyped New England autumn. As I sit down in my office this weekend to pen another blog post, it’s for cold water, not pumpkin-flavored coffee or something appropriately autumn-like that I find myself leaving the office, and it seems like an eternity since I was somewhere where I actually needed a sweater: Moscow experienced an uncharacteristic heat wave for much of late May following my return from Germany, and Arizona and Uzbekistan were, well, hot. I’ll soon get my wish, however: in another week and a half, I’m headed back to the Russian capital to a conference at the German Historical Institute to present a paper on post-war documentary photography for a conference on the history of Russian and Soviet ‘visual orders,’ and by the time I return to the Boston area – early October – the apple orchards and sweaters in my closet will surely be beckoning – I hope.  In the meantime, besides, there’s plenty of work and other things going on in Cambridge to distract. I continue to plug away at re-writing Developing Powers into something resembling a book manuscript, for one.

Not quite autumn yet in Cambridge …

On that front, I’m beginning to think about how to incorporate sources from the United Nations and Western NGOs into the history of the Soviet occupation of the country. Many of my sources from Moscow tell us plenty about how Komsomol operatives in the country did their work from 1981-1988, but what interests me as I refine chapters and sections of chapters is how to write the history of development in the country during the period from spring 1988 (when the Geneva Accords are signed and a UN agency, UNOCA, is founded to coordinate development aid to Afghanistan) and the winter of 1991-1992, when both the Soviet Union and the Republic of Afghanistan collapse. During that period, plenty of Soviet advisers are still running around the country in the midst of what is becoming a civil war; but they’re also there alongside UN agencies that are using Soviet, Iranian, and Pakistani territory to carry out aid missions in Afghanistan. At the same time, however, many of those UN missions (to say nothing of the remaining Soviet advisers in-country) faced the ‘facts on the ground’ – namely, that much of the territory in the country’s east was controlled by mujahidin groups from Pakistan. Faced with sources from at least three different sides (the Soviet Union, the United Nations, and mostly Western NGOs), how does one paint this overlay of different developmental styles in the same territory? What does the shift from the attempt at a Soviet and Afghan monopoly over development in Afghanistan’s state space, to a model where United Nations agencies are using Soviet infrastructure and territory (UNOCA had an office in Termez, Uzbekistan, for instance …) to carry out a developmental mission parallel to bilateral USSR-Afghanistan ties? Asking these questions, I find myself running between Scrivener and Widener Library for resources on the rise of global governance, NGOs in war zones, and the history of humanitarianism. Pumpkin pie lattes or not, I hope that my kvetching and gnashing gets me somewhere closer to something I can be proud of by this winter.

Beyond the writing, there’s the usual slate of coursework to keep me away from the keyboard and office a healthy amount of time: more Persian (reading parts of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, feeling like I can understand more and more of BBC Persian programs – progress!), and more stimulating readings for Digital History, too. Before too long, we’ll have to turn in our proposal for a DH project of our own to emerge from the course – one of the reasons I decided to take the course, headed by Kelly O’Neill – so keep your eyes posted on the blog for that, too. Given the nature of Developing Powers, there’s several possible directions such work could take. The VLKSM field reports themselves – all transcribed and hence easily searchable – might make apt material for a ‘deep reading’ scrapple, while many of the Farm Economic Surveys that American agricultural economists are rich in detail about conditions (or, at least, reported conditions) in southern Afghanistan during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Perhaps most promising, however, is some of the more detailed information on Afghan refugee flows that I’ve found from UN reports – materials that I hope will help me to make a tricky argument in one chapter of the book. We’ll see what emerges. For now, for this week of the Digital History, we’ve also been encouraged to write a review – presented according to the style guidelines of the Journal of American History – for one of four websites that present online exhibitions. After doing some browsing among the four (Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives; the Valley of the Shadow; the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; and the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations), I’ve chosen to stay close to home this week and critique the first, the work of the historian of Russia Steven Barnes, at George Mason University. Here goes …

GULAG: Many Days, Many Lives.; Steven Barnes (George Mason University); September 22, 2013.

Content: [Is the scholarship sound and current? What is the interpretation or point of view?] Barnes’ GULAG: Many Days, Many Lives, appears to represent a public history offshoot of his book Death and Redemption:  The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society – a well-regarded history of the GuLAG system based primarily on sources from labor camps from KARLAG (Russian Wikipedia link!), one part of the GuLAG system located within Qaraganda oblast’ of what was then the Kazakh SSR, and what is now Kazakhstan, albeit also on documents from Moscow-based central GuLAG authorities. (The curious reader can find more about Barnes’ methodology in this free-to-the-public PDF of the introduction to Death and Redemption.) As Barnes writes, correctly, it’s important to tell this story (in the book version) in this way: understanding the GuLAG demands not only seeing how Moscow-based officials thought about the system (punishment? economic resource? tool to crush dissidents?), but also how local administrators implemented directives. And as Barnes writes, KARLAG is a sensible location to look at how these dynamics played out. Not only was it one of the biggest and longest-lasting of any of the labor camps in the GuLAG, but it also housed significant populations of internally exiled peoples (Chechens, Germans, Koreans …) and was one of the sites of the three major prisoner uprisings in the mid-1950s (at Steplag).

In the middle of the steppe, a world of prisons: Qaraganda oblast’, the location of much of the research for Barnes’ work, in Kazakhstan today

Yet how this book project design translates to the web leaves me wanting more. As other students and participants in the DH seminar have observed, I’m left a little uncertain as to who, precisely, the intended audience of GULAG: Many Days, Many Lives is. As opposed to the book (published by Princeton University Press, and clearly intended to be read by people like myself with some interest, and background, in Russian and Soviet history), the site seems both to present itself to a broader public (it makes available a neat three-day unit on GuLAG history for American high school students co-produced by Harvard’s own Davis Center), yet sometimes fails to provide (so say the non-Russianists in our cohort) to provide sufficient background on Stalinism or Soviet history within which GuLAG history has to be placed.

To this first criticism of the web implementation of the project I’d add two more. First, I worry that the site veers too much in the direction of public history – of deliberately presenting a general picture of the GuLAG that might ironically decrease user engagement even as it assumes that users need a general introduction to the subject. Some of the documents in the archive section of the site – rare primary source documents from local archives in Kazakhstan that emanate from Barnes’ primary research – are great! What we get in the main exhibit on the site, however, tries to present the GuLAG through the eyes of individual prisoners: a story that usually starts in a Moscow apartment and then leads into a rather generic picture of what life was like in the camps. That’s all good, necessary work, but I’d emphasize what gets lost in such an account: namely, the rich institutional history, and the attention to place (the GuLAG in KARLAG versus how it worked in other parts of the USSR …) that marks Barnes’ monograph.  Secondly, I worry that in seeking a general audience, the presentation of “Many Days, Many Lives” too easily veers into the direction of traditional social history (people’s lives in the GuLAG, as opposed to attempts at analysis of the system, the relationship of the trans-national GuLAG system with national histories of Chechens, Germans, Kazakhs, etc.). Intentionally or nor – I can’t tell – “Many Days, Many Lives” follows the narrative structure of the GuLAG experience that Solzhenitsyn sketched masterfully in The Gulag Archipelago: the knock at the door, the interrogation, the journey to the camp, the triumph of resistance, the need for solidarity, and so on. Again, this is all valuable stuff. But in narrating the story through the eyes of the prisoner, what drops out? Attention to how the GuLAG was a part of empire, for one. Attention to the “many lives” of people who entered the GuLAG beyond urbanites: Soviet POWs and returnees from the war after 1945, national minorities, and so on. How did the GuLAG look differently if you came there from the Ferghana Valley as opposed to being a Russian urbanite? A Jew? A Muslim? And so on. Granted – a lot of the basic scholarship that would allow a more textured social history than the kind that Moscow-based Memorial would allow just isn’t there yet. Nor perhaps are the archives in the necessary places – Uzbekistan, Chechnya, hell, Moscow – open for researchers. So perhaps I’m too tough. But such reflection is important to take projects like this to the next level, and to justify DH to critics.

The home page to “Many Days, Many Lives” – note the featured item and the lack of Russian-language interface on the home page. Striving towards improvements …


Form: [Is it clear? Easy to navigate? Is it accessible to all users? Does it have a clear, effective, and original design? Does it have a coherent structure?] Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I shall be brief in my other observations about “Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives.” The form of the site makes sense to me, although the homepage seems slightly too Omeka-transparent to me – I ask why we need to have a “featured item” (a common feature on many Omeka projects) if we’re starting from the point that users know little about Soviet history or the GuLAG, and especially if many of the documents (indeed, perhaps the most exciting ones) on the website are in Russian. There’s also a bit of linguistic schizophrenia going on in ways that remind me of the New York Times’ inconsistent attempts to reach out to Russian-speaking and Persian-speaking audiences: the lead exhibit for the site, “Many Days, Many Lives,” is available in Russian in addition to English, and yet other than going directly to the exhibit (all Russian-readers will find is the link titled Дни и жизни, with no other context), there’s no Russian-language interface. Again, I don’t want to sound too negative or unconstructive in my comments. But this comes back to the serious expectations that Jeremy Boggs, also at George Mason, has raised for DH websites. There’s no shame – should be no shame at all – for a website like GuLAG, which represents months if not years of sweat, being English-only at first. In a perfect world, it would be available in Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, etc., etc., etc. Along the way to that ideal, however, it strikes me as uncontroversial that one should either do a ‘soft launch’ of the Russian version – one designed specifically for Russian users – or hold off on doing one at all. Mixing the two into one interface is likely to lead to frustration for English- and Russian-language users alike, I fear.

Audience/Use: [Is the audience clear? Will it serve the needs of that audience?] I’ve addressed most of this up above. I find a certain tension between the exhibits on GuLAG – which seem intended for a broader public and yet still leave some non-specialist friends feeling left out – and the materials that the site actually has, which represent the real value-added of Barnes’ work, in my view. Take an item selected almost at random from the considerable archives the site possesses, depicted below this paragraph. It’s a report, written in Russian, from the archive of the Procurator in Qaraganda, Kazakhstan – probably not somewhere your average user is likely to make a day trip to. Thanks to Barnes’ painstaking research in such far-flung places, often carried out thanks to taxpayer-funded grants like Title VIII, American scholars have the chance to conduct research about little-known parts of the world, hopefully in ways that help both average Americans and policymakers in Washington, DC, know more about where these societies are coming from, where they’re going to, and (in the case of our own apparatchiks) maybe make more informed policy towards the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. Why not, when making a DH exhibit, embrace the specificity of our research and make (almost) the same methodological caveats we make to our readers in our books – that to understand a gigantic system like the GuLAG, you have to look at something on the local level, that KARLAG is a good enough choice for this, and that the’re going to get treated to a specific, rich, investigation of that specific place and time (rather than the rather generic, Solzhenitsyn-derived social history that “Many Days, Many Lives” represents)? That’s something that some of the best museums I’ve been to, like the Dokumentationszentrum at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, do. “Sure,” they seem to say to themselves as you enter the exhibit, “readers have to have some background about the history of totalitarian movements, about National Socialism, about Stalinism.” But they dispatch with that history quickly, and then seek to use the value-added of their documentation – stuff about Nuremberg in the case of the Dokumentationszentrum, putatively stuff about Kazakhstan and KARLAG in the case of – to immerse the user in a specific place and time, and to be comfortable with fixing us in that specific place (rather than doing everything). On the contrary, it’s precisely those museums that try to do everything – the German Historical Museum and the Jewish Museum, both in the German capital, are good examples of this – that leave me feeling talked down to and disappointed. I’m not precisely so negative on “Many Days, Many Lives.” But I look across the vast unused quantities of stuff from remote Kazakhstani archives and wonder – why didn’t all of this make it in to a more narrowly-tailored, yes, but also perhaps more confident exhibition?

Nearly as tasty as Kazkahstani fermented yogurt and plov: archival finds from provincial archives in Kazakhstan make for salivating stuff for historians … so where did it go in the exhibit?

New Media: [Does it make effective use of the web? Does it do something that could not be done in print, an exhibition, or a film?] Again, to be critical – and realizing that I’ll be presenting some of my own suggestions for how to “do” DH later this autumn – I worry that at times it’s not totally clear what the digital value-added of GULAG is. Or rather, to be more precise, how the public-facing side of the site takes unique advantage of digital techniques (as opposed to a film or in a museum). As noted above, one of the huge benefits of platforms like Omeka is that they allow historians – generous historians  – to upload the data from the Kazakhstans of the world in a way that allows other historians, and an educated public, to interact with those documents, and possibly to mix them with other sources of data (for example: how much was the infrastructure of the GULAG built on top of pre-existing Tsarist infrastructure, and how much of it represented sui generis Soviet exploration into Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Far East?). Even if this user isn’t super-impressed with the public-facing side, because the documents are mostly all there in the archive, if I don’t like the exhibitions, in a way, that’s OK – the raw materials behind there are still there in the archive, so I can always disagree, make a “remix” of Barnes’ documents for my own online project as a challenge, and so on.

Video and Audio Tours of the Perm-36 camp: Useful? Definitely. Moving? Certainly. Taking unique advantage of digital techniques in a way that other formats couldn’t. Err …

However, in several of the other public-facing exhibits on the site, I feel disappointed in the ways in which “Many Days, Many Lives” exploits the material at hand. Take one of the site’s featured exhibits, a tour of the Perm-36 camp, a significant part of the GuLAG both because it operated well into the 1970s and 1980s as a camp for dissidents (a part of the GuLAG story which tends to fade into the background behind Stalinism in the public memory), and because it is one of very few sites of public memory of the GuLAG in Russia today. (See more on Perm-36 here, and compare it to the modest GuLAG memorial, the Solovetsky Stone near the Lubyanka, here). In short, for reasons having both to do with its historical significance and the state of the memorialization of the past in Russia today, Perm matters. Yet the way in which the camp gets presented on “Many Days, Many Lives” fails to make use of fundamentally new ways of exploring the camp’s history or broader significance: we get a video (and audio) tour of the camp in Russian with Nadezhda, the tour guide. Granted, this represents a step forward: Perm is difficult to get to even for someone already within Russia (the city’s ambitions to become a Russian Bilbao notwithstanding …), and yet simply putting up a QuickTime video and audio file isn’t exactly the forefront of technological innovation. This is hardly to pick on Barnes or the project: Perm is hard to get to, the holdings of the camp’s archives are probably not well catalogued, there are research grants to be secured, the impulses of professionalization and taking a transnational turn that graduate students in Russian history face, and, and, and … still, the importance of better GuLAG history is clear to most people who have spent time in Russia, or are familiar with the ways in which the Stalinist past is handled in national pedagogy in the country. I’m very comfortable with the dissertation project I chose, and the route I’m on now – re-writing and editing it – and yet the story of Perm seems to be crying out for better treatment – preferably with a neat digital bent – for the young(er than me) historian of Russia looking for her next big project. Much work remains to be done.


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