Revolutionary Dostoevsky

Photograph of Dostoevsky published with permission of the Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg

How might we think of Dostoevsky as a radical writer? In his later years he certainly seemed anything but. From his searing critique of nihilist ideas in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and his scathing portrayal of revolutionaries in Demons, to his increasingly virulent Orthodox nationalism and support for the authoritarian Tsarist regime expressed in his Diary of a Writer, his reactionary views appear to be in no doubt. Yet he understood the depths of human misery and the need for utopian visions and the transformation of society. He always maintained an interest in social justice that seems contrary to his political position, and his death was mourned by thousands of radical students. In his youth he did move in revolutionary circles, and much later acknowledged that even if he might not have found been a leader of such a movement, he was, and remained, capable of being a follower. His novels – typically of their focus on the extremes of human behaviour – show that fanatical atheism and fervent religious faith are two sides of the same coin, something he saw as a particularly Russian trait. Was this then just a reflection of the tensions in his own character and the ideological transition he experienced, or perhaps sought, within himself?

As a writer Dostoevsky was anything but traditional. His consistent questioning of reality and of the meaning – and possibility – of realism led him to experiment with novelistic form and made him a major precursor of modernism. He was an important influence on Russian Symbolism, German Expressionism and French Existentialism. Prototypes for many of the narrative innovations in James Joyce’s Ulysses can be found in Dostoevsky’s early novella The Double. Yet he is beyond any particular ‘ism’ himself. His polyphonic technique, identified in the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s seminal study The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, pits voices, characters and ideas against each other. The religious faith the author himself espoused features among those voices, but is frequently challenged and seldom dominates. This multiplicity of contradictory voices is responsible for the proliferation of different interpretations of Dostoevsky over the last century and a half, and continues to give rise to new interpretations across various disciplines – from the humanities to the sciences – to this day.

These questions about Dostoevsky’s novelistic experimentation, the innovative readings he provokes from so many different perspectives, and their relation to the place of the author on the reactionary/radical divide, are at the heart of the conference Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism taking place at UCL-SSEES on 20-21 October 2017. We will see how Dostoevsky reflects the political, social, ethical and religious dilemmas of every age. His own critique of terrorism placed him firmly within the political discourse of his milieu and acted as inspiration for subsequent generations of revolutionaries and their philosophical opponents.  Moving to the present day, Dostoevsky continues to illuminate the political, social and philosophical realms, but perhaps more surprisingly, we will discover his role in negotiating the digitally mediated world and the problems of artificial intelligence. Seeing the world through Dostoevsky’s eyes and novels always offers radical solutions.

It was perhaps inevitable in a new age of upheaval and populism, amidst Trumpism and Brexit, as well as the centenary of the 1917 revolutions, that Demons would prove central to a number of contributions. Speakers will consider, among other things, the role of provocateurs, connections between mental illness and politics, the spectre of mortality and possibility of spiritual revolution. The form and genre of this uniquely weird novel also come into focus, both as an experimental technique for shaping its opposition to political radicalism, and as a mode of narrating the unstable society and self.

That sense of instability – evident from Dostoevsky’s earliest works – underlies new approaches to problems of modern (and postmodern) subjectivity. Questions up for discussion include human vulnerability, radical conceptions of guilt, and the roots of revolt in shame and boredom, and different readings of motifs of death, resurrection, and dying again. Instability is also fundamental to innovative interpretations of Dostoevsky’s narrative strategy. A queer theological reading of Prince Myshkin will shed new light on the ways in which past, present and future might be different in Dostoevsky’s novels, while attention to aborted plot lines and the presence (or rather, absence) of babies provides the key to some of the other extremes of Dostoevsky’s novelistic world. Such radical narrative features and the subjectivities they shape ultimately subvert any conception of reality as stable in Dostoevsky’s works.

Speakers from the UK, USA and Russia, from those starting out on their research careers to some of the most senior and respected scholars in the field, will debate these topics and others over a day and a half that promises to be thought-provoking and controversial, even, in true Dostoevskian mode, scandalous. Certainly Carol Apollonio’s keynote address, ‘Dostoevsky the Bolshevik’, promises to start proceedings on a provocative note. For information about that, and more details of the conference programme and registration, click here.

The conference will also feature a reception and roundtable to mark the publication of a new translation of Crime and Punishment, published by Oxford University Press.

The hashtag for the conference will be #Dostoevsky2017.

Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism is supported by the SSEES FRINGE Centre, UCL’s Institute for Advanced Studies, the UCL Global Engagement Fund, and Oxford University Press.



Assessing sources: Russian criminal tattoos

Tattooed former Soviet prisoner By [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m currently working on a book chapter  about the body in labour camp narratives. This was actually pretty much the starting point for my current research, so I’m in part revisiting an article published in Gulag Studies in 2008 on the Gulag body and self-mutilation. More recently, I’ve been thinking about the representation of different forms of body modification, including tattooing. When I gave a paper about my first thoughts on this at a conference on Russian biopolitics organized by my colleague Philippa Heatherington at SSEES in the autumn, one of the subjects that came up in discussion was, perhaps inevitably, Russian criminal tattoos. I’ve always been a bit reluctant to use these as sources, for several reasons. Firstly, the subject has become such an industry in recent years, which seems fundamentally problematic given the supposedly closed world of the subject matter. Secondly, I am suspicious of Danzig Baldaev, the source of the drawings in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia published by Fuel that has been central to expanding that industry beyond Russia. I find Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag nasty and voyeuristic, so am very sceptical about his credentials as a witness. Thirdly, whenever I’ve seen the photos by Arkady Bronnikov and Sergei Vasiliev of criminals and their tattoos, I’ve always felt unsure precisely what I’m looking at, not least because some of them are so incredibly camp (the guy with the cello: what is that about?).

A fourth reason is the uncritical enthusiasm with which a lot of this material has been received. It’s hardly a surprise that fans of tattoos have shown such interest in the designs, but I have been somewhat taken aback by academic articles on criminal tattoos that treat them at face value, as though they are straightforward and unproblematic as sources. Helena Goscilo’s ‘Texting the Body: Soviet Criminal Tattoos’, in Cultural cabaret: Russian and American essays for Richard Stites, ed. by David M. Goldfrank and Pavel Lysakov (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2012), pp. 203–30 (available on is a prime example. I don’t question the analysis of the tattoos themselves, which is as fine as one would expect from a critic of Goscilo’s stature. But the fact that the author doesn’t think about what she’s analysing seems to me a rather unfortunate omission. Nevertheless, such articles, and the very ubiquity of this material, persuaded me that I ought to at least take a closer look to see whether these things are worth dealing with at any length in my book. In what follows I focus on the three volumes of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia (London: Fuel, 2003-8), but also looked, for example, at a couple of volumes of Aleksandr Kuchinskii’s Prestupniki i prestupleniia Zakony prestupnogo mira. Obichai, iazyk, tatuirovki (Donetsk: Stalker, 1997) and Lagernaia zhivopisʹ, ulgolovnyi zhargon (Donetsk: Stalker, 2008). Many of the same criticisms apply to a lot of these publications because most of them repeat substantially the same material.

And criticisms I have plenty. As we have to start somewhere, let’s kick off with Alexei Plutser-Sarno’s introductory essays in the first two volumes. The two are rather similar, except that the smattering of semiotics in the first volume (as befits a graduate of Tartu University) is replaced with a sprinkling of Baudrillard and Lacan in the second. What they both lack is any sort of historical contextualization (that does come in the third volume – of which more below), so it’s unclear what, or when, the author is actually referring to. Sources of information are equally unclear. A lot of the discussion of the meaning of tattoos is either not backed up at all, or uses Baldaev’s own explanations either from the Encyclopaedia itself, or from his Slovarʹ blatnogo vorovskogo zhargona, v dvukh tomakh (Moscow: Kampana, 1997), which is rather too self-referential to be reliable.

There’s also some really misleading use of other sources, notably of Mikhail Demin’s Blatnoi (Moscow: Panorama, 1991; translated as The Day is Born of Darkness) – which by coincidence I happened to have read a couple of weeks previously, and which I strongly recommend. In the first volume of the Encyclopaedia (p. 29), Plutser-Sarno cites Demin’s description in chapter 3 of part 1 of arriving at Kharkov Central Distribution Prison and being divided by the guards into criminals and others on the basis of their tattoos; Demin had an ace of clubs tattoo on his shoulder, so was assigned with the criminals. But far from illustrating the wider significance and particular meaning of tattoos, the whole point of Demin’s story is that he is in fact wrongly assigned, which we discover as his story unfolds. Although he ends up living with vory v zakone (thieves in the law or legitimate thieves), being a thief for a while, and in the camp later is on the thieves’ side in the Bitch Wars, this was all down to circumstances, namely finding himself alone as a teenager during the purges. (The Bitch War was a prolonged period of violence between two groups: the legitimate thieves, who refused any cooperation with the authorities, and the ‘Suki’ or ‘Bitches’, who did work for the authorities e.g. by serving the army during the war.) Demin was actually real Bolshevik aristocracy – from the Trifonov family (the novelist Yuri Trifonov was his cousin) – which was about as far away from the vory v zakone as you could get. The tattoo was not a sign of his status, but something he had done to remind himself never to gamble with cards again, after losing all his possessions, including the clothes he stood up in, to a thief playing with marked cards.

If Plutser-Sarno’s contributions don’t provide the sort of authoritative support one might hope for, Ann Applebaum’s Introduction to Volume II doesn’t do much better, because it’s very general and a lot of it doesn’t deal with tattoos at all. Where it does, it relies to a great extent on standard information, such as the well-worn story about criminals tattooing pictures of Lenin or Stalin on their chests as insurance against firing squads (not sure this would have helped them much in the purges, when a bullet in the back of the neck was the standard form of execution).

Alexander Sidorov’s Introduction to Volume III is a better proposition, as it has a far stronger historical basis and traces the development of tattoos in relation to Russian criminals. But the historical context he advances creates another problem. He identifies the Bitch War as the moment when the hidden meaning of tattoos took on real significance as thieves’ knowledge of who belonged to which group became a matter of life and death (pp. 33-5). Sidorov goes on to cite the emptying of the Gulag after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech as the moment when that hidden symbolism began to be lost, as tattooing moved into the mainstream with the reappearance within Soviet society of many criminals (p. 39). So if we’re generous and locate the beginning of the Bitch War at the start of the Great Patriotic War, rather than its end as if often suggested (certainly many of the memoirs I’ve read recently, including Demin’s Blatnoi and Dmitrii Panin’s otherwise fairly obnoxious Lubianka-Ekibastuz: lagernye zapiski (Moscow: Skify, 1991; translated as The Notebooks of Sologdin) indicate that a great deal of this violence was going on during the Great Patriotic War), and stick to 1956 rather than 1953 as the end point, that means these tattoos, with all their mysterious symbolism, were basically in circulation for around 15 years. Do they in that case really have the significance they are habitually endowed with today?

This sort of time-scale raises another issue when we look at the photos of criminal tattoos. Arkady Bronnikov began documenting tattoos in the mid-1960s, so is likely to have come across designs from this period, but it’s not clear which those are, as most of the information given is about the images but not their origins, dates etc. Sergei Vasiliev’s photos are dated 1989-1992, i.e. 30-odd years after tattoos ceased to have a meaning exclusively used and understood by criminals. It’s possible that one or two of his subjects are old enough to have gained tattoos before the time when their significance was diluted, but clearly most are not. So we really don’t know what we’re looking in these photos, whether the tattoos have meaning or are simply decorative.

Which, finally, brings me to one of the problems of Baldaev’s drawings themselves. Examining the drawings in all three volumes, alongside the photos by Vasiliev in the Encyclopaedia and elsewhere, as well as those by Bronnikov, reveals something a mismatch. Yes, many of the designs are the same, but many are not. Again, this raises questions about what is decorative and what has the specific meaning we have been led to believe. On the one hand, quite a few of the designs sported by the criminals in the photos look as though they may well be more decorative than meaningful (rather a lot of what look like perfectly standard portraits of women), especially in the case of Vasiliev’s images. On the other, at least we know these are indeed pictures of convicted criminals, as both photographers’ work comes from police and penal facilities.

The same cannot be said unreservedly of Baldaev’s drawings. The first thing I noticed is how vaguely many of them are attributed. I ended up doing a rough count, and came up with the following percentages:

I was fairly generous about what I counted as an attribution. Quite a few are attributed to people the author apparently met in bathhouses or on beaches. Make of that what you will. I can sort of imagine the conversations, but nevertheless gave these the benefit of the doubt as long as the bearer claimed to be a criminal or to have served a criminal sentence. Unattributed designs are those that simply indicate where on the body they are found, say there are multiple versions of a particular design, or just discuss the content but make no reference to the origin. Under ‘dubious attributions’ I counted ones that give no indication at all of criminal origins, including some taken from bodies in the morgue, tattoos belonging to German prisoners of war, sailors, nationalists etc. In other words, only just over 50% of all of Baldaev’s designs across the three volumes have any sort of reliable(-ish) indication of criminal origins. That doesn’t strike me as a great deal, and it certainly doesn’t strike me as being the sort of source a sensible academic should rely on. So I think that decides it: while I will have something to say in my book about tattooing practices as they are described in various memoirs, the criminal tattoo industry will probably merit a footnote at most.

Gulag narratives: a bibliography and metadata project (version 1)

Some years ago, when this blog was a new venture, I started an annotated reading list of Russian and Soviet labour camp narratives. My aim initially was to expand it over time, but as one so often finds, there never is time, and it has lain neglected for several years now, despite fairly regular comments and emails from readers suggesting some very worthwhile additions – many of which I had read, but some of which were new to me. My work has moved on too much to go back to that now, so rather than pretending I’m going to make any further additions to the list, I’m repurposing it as recommendations for readings in translation on the subject.

Instead I’m using the sources I have been collecting for my book to start a new project, which ultimately aims to compile a comprehensive bibliography of published Russian/Soviet carceral narratives. I have begun with texts about Soviet-era imprisonment, and the first version has gone live today. My aim is to continue expanding this bibliography, and eventually add bibliographies of tsarist-era and post-soviet narratives, plus secondary sources.

Wherever possible, I will link to full texts (for the Soviet-era works in this bibliography, the main source will be the Sakharov Archive; for pre-revolutionary texts, it will be the Internet Archive). Where no full text is available, I will give a link to a catalogue entry, generally WorldCat. I have grouped translations together with the original texts, except in the case of Solzhenitsyn, where I have for the time being just given a reference to his Collected Works in Russian and separate entries for translations. Most of the translations I give are in English, for obvious reasons, though I do also include quite a few in French. I have more references to original texts in Polish than German due to my own language competencies.

I have mainly stuck to works about the Soviet labour camps, but have added a couple of works on camps in other Soviet-bloc countries, and would be interested in other recommendations in this category, where my knowledge is very limited. As well as memoirs and other works by survivors, I have included some fictional works by writers who did not experience the camps themselves. A couple of these were in their time controversial, but I think it’s right to list both prominent works that made false claims when the Gulag existed and recent fictional works, because the former played their part in shaping public perception of the Gulag and its texts, and the latter indicate that the continuing legacy of the subject.

The plan is ultimately to release the bibliographies as data, but that will not happen for quite some time as this is obviously a large-scale project, and I am currently working on my own. The first version of the bibliography of Gulag narratives contains around 750 entries, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it barely scratches the surface. The Sakharov archive of Gulag memoirs alone contains around 3700 bibliographic references, and nearly 1600 complete texts. But I think this bibliography as it stands is large enough to be useful, which is why I am publishing it now. And if anybody wishes to suggest a collaboration, I will be very willing to discuss it (German speakers especially welcome!).

With thanks as ever to John Levin for his invaluable technical assistance.

Raskolnikov on Twitter

For the last few days on Twitter @RodionTweets has been tweeting Crime and Punishment in real time from Raskolnikov’s perspective. A collaborative project developed by a group of North-American and British colleagues, we have each been responsible for turning one part of the novel into tweets. As my contribution for Part II begins, I repost here the piece I wrote for The Bloggers Karamazov, the blog of the North American Dostoevsky Society, reflecting on the project. You can also catch up with Sarah Hudspith’s blog about Part I, and Katia Bowers’ introduction. Blogs by other participants will be posted to coincide with the beginning of the parts of the novel they rewrote.

One thing that interests me is how digital technologies broaden the possibilities of what we can do as humanities scholars. My first foray into the digital, Mapping St Petersburg, used Google Maps to start exploring the interaction of text and city, and the ways in which the city’s spaces are incorporated into and transformed by its literary tradition. The results of that project, a set of interactive maps that enable us to interrogate the geographical dimensions of the ‘Petersburg text’, offer new perspectives that I have found very useful in rethinking the texts, and has become a very useful teaching tool that enables students to engage with the text in new ways.

It’s no coincidence that we began Mapping St Petersburg with the same novel that we are now tweeting. The spatial and temporal specificity that enabled us to map Crime and Punishment so precisely – the extent to which it participates in and represents the real world of St Petersburg in 1865 – is one thing that make it amenable to tweeting. But more than that, the novel’s very complexity and multi-layered nature invites us to break it down in different ways and construct new readings out of that process of granularization. This is in essence what we have always done as literary scholars, as interpretation inevitably involves selection (and therefore also exclusion) of material from the text.

Perhaps the main difference with projects like @RodionTweets and Mapping St Petersburg (in part because of their public nature) is that they force us towards completeness and to following our reading to its logical limit. While we may be concentrating only on one aspect of the text, we cannot lay aside any of the difficulties or contradictions that aspect may entail. I think we seldom have to be so consistent or thorough when it comes to traditional forms of interpretation (the advantage of the machine reading of Dostoevsky I’ve also recently embarked upon is similarly the complete overview it offers). The result of that process, for me, has been closer readings than I have ever done before, and these have revealed all sorts of details that I have never previously noticed. So it is perhaps not so much that these digital projects have allowed us to do something we couldn’t do before, rather that they have given us access to an augmented version of what we have previously done.

Writing this a few days before the tweeting of the present time of Crime and Punishment begins, I’m interested in the results as much as a reader of the novel as in my role as one of the participants in the project. As a reader, I wonder what impression the tweets will give of the text as a whole, and what new insights they will offer. Already from the tweets we have seen from the novel’s pre-history, I’m struck by how easily they fit into my timeline and become part of the echo-chamber (which gives me a certain insight into the accounts I follow), and the identification we (mainly the participants in the project) have been experiencing with Raskolnikov, as his problems seem not so very remote to our own:

As a participant, I wonder how my interpretation of Raskolnikov’s perception of events will differ from my colleagues’ when we see the tweets in situ. One thing I’ll be particularly interested in – which I really struggled with, and to which I’m only now, in retrospect, beginning to find an answer – is how the tweets deal with the other characters. We tend to think of Crime and Punishment as focusing solely on Raskolnikov, and to a great extent so it does. But for all his introspection, for large parts of the novel he interacts with others and in the first couple of parts at least he is very alive to the world around him on the streets of Petersburg. These elements of necessity appear in a more passive role than they play in the novel itself – still present, and perhaps with even more intensity, within Raskolnikov’s internal dialogue, to be sure, but their external part in that dialogue is removed, or at least refracted through Raskolnikov’s lens (I’m particularly looking forward to Marmeladov’s funeral from that point of view – and to what Jennifer Wilson has to say about writing the tweets for that part of the novel). That refraction undoubtedly provides a concentrated view of Raskolnikov’s perspective and thoughts about how he experiences the events of the novel, which in itself has the potential to reveal new and unexpected questions. But at the same time, twitter is an interactive platform, and while we can reply to @RodionTweets or incorporate his tweets into our own, Raskolnikov himself cannot interact in the same way either with other characters in the novel, or with the reading audience. I wonder in retrospect what it would look like if he could.

One of the questions we asked ourselves was: how would Raskolnikov use Twitter? The general consensus – with which I agreed – was that he probably wouldn’t tweet during conversations, but would give his thoughts on them after the event. Yet now (and I emphasize that this is several weeks after I completed the tweets for Part II and have had time to reflect on them), I can’t help thinking that some of those interactions could (would?) have been configured quite differently. For example, I can envisage Raskolnikov’s conversation with Zametov in the Crystal Palace tavern – one of the oddest scenes in the novel in terms of Raskolnikov’s behaviour towards another character and in the language he uses – being turned into an epic trolling session. I can see Porfiry doing the same later on. And if @RodionTweets’ followers replied to him, how would he respond? Perhaps that’s going too far in rewriting the novel (and indeed, would have turned this whole project into something quite different, on perhaps an unmanageably large scale), but such thought experiments can be helpful in our endless interrogation and reinterrogation of Dostoevsky’s characters, their relationships to each other, and our relationship to them. As with so many of readings of literature, I find that looking at what is not included is often as revealing as what is there.

My thanks to Katia Bowers and Brian Armstrong for initiating the project, Kristina McGuirk for her excellent and efficient editorial work, and Kate Holland, Sarah Hudspith and Jennifer Wilson for making this such a worthwhile collaboration. If you don’t know me on Twitter, I’m @russianist.

@RodionTweets continues until the end of the novel.

Reading Gulag propaganda

Title page, English version of The History of the Construction of the White Sea Canal

Title page, English version of The History of the Construction of the White Sea Canal

As regular readers will know, I am currently working on a book manuscript on the Russian tradition of prison and exile writing, from the tsarist era to the present day. This is a subject that generally focuses, with good reason, on the victims’ perspective, and many people will disagree with the idea of including Stalinist propaganda in such a study. I was myself reluctant to address works like The History of the Construction of the White Sea Canal (1934), the collectively written volume edited by Maxim Gorky and others, that celebrate the first large-scale Soviet forced labour projects and publicize the theory of reforging (perekovka) through re-education, hard labour and differential rationing depending on the amount of work achieved. I initially began work on this topic because of my interest in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Sergei Dovlatov’s The Zone, and the many other fascinating, and frequently harrowing, memoirs and fictional works that make up this tradition. I did not anticipate spending much time reading about the salutary effects of hard labour in works that ignore most of the salient facts, including the arrests of large numbers of people on trumped-up political charges, the shocking mortality rates, the violence and extremely harsh conditions convicts endured, and so on – in other words, almost everything we would normally associate with the Gulag.

Cartoon from the camp newspaper 'Perekovka', Ida Averbakh, Ot prestupleniia k trudu

Cartoon from the camp newspaper ‘Perekovka’, Ida Averbakh, Ot prestupleniia k trudu (From Crime to Labour, 1936)

But I became increasing convinced that such works do in fact belong in my project. My subject is precisely the tradition of labour camp writing, and while the majority of texts may take the form of critiques and/or be written by former convicts, books like The History of the Construction of the White Sea Canal make a significant intervention in part because of the counter-perspective they represent. That counter-perspective is also important for the light it sheds on vital questions about the Gulag that underlie its ambivalent legacy and contested memory in Russia today. This is in part because its brutal reality notwithstanding, the Gulag was conceived, theoretically at least, with the aim of transformation of criminals, and it enjoyed popular support for that reason. Moreover, the Gulag as umbrella term encompassed many different types of institution, and incarceration was not a homogenous experience – one only has to read Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle to understand that, or recall the many depictions in memoirs of ‘loyalists’ in the camps, who endorsed their own incarceration as contributing to the building of socialism.

Convict Beregovaia reforged, Averbakh, Ot prestupleniia k trudu

Convict Beregovaia reforged, Ida Averbakh, Ot prestupleniia k trudu

So, in addition to The White Sea Canal book, I embarked on studying Nikolai Pogodin’s 1934 ‘comedy’ play about the reforging of criminals on the White Sea Canal project, The Aristocrats, and the 1936 film version directed by Evgeny Chervyakov, The Convicts, documentaries about the White Sea and Moscow-Volga canal projects, pamphlets by an OGPU (secret police) operative about a youth offender commune, and scholarly texts from the 1930s on reform through labour, including Ida Averbakh’s From Crime to Labour. The latter work, which I initially expected to use only as a secondary source, particularly caught my attention. Part turgid Stalinist tract, part coffee-table book, full of pictures of smiling, reformed prisoners and their artworks – there are over 50 pages of illustrations – it represents the most consistent attempt both to place the idea of reform through labour in a Marxist-Leninist framework, and to persuade and attract the reader. All these works had similar aims: there was a huge effort in the first half of the 1930s to present a positive image of corrective labour camps and popularize the idea of reform through physical work. I don’t think this effort should be viewed simply as a cynical attempt to obscure the horrific aspects of the Gulag. While conditions were already very harsh, this was relatively benign phase in the Gulag’s history, and indeed I think it is wrong to suggest that the authorities at this stage felt they had very much to hide. The change in policy from celebration of hard labour to silence that took place at the start of the Great Terror – when conditions deteriorated markedly and the most lethal branches of the Gulag, such as the camps of Kolyma in Russia’s Far East, were established – shows that the Stalinist regime had a far more reliable way of concealing the reality when that became expedient. Rather, these texts and films should be seen as a genuine attempt to communicate a new approach to penal justice, however partial and idealized the picture they paint.

The convict Sonia reforged, film still from Zakliuchennye (1936)

Vera Yanukova as the reforged convict Sonia. Still from the film Zakliuchennye (The Convicts, 1936)

Such important ideological work could only be put in the safest of hands, so it’s no surprise to see Gorky, chief architect of Socialist Realism, at the helm of the White Sea Canal book, alongside Leopold Averbakh, formerly head of the Proletarian Writers’ Union, and a high-profile member of the security services, Semyon Firin, director of the White Sea-Baltic corrective labour camp. Ida Averbakh also had impeccable credentials: a prominent jurist in her own right, she was also the niece of the late Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov, sister of Leopold and wife of the head of OGPU, Genrikh Yagoda (it seems likely in fact that she was responsible for her husband’s rise to power). These backgrounds, as well as the aims of the texts and films, lead one to expect a clear articulation of the socialist basis of the theory of reforging. But beyond the Stalinist jargon and repeated assertions that reforging is socialist, there is little in these works to support that claim. Instead, they use similar strategies to avoid not only depicting the crucial turning points in the transformation of the reforged prisoners, but even reference to the motivating factors, so that the process is divested of both psychological and ideological content. Where a socialist element is apparent, such as the role of the collective, the authors reverse both causality and accepted definitions, so that reforging is distanced from socialism, instead of representing its apex. In my paper for the SSEES Centenary conference, Socialism, Capitalism and the Alternatives: Lessons from Russia and Eastern Europe, I shall explore some of the strategies these works use that undermine the relationship between reforging and socialism. I will examine some alternative – and seemimgly contradictory – sources for the theory of reforging in pre-revolutionary discourses of prison and exile, and discuss the implications of these for our understanding of the Gulag as the essence of Stalinism, and as a necessary part of the Soviet building of socialism.

Historical memory of the Gulag (3): Contested memory

The failure to establish a central memorial to the victims of the Gulag mentioned in my previous post is part of a problem of contested memory that has been apparent since the demise of the Soviet Union but has escalated in the last decade or so. As Arseny Roginsky’s eloquent essay The Embrace of Stalinism shows, various aspects of the contestation of historical memory had taken hold by 2008. In this post I want to think about how things have developed since then, and bring together a few articles on some of the most critical events of recent years.

The increasing harassment of the Memorial Society, from the raid and confiscation of their archives in December 2008 to the imposition of the status of ‘foreign agent’ last year (read the official line on this from TASS and in English from Russia Today), now threaten its very existence (see also this BBC article, featuring interview with activists and family members at last year’s Return of the Names ceremony). The Sakharov Center faces similar problems. Most prominently over the last year or so, the Perm-36 Gulag museum has lost funding, closed and reopened under new management; see also Aleksandr Kalikh’s article ‘Perm’-36: unichtozhenie pamiati. The NTV documentary about Perm-36, ‘The Fifth Column’, is an example of the disturbing tone of the accusations being levelled and of attempts to shift the focus away from the Gulag’s victims. Ola Cichowlas’ article in New Republic gives some useful context and detail on the programme for non-Russian speakers, and for Russian readers the website has a list of stories related to the situation.

Perm-36 Gulag museum, by Gerald Praschl (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Perm-36 Gulag museum, by Gerald Praschl (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are a number of reasons behind this movement against these organizations, such as the involvement of some of them in other human rights work (the closure of the Committee Against Torture as a ‘foreign agent’ shows that it is not only organizations campaigning about historical memory that are under threat). But the rehabilitation of Stalin is a major factor. In Georgia, Stalin remains a cause for celebration in some quarters, the home boy made good. In Russia, the rhetoric of the strong leader, focusing first of all on Stalin’s victory in the Great Patriotic War but also now more generally on his rebuilding and industrialization of the country both before and after the war, is very much directed towards bolstering Putin’s legitimacy at home, reclaiming pride in the nation, and re-establishing Russia’s claim to a place at the top of the international pecking order. One might suggest therefore that the memory of the Stalinist repressions and its victims are merely, yet again, the casualties of that process. But it’s more complex than that. While the new exhibition at Perm-36 emphasizes not the victims but the Gulag’s ‘Contribution To Victory’, the Museum of history of the Gulag in Moscow is, by contrast, thriving; the opening of its new building is scheduled for 30 October 2015. In Roland Oliphant’s excellent piece The growing struggle in Russia about historical memory and Stalin, Irina Shcherbakova of Memorial characterizes this as part of a hybrid approach to memory. That identifies what’s going on, but again, I’m not sure that really helps us understand why it’s happening. I’d like instead to examine two aspects which I think may get us closer to understanding it. The first is a question about commemoration: who (and what) is being remembered? The second is a question about the nature the Gulag itself.

Leaving aside Western memorials to the victims of communism, which arguably are more interested in lauding the victory of capitalism (and hasn’t that turned out well?) than in remembering those who perished, the first question, about commemoration in Russia itself, may appear to have an obvious answer: the victims of the Stalinist (or, more broadly, Soviet) repressions. Certainly, NGOs such as Memorial, the compilers of the many memory books and those involved in the various memorial projects I discussed in my previous post, are working to identify and commemorate all the victims, and their efforts are in no way devalued by what follows. But there are a couple of problems with commemoration that Alexander Etkind has identified in his article ‘Hard and Soft in Cultural Memory: Political Mourning in Russia and Germany’, Grey Room, 16 (2004), 36–59. The first is the extent to which the Orthodox church has appropriated commemoration of Gulag victims, for example at the memorial complex at the Butovo firing range. Many Orthodox believers, both lay and ordained, were victims, and they certainly deserve to be remembered – Orthodoxy does have an important role to play here. But if the commemorations as a whole have an Orthodox colouring, where does that leave victims of other faiths, or none? I can’t help comparing this to Khrushchev’s secret speech and the subsequent de-Stalinization programme that focused solely on the repression of party members and remained silent about all other victims, who were the majority. Beyond that question, the involvement of the Orthodox church is particularly problematic given the level of collaboration between the church and the security services after religious revival Stalin encouraged during the Great Patriotic War. The present-day church’s accommodation with power raises similar questions: can or should an institution that participated in the prosecution and imprisonment of Pussy Riot control memory of the Gulag? And when an Orthodox priest is pictured placing a flower at the bust of Stalin on the opening of the new museum devoted to him in Tver oblast, one might well ask about the church’s suitability for the task.

The second aspect Etkind discusses is the form commemoration takes, as it focuses squarely on paying tribute to the suffering of the victims, and presenting them as martyrs. In the latter respect again one may see the influence of the church, but more importantly here, Etkind’s concern is the failure to use commemoration to question the system that created so many victims, or to address questions of responsibility. One could ask whether the sort of ‘hard’ memorials Etkind has in mind here ever really can address such issues, but his approach made me think more broadly about the mindset of survivors as narrators – a major concern for my research – and how they present their own experience. Many survivors have a clear idea about who (or what) is responsible for their arrest and for the horrific conditions they endured (think Evgeniia Ginzburg). But equally, many frame their arrest and camp experiences as a matter of fate – a perusal of titles in the Sakharov Center’s database of Gulag memoirs reveals very frequent recourse to words such as sud’ba and dolia and to statements that ‘this is just how it was’ that bypass the question of responsibility altogether.

Some might suggest this is the result of a particularly Russian mentality, an emphasis on suffering and/or a view the individual as being at the mercy of the state. That undoubtedly is part of it, but I think there’s something else at work here. A significant problem Gulag memory is the identification of perpetrators and victims, because of the ease with which people could move from one category to the other – and back again. This raises a genuine dilemma about whom to commemorate. One of the people I’ve been working on recently, Ida Averbakh, was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1938 at Butovo. She was undoubtedly innocent of the crimes of which she was accused (unlike Shalamov, for instance, however innocuous those ‘crimes’ seem to us now). But does the fact that she was a prominent legal scholar who wrote a book celebrating the use of hard labour in reforming criminals, and was married to NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda to boot (she was in fact probably responsible for her husband’s ascendency), mean that she should not be subject to commemoration? Personally I find it hard to feel much sympathy for the likes of her, even if I am prepared to accept (and it’s sometimes a stretch) that such people were sincere in their attempts to institute proper reforms in the criminal justice system. But one doesn’t have to go as far as someone like Averbakh to encounter ambivalence; as Vasily Grossman shows in Everything Flows, degrees of participation in, acquiescence in, and often personal profit from, a society built on terror, left many people compromised. One could go further, and suggest that as non-participation in the Soviet state was not an option, almost everyone was involved to some degree (as expressed Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s memoirs, if one bought bread at a Soviet bakery – and what else could one do? – one participated in the system). The recourse to fate therefore becomes a means of sidestepping the problem of complicity, by which I do not mean that those authors who use such terms were themselves in some way more complicit than others; rather, they are evidence more generally of a desire to avoid a question that in reality is far more thorny than, for example, Ginzburg’s rather simplistic identification of Stalin as the evil genius in her life.

My reference to Ida Averbakh in the previous paragraph also relates to the other question: the nature of the Gulag. This is not a simple issue either, despite the person on Twitter who helpfully told me that ‘The Gulag was death’. I do not mean that to be flippant. I am well aware of the numbers of victims and of the suffering of those who endured truly horrific conditions. But one has to remember that the Gulag was a very varied institution, encompassing the sharashka of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle as well as the ‘Auschwitz without ovens’ of Kolyma. It was not only or primarily about extermination, even if this was often the outcome in some places and for large numbers of those unfortunate enough to be caught up in it. As Steven Barnes’ book Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society (Princeton University Press, 2011) has shown most effectively, cultural work with prisoners was not just a sham, and re-education and restoration of some convicts to Soviet society remained an aspiration, although corruption, incompetence, indifference and plain brutality frequently undermined this in actuality. At the end of the 1920s and in the first half of the 1930s in particular, the idea of reforming criminals through hard labour was much discussed in the Soviet Union and had a good deal of popular support – witness the success of films like Evgenii Cherviakov’s Convicts [Zakliuchennye], based on Nikolai Pogodin’s comedy about ‘reforging’ criminals, The Aristocrats, and Nikolai Ekk’s Road to Life [Putevka v zhizn’], a fictionalized version of work at an OGPU youth offenders’ commune. These works are easy to dismiss because they obviously distort or overlook the experience of many of the incarcerated – in particular, people convicted of trumped-up political charges – but they nevertheless represent a perspective on the Gulag that should not be ignored just because it differs from what we read in most survivor narratives. Loyal Stalinists among the convicts – depicted in so many texts and the subject of Nanci Adler’s book Keeping Faith with the Party – would have little reason to write their own memoirs because they neither viewed themselves as wronged nor had the sort of individualist perspective that would provide the impulse to witnessing. And the fact that such people existed, who endorsed the system and even their own incarceration, renders the notion of universal victimhood somewhat problematic in this context. The different facets of the Gulag, and the disparate ways it was experienced by different types of convicts, meant there was no single response to it at the time. That must have a bearing on how it is perceived today.

I will return to the question of positive reflections of the Gulag in the films I mention above and other propaganda from the 1930s in my next post.

Update (24 Sept 2015): The question of a central monument to the victims of Stalinism is back on the table with the results of a new design competition due to be announced in the next few days. Good news, apparently, although we’ve been at this stage before and nothing has come of it. Perhaps it will happen this time, because the impetus for it comes from Putin himself. But as this Moscow Times article by Vladimir Ryzhkov notes, Putin’s involvement is ambiguous to say the least, given the glorification of Stalin that has been encouraged in recent years, and the attacks on Memorial, Perm-36 and other commemorative/human rights organizations I discuss above. Although Ryzhkov is correct to point to the conflicting values present in Russian society, I’m not sure this is sufficient explanation. So is it more about centralizing control of memory, and removing an important function from groups like Memorial? They can hardly object to his involvement, but I wonder what effect it will have on their fortunes in the long run.

Update (29 October 2015): The design for the monument to the victims of Stalinism has now been chosen. I will watch how this progresses with interest. Meanwhile, Perm-36 Gulag museum has lost its appeal against classification as a foreign agent. And the recalibration of Gulag memory gets ever more murky, as is apparent in this fine article by Shaun Walker reporting from Yagodnoe in Kolyma (where Shalamov spent some of his sentence).

Historical memory of the Gulag (2): Memorials, maps and other memory projects

Mikhail Chemiakin's controversial memorial to the victims of political repression in Petersburg. Author's photograph

Mikhail Chemiakin’s controversial memorial to the victims of political repression in Petersburg. Author’s photograph

Since the final years of the Soviet Union, memorializing the victims of the political repressions – in itself a curious formulation that indicates some of the problems associated with this subject – has remained a significant and, to a large extent, unresolved question. Historical memory projects can obviously have all sorts of different aims: the educational and the ritual; establishing the narrative of historical events; finding and marking locations associated with those events; gathering or recovering individual and collective memories; and shaping collective identity, to name but a few. It is not surprising, therefore, that these various dimensions have been expressed in many different types of project, from the memory books I listed in my previous post to museums and monuments across the former soviet states.

Alexander Etkind’s article ‘Hard and Soft in Cultural Memory: Political Mourning in Russia and Germany’, Grey Room, No. 16 (2004), 36-59, divides memorialization, as his title suggests, into the ‘hard’ (primarily monuments) and the ‘soft’ (texts). He argues that in Russia the latter has succeeded – with projects such as memory books as well as individual memoirs becoming important sites of memory – whereas the former remains problematic. Although there are multiple monuments to the victims of the Gulag and the terror throughout the former USSR, the absence of a single central memorial points to a lack of unity, and with the failure of earlier attempts to reach agreement on the form or location of a monument, it seems unlikely now that such a thing will ever be built.

As I have been researching memory projects of different types for these posts, a couple of features of the form memorialization has taken have stood out. The first is the rejection of top-down approaches. The absence of consultation is one of the main reasons why Chemiakhin’s memorial in Petersburg pictured above and Neizvestnyi’s ‘Mask of Sorrow’ in Magadan with which I illustrated my previous post have not been universally embraced, to say the least (see Kathleen Smith’s article ‘Conflict over Designing a Monument to Stalin’s Victims’, in J. Cracraft and D. Rowland, eds, Architectures of Russian Identity, Cornell University Press, 2003, pp. 193-203). In a more positive sense, initiatives such as the ‘Last Address’ project I mention below celebrate their collaborative basis through crowd-funding and stress the absence of government support or (so far) interference.

Solovetsky_Stone_-_Moscow (1)

Solovetsky Stone, Moscow (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The other aspect that seems important is the way that the temporary has become permanent. The most striking example of this is the Solovetsky stone in Lubyanka Square in Moscow, which was installed by Memorial in 1990 as a temporary monument but, in the absence of agreement about a more permanent (and larger scale) memorial, has come to represent a focal point for memory; it is the location, for example, for the annual ‘Return of the Names’ ceremony detailed below. But this also seems to be what is happening on a wider scale as the supposedly soft products of memory solidify to stand in the place of the missing hard memory. Classic works such as The Gulag Archipelago already have that monumentalizing aim, but this is now magnified by the sheer size of the Sakharov Center’s digital archive of Gulag memoirs, and the access it enables to so many otherwise elusive texts.

In a sense many of the projects I list here are exist on the intersection of soft and hard memory, as their digital presence often transforms one into the other. The online cataloguing of memorials by the Virtual Gulag Museum and the Sakharov Center, and the use of interactive maps by the Last Address project and others, create soft versions of the hard products of memory, while perhaps the most ephemeral form of witnessing – oral testimony – acquires more solidity through its digital form.

My aim here is to create an overview of the different types of memory project relating to the Gulag, including both the primarily digital and those that have some digital dimension. As with my previous post, it has no pretension to completeness; I will update it whenever I have new information, and will be grateful for details of any other projects. In my next post I will discuss the question of contested memory.

Archives, memoirs and virtual museums

Memorial St Petersburg’s Archive is quite well organized with good selection of complete documents.

The most recent version of Memorial’s main website has all sorts of information, but some of the material seems to have got rather lost amidst the reorganization. See the old version of the history page for more usable links to the virtual museum, archives and writing on the repressions.

The Sakharov Center’s archive Vospominaniia o GULAGe [Memoirs of the Gulag] remains one of my most important resources – though how I wish my Zotero button functioned with these, it would make my bibliography compiling so much easier…

I have discussed Gulag: Many days many lives and Virtual’nyi muzei Gulaga [Virtual Museum of the Gulag] in a previous post, so won’t dwell on those now. Other virtual exhibitions worth visiting (and still live) include Tvorchestvo i byt Gulaga on the Memorial website, and the Open Society Archive’s Forced Labor Camps online exhibit.

Vladimir Bukovsky’s Soviet archives are not directly concerned with the Gulag, but contain a significant number of documents about the persecution of dissidents from the 1960s onwards, and the use of psychiatry as a punitive political tool.

Memory and oral history projects

Poslednie svideteli [Last witnesses], developed by Memorial Moscow and Berlin, consists of 26 videos, including individual testimonies and thematic videos covering questions such as women in the camps and transport to Magadan. The testimonies are very moving but at the same time the interviewees are incredibly matter of fact about their experiences.

St Petersburg Memorial’s Gulag: Liudi i sud’by [People and Fates] project has five short videos about the lives of its subjects, including interviews with former prisoners and their children. The videos can also be accessed directly through YouTube.

Sound archives: European memories of the Gulag focuses on citizens from European territories deported to the Gulag from 1939 to 1953 and has some fascinating interviews and other material, organized thematically as well as by individual testimony.

Amnesia Gulag in Europe could have a better title, but this is a solid research and educational project, with a particular focus on visual memory, based at the University of Macerata. The ebook Remembering the Gulag: Images and Imagination, ed. by Natascia Mattucci, has some interesting ideas and articles, but feels a bit like a work in progress.

For oral testimony I would also still recommend Vlast’ Solovetskaia [Solovki Power] as a remarkable piece of film-making with some some extraordinary interviewees, including Dmitry Likhachev – I don’t think it’s been bettered by any other film about the Gulag, documentary or otherwise.

Memorials and memory events

The Virtual Gulag museum’s list of Pamiatniki (587 memorials) and Nekropoli (592 burial grounds) gives copious details for a good many of its entries. I confess I’m slightly mystified by the criteria for inclusion – the Pamiatniki list includes some individual graves, but there are some odd (and obvious) omissions.

The Sakharov Center’s list and map of memorials has 1224 items, but does not include individual graves: Pamiatki zhertvam politicheskikh represii na territorii byvshego SSSR [Memorials to the victims of political repressions in the territory of the former USSR].

Perm Memorial’s list of 101 monuments, memorials and plaques in the Perm region gives an indication of quite how many such memorials there are to victims of the repressions.

Poslednii adres [Last Address], which began in 2014, aims to mark the final addresses where victims of the Soviet repressions lived before their arrest. A crowd-funded project inspired by Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine project to commemorate the victims of Nazism, so far 50 of the small metal plaques have been installed on buildings in Moscow and St Petersburg, and a map on the main page of the website shows how many more are currently in preparation. Read more about the Last Address project in the Calvert Journal.

Vozvrashchenie imen [Return of the Names] is an annual event, on 29 October in which people gather around the Solovetski stone in Lubyanka Square in Moscow to read out the names of victims of the repressions. Read Tanya Zaharchenko’s moving account of the ceremony in 2014.

Last address plaque to Ekaterina Mihkailovna Zhelvatykh, Moscow, ul. Mashkova 16. Photograph by Mlarisa CC-BY-SA-4.0

Last address plaque to Ekaterina Mihkailovna Zhelvatykh, Moscow, ul. Mashkova 16. Photograph by Mlarisa CC-BY-SA-4.0

Interactive maps of memory

Topografiia terrora [Topography of Terror] on the Vozvrashchenie imen [Return of the names] website is very good map of area around Lubyanka, where Return of the names ceremony is held every year, showing the number of people from different buildings that died, and with clear outlines of those buildings. It uses data from Moscow Memorial’s Rastreliannye v Moskve [Executed in Moscow] database, and would be very good to see this version expanded.

A larger-scale map of Moscow using the same data can be found at Mapping the Great Terror in Moscow, with links to the Google Fusion Tables used for both this map and an earlier version, Rivers of Blood in Moscow.

Karta pamiati: Nekropol’ terrora i gulaga [Map of memory: Place of burial of terror and the Gulag] is St Petersburg Memorial’s project to map places of executions and secret & mass burials, camp and prison cemeteries, graves of exiles, which has 407 entries at present. It’s well presented, easier to use & more searchable than the original source of much of the information it contains, the Virtual Gulag museum’s list of Nekropoli.

Karta GULAGa [Gulag Map]: special settlements and camps of the Gulag in the Perm region (former Molotov oblast) 1930s-1950s. Related to Perm Memorial’s recently published Memory book, Gody terrora [The Years of Terror].

Mapping the Gulag is an ESRC-funded research project led by Judith Pallot, Laura Piacentini and Dominque Moran as part of a wider project on Russia’s penal geography. See my previous post.

NEW: Topografiia terror [Topogarphy of Terror] by Memorial Moscow, with information on Sharashkas (Gulag research institutes) as well as prisons, and mass execution and burial sites.

NEW: Mapping the Gulag over Time, by Abstractualized. Does what it says on the tin, and more, with links to the data used and an excellent account of the historical questions.

Other historical memory sites

The Sakharov Center’s Programma Pamiat’ o bespravii [Memory of lawlessness] is basically an online part of the museum, and has 4 sections: Mythology and ideology of the Soviet regime; political repressions in the USSR; through the Gulag; opposition to unfreedom in the USSR.

Istoricheskaia pamiat’: XX vek: Gosudarstvennyi terror i politicheskie repressii v SSSR [Historical memory of the 20th Century: State Terror and political repression in the USSR] The State Museum of history of the Gulag and the Sakharov Center are among the partners. The website has sections on repressions, memorial places, resources, discussion, people and their fates, including some memoirs.
There is also a reasonable list of museums devoted to the Gulag and the repressions.

There are some interesting materials on Uroki istorii XX vek [Lessons of 20th century history], which is supported by Moscow Memorial and the German foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (Erinnerung. Verantwortung. Zukunft).

The website Rossiiskie sotsialiisty i anarkhisty posle Oktiabria 1917 goda [Russian socialists and anarchists after October 1917] has a section on Socialists and anarchists in Soviet prisons, labour camps and exile with some interesting resources.

Historical memory of the Gulag (1): Memory books

Mask of Sorrow. Monument to the victims of the Gulag, Magadan

Mask of Sorrow. Monument to the victims of the Gulag, Magadan, by Alglus (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I’ve been thinking about historical memory of the Gulag and the Stalinist repressions recently whilst working on my book, and have decided to put together a few posts of links relating to the subject. This is partly from my own need to organize the material coherently, and partly because an up-to-date list would, I hope, be useful to other people as well.

I’ll say a bit more about the question of historical memory itself in a subsequent post, because there is already quite enough material for this one, on memory books. Memory books (knigi pamiati), listing the names of victims of the political repressions in the Soviet Union, began to appear in the mid 1990s. The bibliography A. Ia. Razumov et al, eds, Knigi pamiati zhertv politicheskikh repressii v SSSR: Annotirovannyi ukazatel’ (St Petersburg: RNB, Mezhdunarodnyi proekt “Vozvrashchennye imena”, 2004)  (pdf version also here) shows just how many of these books there are – and this includes material only up to 2003. They are still appearing, albeit at a much slower rate – some recent ones are listed on the Vozvrashchennye imena (Recovered names) website. A significant number of memory books and databases have also been put on line, primarily, although not solely, through the auspices of Memorial and the Vozvrashchennye imena project, which ultimately aims (I hope it is not too optimistic to continue to use the present tense) to build a single database of all the victims of the Soviet repressions. That is clearly no small task, and the long gestation of the project should perhaps come as no surprise. In the mean time it is part of the nature of the internet that sites get moved and links decay, and even the links sections on the Memorial and Vozvrashchennye imena websites are full of broken links, making it difficult to find some of those memory books that are currently available.

My starting point for compiling this list was the following sites:

Возвращенные имена [ebooks by the Recovered Names project] and other links.

Мемориал: СПИСОК КНИГ ПАМЯТИ: Книги, составленные по региональному признаку [Memorial’s List of memory books compiled by region] and СПИСКИ ЖЕРТВ ПОЛИТИЧЕСКИХ РЕПРЕССИЙ [lists of victims of political repressions].

Возвращенные имена-списки ссылок [A further list of references based on the Vozvrashchennye imena materials].

I have updated numerous links from these lists, removed those that are broken when I haven’t been able to find replacements (those that were part of the Okrytaia russkaia elektronnaia biblioteka – OREL – seem to have disappeared altogether with the demise of that project), and added a couple of extra ones I found whilst compiling the list. I make no claims to completeness – the list is very much a work in progress, and any information about other memory book sites that can be added will be gratefully received. The material is ordered thus:

1) General lists and databases
2) Lists of victims by location:
a) Moscow
b) Leningrad
c) other cities and regions of the Russian Federation
d) other former Soviet republics
e) other countries and peoples
3) Lists devoted to specific groups of victims

I have translated titles and essential details about contents. In places I have included notes about sources, usage, limitations, etc, based on my own observations, but overall I have tried to keep details to a minimum, given the number of links.

1) General lists and databases

ЭЛЕКТРОННАЯ КНИГА ПАМЯТИ “ВОЗВРАЩЕННЫЕ ИМЕНА”: “Жертвы политического террора в СССР”: списки [Electronic memory book Recovered Names: Victims of political terror in the USSR]. Includes the names of victims who do not appear in other memory books, based on materials received from relatives and taken from archival sources in the ‘Vozvrashchennye imena’ Centre at the Russian National Library (RNB). Contains around 2,700,000 names. Browsable lists by surname.

Общероссийская общественная благотворительная организация инвалидов — жертв политрепрессий: РОССИЙСКАЯ АССОЦИАЦИЯ ЖЕРТВ НЕЗАКОННЫХ ПОЛИТИЧЕСКИХ РЕПРЕССИЙ [All-Russian social charitable organization for invalids and victims of political repression: Russian Association for the victims of the illegal political repressions]. Database.

Сталинские расстрельные списки [Stalin’s execution lists] Lists of citizens sentenced by Stalin and his closest circle. From the CD “Stalinskie rassstrelnye spiski” (Moscow: Zven’ia, 2002). Browsable lists by name and place.

Объединенная база данных по Москве, Твери, Туле и Карелии [Combined database for Moscow, Tver, Tula and Karelia] C. 48,000 names.

2) Lists of victims by location


МОСКОВСКИЙ МАРТИРОЛОГ: Списки расстрелянных по политическим обвинениям в годы советской власти [Moscow Martyrology: Lists of people executed on political charges in the years of Soviet power] Compiled by Memorial. Also has information on Sentencing organs; sources of information and preparation of the list; places of mass burial of the victims of political repressions; principles of publication. Organized by place of burial and year of execution:
Яузская больница (Yauzskaya hospital)
Ваганьковское кладбище (Vaganskoe cemetery)
Донское кладбище (Donskoe cemetery)
Бутово (Butovo firing range) From the publication: Мартиролог расстрелянных и захороненных на полигоне НКВД “Объект Бутово”. 08.08.1937–19.10.1938. М.; Бутово, 1997 [Martyrology of people shot and buried in the NKVD Butovo firing range]
Коммунарка (Kommunarka).

Мартиролог жертв политических репрессий, расстрелянных и захороненных в Москве и Московской области в 1918-1953 гг. [Martyrology of victims of the political repressions, shot and buried in Moscow and the Moscow oblast, 1918-1953]. The Sakharov Center’s Martyrology, browsable by surname.

Расстрелы в Москве [Shot in Moscow]. Memorial’s list, organized street by street. A map of the victims by address can be found here.


Ленинградский мартиролог: Списки граждан, расстрелянных в Ленинграде, вне Ленинграда и впоследствии реабилитированных [Leningrad martyrology: lists of citizen shot in and around Leningrad and subsequently rehabilitated, 1937-1938]. Some interesting statistics related to this list can be found here, which give the lie, among other things, to the persistent notion that it was mainly party members who were arrested during the Great Terror.

c) RUSSIAN FEDERATION (alphabetical order by city/region)

ALTAI: Memorial Алтайский край
From the publication: Жертвы политических репрессий в Алтайском крае. Т. 1: 1919–1930. (Барнаул, 1998) [Victims of political repression in the Altai krai, vol. 1, 1919-1930].

AMUR: site of the Amur oblast’s administration:
Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Амурской области. Т. 1–2.— Благовещенск, 2001–2003. [Book of memory of the victims of political repressions in Amur oblast, Vols. 1-2].

ARKHANGELSK: Мартиролог Соловецких узников [Martyrology of Solovki prisoners, on the Solovki Encyclopedia website].

See also Репрессии в Архангельске: 1937–1938. Документы и материалы.— Архангельск, 1999. [Repressions in Arkhangelsk: 1937-1938. Documents and materials] Downloadable pdf, also available here.

ASTRAKHAN: site of the Astrakhan oblast’s administration:
Из тьмы забвения: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий: Российская Федерация. Астраханская область. Комис. по восстановлению прав реабилитир. жертв полит. репрессий Астрах. обл.; Рабочая группа: Ю. С. Смирнов (отв. ред.), В. В. Волков и др.— Астрахань: Волга. [From the darkness of oblivion: Book of memory of the victims of political repression: Russian Federation. Astrakhan oblast/Commission for the restoration of rights of the rehabilitated victims of political repression in the Astrakhan oblast].
Т. 1: 1918–1954: А-Я.— 2000.
Т. 2: 1918–1986: А-Я.— 2003.
10,955 names.
NB: The original page containing this memory book seems to have disappeared but it is available on the internet archive.

BASHKORTOSTAN: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Республики Башкортостан. Т. 1, 2. (Уфа, 1997–1999). [Memory book of the victims of political repressions in the Republic of Bashkortostan].

VLADIMIR: site of the Vladimir oblast’s administration: Боль и память: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Владимирской области. [Pain and Memory: Memory Book of the victims of political repressions from the Vladimir oblast]
Т. 1 [г. Владимир; р-ны Александровский—Кольчугинский].— 2001. [Vol. 1: Vladimir city; Aleksansdrovskii-Kol’chuginskii regions]
Т. 2 [р-ны Меленковский—Юрьев-Польский и дополнительные списки по Александровскому—Кольчугинскому р-нам].— 2003 [Melekovskii-Iur’ev-Pol’skii and additional lists for the Aleksansdrovskii-Kol’chuginskii regions]
11,205 biographical notes in all. Searchable by surname, name and patronymic]. Downloadable documents – also available here.

VOLOGDA: Official portal of the Government of Vologda oblast: Книга памяти [Memory book].

VORONEZH: Воронежская область
From information provided to Voronezh Memorial by the directorate of the Voronezh FSB.

IRKUTSK: Site of the Irkutsk Association for the victims of political repressions: Памяти жертв политических репрессий [Memory book of victims of political repressions] The database corresponds to part of the first volume of the Memory book Zhertvy politicheskikh repressii Irkutskoi oblasti: Pamiat’ i preduprezhdenie budushchemu. More than 1500 biographical entries (from Abagaev Aleksandr Toktoevich to Bashkuev Lazar’ Sharaevich). Search by alphabet.

KEMEROVO: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Кемеровской области. Т. 2.– Кемерово, 1996. [Memory book of the victims of political repressions in Kemerovo oblast].
NB: this is a downloadable .rar file.

KOMI REPUBLIC: Memorial Республика Коми
From the publication: Покаяние: Коми республиканский мартиролог жертв массовых политических репрессий. Т. 1. (Сыктывкар, 1998) [Redemption: the Komi Republic’s martyrology of the victims of mass political repressions]

KRASNODARSK: on Krasnodarsk Memorial Society’s site: интернет-проект “Трагические судьбы — возвращенные имена” Книга памяти Кубани [Internet project ‘Tragic Fates: Recovered names’: A Book of memory of the Kuban]. More than 26,000 names.

KRASNOYARSK: Krasnoyarsk Memorial Society’s site Сайт Красноярского общества “Мемориал”. Мартиролог (биографические справки, фото). Доступ по алфавиту имен. Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Красноярского края [Martyrology (biographical entries, photos). Access via alphabetized names. Memory book of political repressions in Krasnoyarsk krai]. Covers letters А – К.
Кн. 1: [А – Б]
Кн. 2: [В – Г]
Кн. 3: [Д – И]
Кн. 4: [К].

KURGAN: Memorial Курганская область
From the publication: Осуждены по 58-й: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Курганской области. Т. 1. (Курган, 2002) [Sentenced under article 58: Memory book of political repressions in Kurgan oblast]

KURSK: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Курской области. Т. 3.— Курск, 2000. [Memory book of political repressions in Kursk oblast].

LIPETSK: Memorial Липецкая область
From the publication: Помнить поименно: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Липецкого края с ноября 1917 года. Т. 1.— (Липецк, 1997). [To remember by name: Memory book of political repressions in Lipetsk krai from November 1917. Volume 1-].

MAGADAN: Memorial Магаданская область
From the publication За нами придут корабли: Список реабилитированных лиц, смертные приговоры в отношении которых приведены в исполнение на территории Магаданской области. (Магадан, 1999) [Ships came for us. Lists of rehabilitated people whose death sentences were carried out in the territory of Magadan oblast] Biographical details of 7,546 repressed people.

MARI EL REPUBLIC: Memorial Республика Марий Эл
From the publication Трагедия народа: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Республики Марий Эл. В 2 томах. (Йошкар-Ола, 1996–1997) [The Tragedy of a People: Memory book of the victims of political repression in the Mari El Republic].

NIZHNY TAGIL: Memorial Нижний Тагил
From the publication: Жертвы репрессий. Нижний Тагил. 1920–1980-е годы. (Екатеринбург, 1999) [Victims of Repression: Nizhny Tagil, 1920s-1980s].

OMSK: Забвению не подлежит: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Омской области. Т. 1: А—Б.— (Омск, 2000). [Not to be forgotten: Memory book of victims of political repression in Omsk oblast]
NB: The downloadable pdf on this page is corrupted, but it is just about readable online, albeit not in the most convenient form.

ORENBURG: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий в Оренбургской области.— Калуга, 1998. [Memory book of victims of political repressions in Orenburg oblast].

ORLOV: Реквием: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий на Орловщине. Т. 1–4. Орел, 1994–1998. [Requiem: Memory book of victims of political repressions in the Orlovshchina]
NB: the encoding of this page needs to be set to Cyrillic-1251.

PENZA: Site of the Penza “Memorial” Society: Список реабилитированных жертв репрессий в разделе Книга памяти. [List of rehabilitated victims of repressions from the Memory book].

new: PERM: Пермский край / Пермская область: Годы террора: электронная Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий [Years of Terror: electronic memory book of victims of the political repressions] on Perm Memorial’s website. This is a very impressive recently published site with a great deal of information about the terror and its victims, as well as a martyology with biographical details of victims, searchable indexes by name and geographical area and much more besides.
See also: Картотека репрессированных на сайте Пермского Государственного архива. [Card index of the repressed on website of the Perm State archive].

RYAZAN: На сайте Рязанского общества защиты прав человека. [Site of the Ryazan Society for the Defence of Human Rights]. Searchable by place as well as name; useful site with information also on cemeteries, memorials, etc.

SAMARA: Memorial Самарская область
From the publication: Белая книга о жертвах политических репрессий. Самарская область. Т. 1–7. (Самара, 1997–1998) [The White book of victims of political repressions: Samara oblast]
See also the Index of Samara families, which covers letters А-Л.

SARATOV: Memorial Саратовская область
From information made available by the Saratov FSB directorate.

SVERDLOVSK: Memorial Свердловская область
From the publication: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий. Свердловская область. Т. 1. (Екатеринбург, 1999) [Memory book of the victims of political repressions.] Covers letters А-Б only; vols 2-3, covering В-Д and Е-И not yet online.

SMOLENSK: website of the Administration of Smolensk oblast: Электронная картотека жертв политических репрессий Смоленской области, 1917–1953 гг. [Electronic card index of the victims of political repression in Smolensk oblast]
29,508 entries. Search via database only, no browsing of lists. A significant number of duplicates. Part of the database is based on the publication: По праву памяти: Книга памяти жертв незаконных политических репрессий: А — Я. (Смоленский мартиролог; Т. 1); Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий: А — С. (Смоленский мартиролог; Т. 2–5). [By right of memory: Memory book of the victims of illegal political repressions: А—Я (Smolensk martyrology vol. 1); Memory book of the victims of political repressions, А—С (Smolensk martyrology vols 2-5)].

TATARSTAN: Memorial Республика Татарстан
Electronic version of the publication: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий. Республика Татарстан. Т. 1–5.— Казань, 2000–2002) [Memory book of victims of political repressions]. Vols 1-5 of the print edition cover letters А-З; the electronic version so far covers letters А-Е only.

TOMSK: Memorial museum “NKVD Investigative prison”: Томский мартиролог 
Книга Памяти (Банк данных жертв политических репрессий Томской области). [Tomsk martyrology: Memory book (data base of victims of political repression in the Tomsk oblast)].
List of 31,989 people deprived of electoral rights and dekulakized in the 1920s-1930s, from materials in the Tomsk oblast state archives. References to archive file numbers. List of 34,000 families (around 190,000 individuals) of special settlers [spetspereselentsev] – dekulakized peasants and members of deported ethnic groups sent to Tomsk oblast in the 1930s-1950s, and rehabilitated in the 1990s. From data of the Information Centre of the Tomsk oblast Directorate of Internal Affairs. List of 20,806 rehabilitated inhabitants of Tomsk oblast (repressed under article 58 of criminal code of the RSFSR). From data of the administration of the Tomsk oblast KBG-FSK-FSB. This list, but with less information on each of the repressed, was first set down in the publication Боль людская: Книга памяти томичей, репрессированных в 30–40-е и нач. 50-х гг. Т. 1–5.— Томск, 1991–1999 [Human Pain: Memory book of Tomsk residents repressed in the 1930s-1940s and beginning of the 1850s].

See also: На сайте Института экономики и организации промышленного производства СО РАН: Список репрессированных жителей рабочего поселка Могочино Томской области (по книге Боль людская) Site of the Institute of Economics and Industrial Engineering, Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences: List of repressed inhabitants of Mogochino workers’ settlement in Tomsk oblast (from Bol’ liudskaia).

TVER: Memorial Тверская область
From the database, an earlier version of which was set down in the publication: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий Калининской области. Т. 1: Мартиролог. 1937–1938. (Тверь, 2000) [Memory book of victims of political repression in Kalinin oblast].

TULA: Memorial Тульская область
From the database, an earlier version of which was set down in the publication: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий в Тульской области. 1917–1987 гг. Т. 1.— (Тула, 1999) [Memory book of victims of political repression in Tula oblast].

TYUMEN: Memorial Тюменская область. Ханты-Мансийский округ [Khanti-Mansiikii district]. Ямало-Ненецкий (б. Остяко-Вогульский) округ [Iamalo-Nenetskii (Bolshoi Ostriako-Vogul’skii) district].
From the publication: Книга расстрелянных: Мартиролог погибших от руки НКВД в годы большого террора (Тюменская область): В 2 томах. (Тюмень, 1999) [Book of the executed: Martyrology of those who died at the hands of the NKVD in the years of the Great Terror (Tyumen oblast)] [Tyumen, Ishimskii, Iamalo-Nenetskii, Ostriako-Vogul’skii, Tolbolsk operational sectors of the NKVD].

UDMURT REPUBLIC: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий: Удмуртская республика. Ижевск, 2001. [Memory book of the victims of political repressions: Udmurt Republic].

ULYANOVSK: Ульяновская область
From the publication: Книга памяти жертв политических репрессий. Ульяновская область. Т. 1. (Ульяновск, 1996) [Memory book of victims of political repression].

New: VOLGOGRAD (Stalingrad): Волгоград (Сталинград)
Петля 2: воспоминания, очерки, документы (Noose-2: memoirs, sketches, documents), ed. Iu. Beledin (Volgograd, 2000), pp. 367-398. A list of more than 700 names of those repressed from the Stalingrad oblast. A scanned copy, so not the most usable format, but at least it’s available.

YAROSLAVL: Ярославская область
Не предать забвению [Not to be consigned to oblivion: website of the Yaroslavl Memorial Society and regional Commission for the restitution of right of the victims of political repressions]. List of more than 1800 victims executed during the political repressions.


BELARUS: Индекс уроженцев Беларуси, репрессированных в 1920-1950-е гг. в Западной-Сибири [Index of natives of Belarus repressed 1920s-1950s in western Siberia].

KAZAKHSTAN: Memorial Казахстан. Алма-Ата
From the publication: Книга скорби = Азалы кiтап. Расстрельные списки. Вып. 1: Алма-Ата, Алма-Атинская область (Алматы, 1996) [Book of Sorrow. Execution lists. Issue 1: Alma-Ata & Alma-Ata oblast].

See also: Музейно-мемориальный комплекс жертв политических репрессий и тоталитаризма “АЛЖИР”: Список узниц АЛЖИРа в порядке алфавита по национальностям [ALZHIR Museum-Memorial Complex of the victims of political repressions and totalitarianism: list of ALZHIR prisoners in alphabetical order by nationality], and список женщин-узниц лагеря «алжир» [list of female prisoners at the ALZHIR camp].

UKRAINE: Національний банк даних жертв політичних репресій радянської доби в Україні [National database of victims of political repressions of the Soviet era in Ukraine]
Реабілітовані історією [Rehabilitated History. Database. Alphabetical search. More than 41,000 names].

Memory books by region (not updated since recent geopolitical upheavals):
Автономна Республіка Крим Autonomous Republic of Crimea
Вінницька область Vinnytsia oblast
Дніпропетровська область Dnipropetrovsk oblast
Донецька область Donetsk oblast
Житомирська область Zhytomyr oblast
Закарпатська область Zakarpattia oblast
Київська область Kyiv oblast
Львівська область Lviv oblast
Миколаївська область Mykolaiv oblast
Рівненська область Rivne oblast
Тернопільська область Ternopil oblast
Харківська область Kharkiv oblast
Херсонська область Kherson oblast
Хмельницька область Khmelnytskyi oblast
Чернівецька область Chernivtsi oblast
Чернігівська область Chernihiv oblast

Lviv society “Poshuk”: Список расстрелянных в 1940–1941 гг. [Lists of the executed, 1940-41] Жертвы львовской тюрьмы №3 (г. Золочев) [Victims of Lviv prison no. 3 (Zolochev)] From the publication: Романів О. М., Федущак І. В. Західноукраїнська трагедія, 1941. Наукове товариство ім. Шевченка, Фундація Українського вільного ун-ту в США.— Львiв; Нью Йорк, 2002. [Romaniv O., Fedushchak I., A Western Ukrainian tragedy, 1941. Shevchenko scientific society, Foundation of the Ukrainian Free University in the USA].

ESTONIAСайт Фонда Кистлер-Ритсо ЭЭСТИ (КРЭС). [Site of the Kistler-Ritso EESTI (KRES) Society] In Estonian and Russian. Virtual version of the Museum of Occupation in the period between 1940 and 1991. Lists of the repressed in Estonia. 35,165 names, from the publication: Politilised arreteerimised Eestis, 1940–1988. Koide 1–2. Tallinn, 1996, 1998. [Political arrests in Estonia, 1940–1988], with links to further editions.


GERMANY: На сайте российских эмигрантов в Нюрнберге: “Советские немцы — узники Тагиллага”. [Website of Russian emigrants in Nuremberg: Soviet Germans – prisoners of Tagillag] Electronic database (6500 names) by the laboratory of historical information technology of the Nizhny Tagil state social pedagogical academy. Created from a card index of labour army workers at Tagillag.

POLAND: Центр “Карта” | Ośrodek KARTA: Information on Polish citizens repressed in the USSR, including executed prisoners of war. Search by database. Information on the multi-volume publication “Indeks Represjonowanych”. In Polish.

Списки репрессированных поляков Lists of Poles incarcerated in the camps at Borovich and Stalinogorsk, plus some statistics and analytical articles.

Katyn massacre: Мемориальный комплекс “Катынь” [Katyn Memorial Complex].

список граждан китайской национальности, репрессированных по политическим мотивам в Пермской области в 1930-1950 гг. (по документам Государственного общественно-политического архива Пермской области, переданным из РУ ФСБ РФ по Пермской области) [List of citizens of Chinese nationality repressed for political reasons in Perm oblast in 1930-1950].



Православный Свято-Тихоновский гуманитарный Университет: Канонизированные новомученики и исповедники Русской Православной Церкви. Orthodox Humanities University of St Tikhon: Canonized new martyrs and confessors of the Russian Orthodox Church. More than 28,000 entries. Biographies, photos, information about repressions, links to sources. Search by name, place of service etc. Also statistics of repression by city/region and date.
NB: Both pages need the encoding set to Cyrillic (Windows-1251).

Книги игумена Дамаскина (Орловского) “Мученики, исповедники и подвижники благочестия Русской Православной Церкви ХХ столетия: Жизнеописания и материалы к ним”; (Тверь: Булат): [The book of Igumen Damaskin (Orlovskii) Martyrs, confessors and persons of faith and devotion of the Russian Orthodox Church of the 20th Century: Biographies and Materials] Details of over 900 martyrs and repressed religious figures from all over Russia.

Lipetsk: Алфавитный список репрессированных в годы Советской власти священно- и церковнослужителей [Alphabetical list of religious figures and clerics repressed in the years of Soviet power].

Moscow – Butovo: Список священно- и церковнослужителей, пострадавших за веру и Церковь Христову в Бутово [List of religious figures and clerics who suffered for the faith and the Church of Christ at Butovo firing range].

Primorskii krai: Пострадавшие за Христа в Приморье. Вып. 1 / Владивосток. и Примор. епархия; Сост. Г. В. Прозорова.— Владивосток: Изд-во ДВГТУ, 2000. [Those who suffered for Christ in Primor’e. Issue 1] 53 names of repressed clerics, cloistered and lay people.

St Petersburg and Leningrad oblast: Санкт-Петербургский мартиролог (2002) [The St Petersburg Martyrology] – 3062 people who suffered for their faith, by denomination, with references to sources.


Scientists and academicians: Социальная история отечественной науки [The social history of Russian science] Including repressed honorary, actual and corresponding members of the Academy of Sciences, including scholars elected to the Academy after their repression. Repressed geologists (968 individual biographies). Directors, deputy directors and learned secretaries of institutes executed in Moscow (71 individual biographies). Professors and doctors of science executed in Moscow (104 individual biographies). Academics shot in Moscow (458 individual biographies). Repression of members of the Leningrad Institute of Physics and Engineering (43 individual biographies).

Vostokovedy (Far-Eastern specialists): Люди и судьбы: Биобиблиографический словарь востоковедов — жертв политического террора в советский период (1917–1991) [People and Fates: Bio-bibliographical dictionary of Far-Eastern specialists who fell victim to the political terror in the Soviet period (1917-1991). 750 names.

Artists and art historians: On the Sakharov Center’s site.


Персональный состав и репрессии командного состава РККА и КФ в 1930-е гг. (с указанием званий и должностей в 1935–36 гг.) [Personnel and repression of commanding officers of the Red Army and Red Navy in the 1930s, with indications of ranks and duties in 1935-36].

Next time: Memorials and other memory projects

The Russian Museum in Málaga

Last week I visited the new Spanish outpost of the State Russian Museum, Collección del Museo Ruso in Málaga. I’d read about the plans for it last year, so was delighted that its opening coincided with my stay in Granada, where I’ve been hiding away on research leave and writing my book since early January (yes – lucky me! my thanks to my wonderful colleagues in the Departamento de Filología Griega y Filología Eslava at the Universidad de Granada for hosting me as a visiting researcher).

The Tobacco Factory, Málaga

The Tobacco Factory, Málaga

Málaga was already home to some excellent art museums, notably the Museo Picasso and the Museo Carmen Thyssen, and the Collección del Museo Ruso is a great addition to these. Located a little way from the old town centre in an industrial suburb, it’s worth walking there to see some interesting workers’ housing and a normal, non-touristy part of the Costa del Sol. The former tobacco factory that houses the museum, alongside the Museo Automovilístico, is beautiful, and has been carefully converted to create a stunning – and very large – exhibition space.

Russian Art from Icons to the 20th Century

Russian Art from Icons to the 20th Century

There are currently two exhibitions being shown, Russian Art from Icons to the 20th Century, and The Age of Diaghilev. I was impressed by both. The Russian Art exhibit, as the name suggests, is a sweep through 500 years of painting, and the works are very well chosen to convey the development of Russian art. The icons were perhaps a little disappointing, but realistically they were never going to send their best works by Rublev and Dionysius, and the six or seven that are there serve as solid illustrations of different styles and types of icon painting. As for the rest, pretty much every well known Russian artist from the 18th to the 20th centuries is represented, along with works by lesser known figures. Portraits of the great and good and Petersburg vistas give way to Romanticism, genre paintings, the Peredvizhniki, modern art and, finally, socialist realism. There are some absolute gems, including a beautiful little Levitan landscape, Perov’s ‘Head of a Kirghiz Convict‘, and couple of surprisingly good factory scenes from the 1920s. There’s also some real trash – Aleksandr Deineka’s ‘Tractor Driver‘ with absurdly short legs particularly sticks in the mind – but good on them for not glossing over the socialist realist period completely. Overall it works very well as an introduction for visitors who don’t know a great deal about Russian art (my travelling companion confirmed it was very effective in this regard), but also had plenty to interest more seasoned observers.

The Age of Diaghilev

The Age of Diaghilev

I was initially slightly disappointed to learn that the temporary exhibition was devoted to Diaghilev, not because I’m not interested in him – rather the opposite, my interest means I’ve seen more Diaghilev/Ballets Russes/ Silver Age exhibitions than you can shake a stick at. But in fact it was a pleasant surprise, as it concentrated much more on the artists involved with Mir iskusstva, whilst avoiding the tweeness that could occasionally assail that movement (yes, Somov, I’m looking at you). Some of the paintings were very familiar and much loved, such as Bakst’s ‘Supper‘, and Malyavin’s ‘Peasant Women‘. Others, like Natan Altman’s ‘Self Portrait‘ were a real revelation. Again, the exhibition was very effectively curated to tell the story of the art that led to the Ballets Russes, a selection of costumes and designs for which also appear in the final room.

Occasionally in both exhibitions I felt that, despite the explanatory texts accompanying different sections, there was a slight lack of context about specific works, and would have liked more details than the titles and dates given in the captions. The audio guides (available in Spanish, Russian and English) doubtless provide additional information, but I really can’t bear them (am I the only one?). Fortunately the very thorough catalogues (in the same three languages) are also much more expansive, so (oh no!) I had to buy both.

The Age of Diaghilev exhibition is on until July, and Russian Art from Icons to the 20th Century until at least October, although different parts of the website and the museum’s leaflets give different dates for the latter. This was one of a few minor organizational glitches (the cafe wasn’t yet open, the bookshop gave the impression of being half-ready, with no prices on anything, and the reading room and virtual museum space were visible but locked), which I’m sure will soon be ironed out. Great culture may not be most people’s first association with the Costa del Sol, but the Collección del Museo Ruso makes a significant contribution to Málaga’s increasingly good reputation for art and museums, and is well worth a visit. And while you’re there, go to Atarazanas market for lunch – the seafood is just fabulous.

Modern Languages Open

This week has seen the launch of Modern Languages Open, an open access publishing platform for scholarly research in all modern languages and their cultures – one of the most exciting aspects of the project is that it brings a more global perspective to a field that has traditionally defined itself in relation to Europe and its diasporas. As Gerda Wielander’s commentary argues, modern languages as a discipline has been under threat for some years, and in the face of this we need to articulate more clearly the significant contribution we make to the global understanding of peoples and cultures. MLO enables us to do this by offering an innovative forum in which to bring researchers together in new ways and advance knowledge. The range of articles published for the launch is an indication of the scope MLO will achieve.

I’m proud to be involved with MLO as section editor for Russian and East European languages and very pleased to present three articles showcasing new research in nineteenth-century Russian literature as part of the launch material. My thanks to authors Benjamin Morgan, Muireann Maguire and Elizabeth Harrison for their hard (and speedy!) work on the articles; to Katherine Bowers for organizing the symposium at Darwin College in February 2014, Cambridge, at which earlier versions of the papers were given, for her help with the editing and for writing the introduction to the cluster; and to Clare Whitehead for her careful reviews of the articles.

I would like to encourage readers to register as reviewers – the more people who contribute their expertise to MLO the better it will be – and, of course, to submit articles. All languages and cultures of the Russian and East European area are covered, and we are still looking to add a few new members to the section’s editorial board, particularly to cover the Baltics and parts of Central and Southern Europe, so if you are interested, or know someone who might be suitable, please get in touch.