Although my own work focuses on textual and genre analysis and of Russian narratives of imprisonment and exile, that field obviously doesn’t exist in a vacuum. From the point of view of understanding both the workings of the system and some of the experiences of those caught up in it, in addition to all the memoirs and stories that have been published, on-line Gulag Museums offer some interesting perspectives.
Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives is a collaboration between George Mason University, Memorial Society Moscow, and the Gulag Museum in Perm. The main exhibit takes you through different aspects and stages of the Gulag as experienced by prisoners, featuring some famous memoirists and some less well known former prisoners. Here and in the archive, there are written texts, videos (unfortunately, last time I visited the site, none of the videos were visible), and audio interviews, as well as photos and pictures drawn and painted by some of the survivors. There is also an exhibit relating more specifically to the museum at Perm, with documents, photos and narrative concerning various aspects of the Gulag. Overall, the site offers a good introduction to the subject. The package of resources for teachers, created by the David Center at Harvard University and aimed at high school pupils, indicates that this is largely an educational rather than a specialist site, although features such as the podcasts on aspects of the Gulag by scholars will be welcome, when more materialize — there does not seem to have been much activity on that front in the last year.
The Virtual Gulag Museum is a project run by the Saint Petersburg Research and Information Centre Memorial, most recently famous for the police raid in which their enormous and hugely important archive was seized (fortunately the story ended happily with the return of the archive and the raid being declared illegal). The Virtual Gulag Museum is a registry of 29 Gulag museums in Russia and the former Soviet republics, and consists largely of images of items in the museums’ collections. The images vary considerably, with recent photos of former camps and equipment retrieved from them alongside archive images, items — both practical and decorative — made by prisoners during their sentences, which I found particularly moving, pictures of and by prisoners, and documents relating to the Gulag and dissidence. While it’s a fascinating collection, the documents do present a problem, because they are frequently unreadable. One wonders what response we can have to items we can see we should read, but are unable to. It’s as though we are only allowed only see it from a distance. As access that would otherwise be unavailable to many people is one of the great advantages of such on-line resources, this seems like an opportunity missed.