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Blogging from BASEES (2)

Yesterday’s highlight was indeed the panel on visualizations of imprisonment, in which Judith Pallot and Sonia Gavrilova presented the Mapping the Gulag project, and Josephine von Zitzewitz talked about the new version of Memorial’s Virtual Gulag Museum. I’ve already written about the museum, and the new version (due to go live in the middle of April) is looking good. It has a new searchable database, a great deal more information on a lot of the exhibits, and some interesting, and very moving, new sections such as the Gulag necropolis, which has pictures and maps of sites of executions and mass graves. An English version is in preparation, and I’ll write more about the new site when I’ve had a chance to look at it properly.

The maps website is an offshoot of a larger project on women’s imprisonment in Russia, and is still under development.  There are maps of the Gulag 1930-1960, and of present day penal institutions. Obviously, it’s the former I’m most interested in. The maps show administrative centres for camps at two-year intervals, showing how the system grew and changed. The idea of the Gulag as mobile in time and space is important and the site does a pretty good job of presenting that. It doesn’t show individual camps — each administrative centre could have dozens — as these were often extremely transient. The camp population maps work on average numbers of prisoners in different regions over a spread of years, which is a partial solution to the intractable problem of lack of data, but I’m not sure the result is particularly useful. Apart from a star indicating Moscow, no cities or other geographical features are currently marked, which makes orientation rather difficult even if you’re quite familiar with Russia’s geography. I’ll be interested to see how the site develops. One of the ideas mooted is to link camps on the maps to memoirs from the Memorial archive. That would be amazing, but is obviously a huge project, and there’s no funding for it (yet).

One of the discussants on the panel, Arseny Roginsky, from Memorial, spoke very movingly about the need for projects like this and the difficulty of recording this information and indeed even of locating the actual camps. He ended by saying that people believe maps, people trust maps. Maybe this is why, in the often too nebulous world of literary criticism, I’m becoming more interested in them.

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