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Out of the Shadows, the Gulag

Two BU exhibitions explore myths and mystery of Soviet labor camps

Click on the slide show above to see images from the exhibitions and hear Joshua Rubenstein of Amnesty International explain the history of the Gulag.

A country spanning nine time zones and two continents has plenty of room to hide political prisoners. When the Soviet Union began systematically arresting anyone deemed a threat to the regime, a network of forced labor camps grew into the Gulag. Now, two exhibitions at BU trace the history of this system and its impact on Russia and the world.

Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom and its partner exhibition Territories of Terror: Mythologies and Memories of the Gulag in Contemporary Russian-American Art are both on display at BU galleries until January 14. The first, a collaboration between the National Park Service, Amnesty International USA, the Gulag Museum at Perm-36, and the International Memorial Society, includes a re-creation of a solitary confinement, archival footage from Soviet propaganda films, artwork by former prisoners, and items prisoners made to survive, such as cups, spoons, and crude tools. The second features portrayals by seven artists of the dual images of the Gulag, which Soviet propaganda portrayed as a cheerful socialist construction site.

“It is not only about confrontation with the past, but also about unconfronted memories that have their own subterranean architecture,” says exhibition curator Svetlana Boym, a professor of Slavic languages and literature and comparative literature at Harvard University.

Those who passed through the Gulag were there for a variety of real and imaginary crimes and included criminals, prisoners from the Russian civil war, peasants who had a few more chickens and cows than their neighbors, Soviet soldiers who had been captured during World War II and were considered enemy spies, foreign POWs, and citizens from countries newly incorporated into the USSR. At the height of the Gulag’s brutality, during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s, more than five million people were imprisoned or internally exiled.

People disappeared from their homes during the night for reasons as seemingly trivial as not participating enthusiastically enough in Soviet life or as serious as resisting the brutal collectivization in the countryside, which forced peasants to give up their livestock, land, and livelihood to work on collective farms in return for food rations and low wages.

Owing to the secretive nature of the Soviet Union, few knew the Gulag existed until 1962, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which details a grueling day in the Gulag. The labor camps were located mainly in the far northern reaches of Siberia, where the elements were sometimes better than fences at preventing escape, and in the southern steppes. Most camps were built in the wilderness and inmates constructed the railroads that brought them to their prison, as well all the fences and camp buildings needed.

“People understand that every country has tragedies of its own,” says Joshua Rubenstein, an official with Amnesty International USA. “But this is one on such a scale that I think it’s a story that needs to be told.”

Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom is at the 808 Gallery, 808 Commonwealth Ave. Territories of Terror: Mythologies and Memories of the Gulag in Contemporary Russian-American Art is at the Boston University Stone Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave. Both are free and open to the public. The galleries will be closed for intersession, from December 26 to 29. For more information, visit www.bu.edu/art.

Click here to hear WBUR’s audio review of the exhibitions.

Catherine Santore can be reached at csantore@bu.edu.