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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Author Interview Tyler C Kirk – After the Gulag: A History of Memory in Russia’s Far North

Tyler C. Kirk is Associate Professor and the Arthur T. Fathauer Chair of History at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  His research explores the histories of the Soviet Union, Russia, and the circumpolar North. He spoke with Peripheral Histories? about his newly published book After the Gulag: A History of Memory in Russia’s Far North.

From 1929 to 1958 hundreds of thousands of prisoners and exiles from across the Soviet Union were sent to the harsh yet resource-rich Komi Republic. When the Soviet Union collapsed, former prisoners sent their autobiographies to Komi's local branches of the anti-Stalinist Memorial Society and history museums.

Utilizing these previously unavailable personal records, alongside newspapers, photographs, interviews, and other non-state archival sources, After the Gulag sheds new light not only on how former prisoners experienced life after release but also how they laid the foundations for the future commemoration of Komi's dark past. Bound by a “camp brotherhood” they used informal social networks to provide mutual support amid state and societal oppression. Decades later they sought rehabilitation with the help of the newly formed Memorial Society - the civic organization largely responsible for the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union. In sharing their life stories and family archives with Memorial, they sustained an alternate history of the Soviet Union.

Offering an unprecedented look at the legacies of mass repression under Stalin, After the Gulag explores how ordinary political prisoners from across the Soviet Union navigated life after release, using memoirs, letters, and art to translate their experiences and shape the politics of memory in post-Soviet Russia.

Peripheral Histories? [PH]: How did you decide to start researching the Gulag and specifically the Gulag in the Komi Republic?

Tyler Kirk [TK]: My general interest in this topic was piqued during my first trip to Russia in 2009 as an exchange student from the University of Maine at Farmington studying Russian at the Komi State Pedagogical Institute in Syktyvkar.  I met the director of the Syktyvkar Memorial Society and Fond Pokaianie, Mikhail Rogachev, who introduced me to the local history of Stalinist repression in the region.  After a tour led by Rogachev of the site where one of the camps not far from Syktyvkar had been and the monuments that locals erected on their own initiative, I became fascinated by the ways in which the past reverberated in the present.  After completing an MA at the University of Chicago on historical narratives and the search for a “usable past” in post-Soviet Russia, I decided that I wanted to return to the Arctic in a PhD program.  During my doctoral studies at Arizona State University, where I worked with Mark von Hagen and Laurie Manchester, I started to think about Gulag returnees and life after release in the Russian Far North.  As one of the largest regions colonized by forced labor, Komi presented a unique opportunity to explore the history of a diverse population of Gulag survivors who had been imprisoned and labored in a variety of institutions and remained in the region after release.  However, the focus of my research shifted when I returned to the archives in Syktyvkar following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.  I found that many of the documents that I had access to the year prior were now closed to me due to a new interpretation of the law on privacy and personal data.  This turn of events turned out to be fortuitous.  My interest was always understanding history from the periphery through the eyes of those who lived to tell about it.  This hurdle forced me to think outside the box in terms of sources, which led me to explore the archives of local history museums, the National Library of the Komi Republic, personal collections, and the vast archive at Fond Pokaianie.  When I began working in these small remote archives, I realized that this is what the people I had hoped to learn from had actually intended.  When finally given the chance to tell their stories following Gorbachev’s relaxation of censorship in the late 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Gulag survivors, exiles, and their children chose not to donate their autobiographies and personal archives to the state rather they sent them to local branches of the newly formed human rights and historical society “Memorial.” 

PH: What can your study tell us about the relationship between the center and the periphery in both the USSR and contemporary Russia?

TK: This is a central question of the book.  I argue that when seen from the provinces rather than the center the past looks different. The previously untapped personal archives Gulag returnees donated to local history museums and branches of Memorial that form the basis of my book call historians to re-examine at a local level how the so-called “victims of political repression” continued to shape the production of cultural memory in the provinces long after the national obsession with the past began to fade into the background following the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Eventually, the archive that survivors and their children built would be seen as a threat to the Putin regime since it challenged the state’s interpretation of the past by laying bare the crimes of the Soviet regime and juxtaposing them with the cult of victory of World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet-era moniker used in post-Soviet Russia as a symbol of Russian nationalism and military might.

Following the Russian Supreme Court’s ban on Memorial in December 2021 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Putin regime has become much more repressive and intolerant of any dissent.  The state now actively prevents the commemoration of the victims of political repression outside of prescribed avenues.  Yet despite forcing the Memorial Society to operate unofficially and pushing events like their annual “Return of the Names” ceremony online, which was traditionally held in Moscow every October 29 at the Solovetsky Stone on Lubyanka square outside of FSB headquarters in Moscow, we’ve seen communities throughout Komi continuing to remember Stalin’s victims.  The people commemorating the victims of political repression see this history as central to the story of the Komi Republic.  It was also particularly striking to see monuments throughout Russia erected in the late 1980s through the 1990s commemorating Stalin’s victims repurposed as makeshift monuments to victims of Putin’s political repressions in the wake of Aleskei Navalny’s murder in an arctic penal colony.

One of the benefits of a regional study of the Gulag and its legacies is that it breaks the idea of a monolithic national historical memory.  It shows the impact of local actors and regional histories on national historical narratives produced by researchers working in central state and party archives in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

For instance, through its study of the Komi Republic, After the Gulag shows how memory crystallized in texts, ceremonies, monuments, and civil associations in the Russian Far North. Examining this memory project in a unique regional context breaks the idea of a centralized national culture of memory and enables us to see the influence of Russia’s regions on Moscow. As those who bore the brunt of Stalinist violence and survived, Gulag returnees’ life stories collected by Memorial serve as the basis of a powerful, alternate version of Soviet history. It is an alternate history because its evidence is to be found primarily in non-state archives. This is also what made the historical narrative that emerged from these new archives so powerful - it was based on the details of the individual lives of thousands of ordinary Soviet citizens.

PH: Your project examines community building and the practices and politics of memory on both regional and national scales and across diverse political memory regimes. Is there something that was particularly shocking or eye opening that you discovered in the process of researching and writing about the memory of the Gulag?

TK: I was surprised to discover that the foundations for the memory project of coming to terms with the Stalinist past were forged in the camps.  Gulag prisoners forged friendships and bonds with their “comrades-in-unhappiness” that enabled them to survive the camps.  They carried these relationships with them upon release and these groups laid the foundations for the networks that fueled the Memorial Society’s memory project of coming to terms with Stalinist repression. I was also struck by the lengths some prisoners went to document their experiences during their incarceration through letters, poetry, and art.  They submitted these documents alongside incredibly rich memoirs, autobiographies, and oral histories to Memorial Societies in the region where they had been imprisoned to aid in the search for the missing dead but also as evidence of an unwritten, alternate history of the Soviet Union.

There were also curious documents in the National Archive of the Komi Republic. For instance, I discovered a KGB report documenting the first monument to the victims of political repression in the Soviet Union.  It turns out that this was not the Solovetsky Stone that replaced Felix Derzhinsky’s statue on Lubyanka Square in Moscow in 1991.  The first monument to the victims of political repression was constructed by prisoners and erected outside the camp gates at the entrance to a prisoner cemetery in the village of Inta in 1956.  In the wake of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” in 1956, there was a lot of confusion about what could and could not be said about Stalin and Stalinist repression.  In its first attempt at de-Stalinizing Soviet Society, the Communist Party tried and failed to address Stalin’s crimes and revise history.  As Polly Jones and others have written in their work on historical memory during the period known as “the Thaw,” Khrushchev’s speech spurred a short-lived moment of historical writing and revision that was met with celebration, confusion, and resistance.  This chaos led to the erection of the Soviet Union’s first monument to Stalin’s victims in Inta.  A combination of Latvian prisoners and exiles erected the monument as a grave marker for their comrades who would never live to see their native land again.  The monument was unveiled with a band, flowers, and blessed by a priest who led onlookers in a rendition of the Latvian anthem “God Save Latvia.”  Other monuments were planned until the KGB stepped in and shut them down.  Rather than destroying this monument, they left it to rot as the camp was closed and the cemetery abandoned.  In 1989, during the peak of this renewed period of truth and reconciliation aimed at de-Stalinizing and democratizing Soviet society, a group of former prisoners, local members of Memorial and the community who had not been repressed, and the Latvian survivors of the camps who first erected the monument in 1956 returned to Inta to rededicate the monument to all victims of Stalinist repression.

What was it like to do archival research in Komi? Was it particularly difficult?

TK: I learned about the memory organizations and the living survivors and their children through my mentor in Syktyvkar, Mikhail Rogachev, who was one of the founders of the Syktyvkar Memorial Society and Fond Pokaianie.  Rogachev was a history teacher who was sent to Komi to teach in 1975 after graduating from Leningrad State University.  Eventually, he earned a PhD from the Komi branch of the Academy of Sciences.  Neither Rogachev nor any member of his family were repressed.  So why did Rogachev join Syktyvkar Memorial in 1989? He was an ardent supporter of human rights and he joined Syktyvkar Memorial out of his personal conviction to help others.  He was emblematic of the “youths” that exile and original founder of Syktyvkar Memorial, Revol’t Pimenov, described as joining forces with Gulag survivors to the forge the Memorial Society.  Rogachev was very generous in mentoring me while I lived in Syktyvkar. He introduced me to people and institutions that made my research possible.  I owe a lot to many kind and generous people throughout Komi.

Despite restrictions in the state archive, conducting research in archives, libraries, and local history museums in Komi was an excellent experience overall.  There were hurdles associated with working in smaller, remote repositories but the staff were incredibly helpful and invested in me and my topic.  It was important to me to conduct research in the places where my subjects suffered and lived, the places they built with their forced labor and remembered with pride and trauma at the end of their lives.  I think it is essential for historians to have a physical sense of the places they write about.  Sadly this is impossible now due Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

PH: What were the most challenging parts of conducting this research?

TK: One of the most challenging parts of conducting this research was reading so many painful stories.  I never relished asking the people I interviewed to relive some of the most traumatic chapters of their lives.  However, their strength and desire to tell their stories empowered me to devote myself to this work.  The other challenging part of this research has been the inability to share the completed work with my friends and colleagues in Russia for fear of the repercussions they may face.

PH: You used a lot of diverse sources for this book, art, memoirs, traditional historical archives. Is there a particular type of source that became your favorite during this project?

TK: I loved the challenge of working with handwritten letters and art.  I am not an art historian.  But I was really compelled by the choice of some survivors to use art to document their lives and the places where they transpired through this medium.  For one survivor whom I dedicated an entire chapter of the book to, art was the only way he could bring himself to describe his life in the camps -- the most painful chapter of his life.  His letters to the Vorkuta Museum and Exhibition Center, by contrast, were filled with details about his life after release in camp coal mining town high above the arctic circle.  When you work with these intimate sources, you can’t help but forge a connection to the author that enables you to gain insight into the things they document on paper and those that are ultimately left unsaid, which can be just as meaningful.

PH: Was it easy to secure all of the image and text permissions for this book?

TK:  Yes and no.  I was fortunate enough to have most of the permissions in hand before things really deteriorated in Russia.  Although I found that everyone was eager to have their materials in the book it was difficult to get permissions after the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

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