Tyler C. Kirk – Gulag Returnees and Memory in Post-Soviet Russia


Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Tyler C. Kirk (Arizona State University) – Gulag Returnees and Memory in Post-Soviet Russia

This paper explores the formation of a collective memory of the Gulag, which informs the regional identity of the Komi Republic. It illustrates the impact of Soviet carceral institutions on local populations, the region, and the ways in which former prisoners and their narratives contribute to a public historical consciousness. Examining memoirs, newspapers, films, monuments, and historiography this essay explores the formation of Gulag returnees’ identities and the ways in which they engaged official narratives of their experiences to either give meaning to them or to inform their own. This work problematizes static portrayals of Gulag returnees and illustrates the formation of post-Soviet memory within a region that was home to a large concentration of forced labour camps, colonies, and special settlements for deported nationalities. By thinking of primary sources related to the history of the Gulag archipelago and the larger, global carceral archipelago in terms of collective memory and the imaginary dialogic, I hope to cap a larger project that examines the formation of Soviet space and identity after the death of Stalin and the amnesty of Gulag prisoners. This project focuses on the geographic and cultural space of the Komi Republic, formerly the Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) (During the Soviet period and in many of the sources that I examine the Komi Republic was known as the Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Komi ASSR), which was formed from a province (Oblast’) in 1936 under the new “Stalin” constitution. O. Iu. Shmidt, ed., Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia, s.v. “Komi Avtonomnaia Sovetskaia Sotsialisticheskaia Respublika,” Vols. 33 (Moskva: Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, l938), 594). The Komi Republic is located in the far north, west of the Ural Mountains; it was one of the most densely populated epicenters of the Gulag archipelago. Such a regional focus offers an illustration of the intricacies of the Gulag’s effect on local people and places, while still connecting and contributing to general history and collective memory of the Gulag. Furthermore, Komi offers a unique and diverse group of subjects, who, when Glasnost was implemented, actively participated in sharing their own stories in memoirs and letters written to local newspapers and to Memorial. Studying the commemoration of the Gulag and victims of political repression in Komi offers a means to investigate and to understand the lasting impact and legacy of Soviet carceral networks, which were entwined with Soviet society and informed by European practices of internment and concentration that were developed in the colonies and transported back to the metropole in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


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