Stone, Cross and Mask: Searching for Language of Commemoration of the Gulag in the Russian Federation1

By Bogumil, Zuzanna | Polish Sociological Review, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Stone, Cross and Mask: Searching for Language of Commemoration of the Gulag in the Russian Federation1


Bogumil, Zuzanna, Polish Sociological Review


Abstract: This article examines the commemoration practices of the Gulag in the Russian Federation. On the basis of qualitative data collected during a field research carried out in a few former lager districts (the Solovetsky Islands, Komi Republic, Perm region and Kolyma), I reconstruct a way the history of Soviet repressions was uncovered from oblivion and the process of Gulag commemoration began. Starting from the assumption that the Gulag memory was not started to working through in Russia till the end of 1980s, and that the last stage of Perestroika had a crucial influence on a way the repression past is nowadays commemorated in the country, I examine several memory projects erected in that time and show how the process of reworking the Gulag experience and presenting it in a narrative form occurred. On a base of the first exhibition dedicated to the Gulag past, SLON-Solovetsky Lager Osobogo Naznachenya, (the Solovetsky Special Purpose Camp) I reconstruct a process of rewriting history and describe how the repressive past was perceived at the end of the 1980s. In turn, analyses of meaning and social function of the monuments commemorating Gulag show that at the beginning there was a diversity of the past interpretations and that the processes of the transformation of the soft into the hard memory proceed quite quickly. However, since the mid-1990 a comeback to the traditional, well recognizable model of culture is visible. Thus, the memory of Gulag supported by the Russian Orthodox Church slowly dominates the social perception of the repressive past.

Keywords: memory, Gulag, monument, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Solovetsky Islands, spontaneous shrine, Memorial Society.

In the age of memory (Nora 2007) the simplicity and minimalism of the remembrance practices of Soviet repressions as well as practically lack of secular and coherent commemoration language of the Gulag past seems significant (Etkind 2009a: 182). Therefore, memory researchers develop such concepts as cultural amnesia, collective nostalgia or melancholy (Mendelson, Berber 2005; Etkind 2009b; Boym 1995; Oushakine 2007) to explain the unhealthy mourning and obscurity of the process of working through the Soviet terror past in Russia. However, as one of the memory researchers, Aleksander Etkind, points out diagnoses on cold character of Russian memory are exaggerated (Etkind 2009a). Sociological polls show that Russians remember the Soviet terror fairly well and are able to say what happened to their society and own family even fifty or seventy years ago. As Etkind stresses these "surveys reveal the complex attitudes of people who retain a vivid memory of the Soviet terror but are divided in their interpretation of this memory" (Etkind 2009a: 193). Unfortunately, he does not explain how people are divided and what the key points of their disagreements are but in his researches he focuses on analyze of memoirs, novels, films or fictions trying to develop a complex theory of cultural memory in Russia (Etkind 2009a).

In this article I analyze what Etkind is calling a hardware aspect of Gulag memory, which means: monuments, museum exhibitions and other material signs of memory in order to show that their shape is only seemingly simple and mute. As Jan Assmann claims monuments represent some significances important for identity of people who erected them (Assmann 2008: 37). They are signum temporis, bear social, political, national or universal values of the time when they were erected (Grzesiuk-Olszewska 1995: 11-12). Thus, I treat monuments as a kind of narrative matrix, which on the one hand expresses collective memory through its form and co-develops it on the other (Young 1993: 1-15). Signs and monuments form a kind of unconventional stories (Domanska 2006), they are interpretations of the past which use non-verbal description languages. They draw on the language of art or nature and search for the right image which would present the inexpressible. …

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