Why map the Gulag

The spatial history of the Soviet repressions


Scholars of the variously named violent-, lethal-, terror-, war-, or death-scapes, face the universal problem that there are no solid traditions or developed methodologies in GIS available that can easily be transferred for use with historical datasets.  In the best case examples, ad hoc teams with the appropriate range of skills are assembled for specific projects, but more usually the task of visually representing data is contracted out, with the result that there is an urgent need for the development of standard methodologies to facilitate progress in mapping violent geographies. The Stanford Holocaust Geographies Project is the most comprehensive and advanced among current initiatives.  The project combines archival and textual data with the spatial analytical tools of geovisualization to reveal the patterns of events as the Nazis imposed a sweeping geography of oppression across East Central Europe (Giordino, 2019; Knowles, 2014). The project has fixed the geolocation of 1,300 concentration camps and by layering the resultant pattern with many different types of qualitative and quantitative information in the same visual space, it has shown change over time.[1]  As Ann Kelly Knowles (2015), one of the project’s initiators, observes,  "The key is to recognize that perpetrators and victims experienced the Holocaust at different scales, but that those scales registered--came together--in particular places at particular times …. Mapping complex data, like the development of the SS concentration camps system, inevitably shows you things you would not know--unless you make a map."  Turning this ‘key’, we believe, is overdue in studies of the Soviet repression. 


However these approaches were rarely applied to study the Soviet repressions and the post-Soviet penal system. We believe, that the maps presented on the web-site are the fist step towards developing the systematic approaches into producing the spatial histories of the (post) Soviet penal system with the help of HGIS.