This website can claim to be the first application of GIS to the mapping of the data that became available as archival funds relating to the gulag began to be declassified in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The history of the project
In beginning of 2000s historians in the NGO ‘Memorial’, Moscow, Russia had produced a digest of the main camp administrations. This has become the main data source for reconstructing the geography of the gulag at the national level. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to work directly with the late Arsenii Roginsky of the NGO Memorial, who immediately grasped what we were trying to do. We decided to combine forces, Arsenii mining the archives for more data for GIS specialist, Sofia Gavrilova, to map. Arsenii helped us ‘descend the spatial scale’, to map camps and other “sites of repression” at the regional and sub-regional level. These original maps are still on the website, but we have added many more. Each map series is designed to answer a specific research question in which we are interested.
The idea that informed the project to map the gulag grew out of an ESRC project “Women in the Russian Penal System: The role of distance in the theory and practice of imprisonment in late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia” (Grant number: ES/ D00053X/1) in 2006-2010. The project explored the impact the geographical character of the prison estate in Russia on women’s experience of incarceration and their ability to maintain, what the Russian prison service refers to as ”socially useful contacts”. The prison estate, its physical infrastructure and spatial architecture that we mapped was inherited from Soviet times and was characterised by an uneven geography. While remand prisons (SIZOs) were primarily located in metropolitan centres, most correctional facilities (formerly correctional labour colonies and camps)were located in remote rural regions in the peripheries of the state. The practice of expelling convicted offenders to the peripheries of the state that this geography forced on prison placements is in direct contradiction to the evidence of the importance of maintaining of family relationships in offenders’ adaptation to prison, their successful re-entry to society and desistance from crime. The disconnect between the location of Russia’s prisons and the country’s newly proclaimed commitment to the humanisation of punishment, threw the focus on the Russia’s penal geography, its past development and future direction of change. Thus, was born the “gulagmaps.org” project.
Our goals, aims and approaches
IIn order to examine the continuities and change in Russia’s penal geography, we had to set about re-constructing that geography cartographically. We begin with the gulag because it was in the 1930s that the basic framework of the penal estate that exists in Russia today began to be laid down. One of the more surprising practices of the current facilities in the prison system or FSIN (federal’naya slyuzhba ispolneniya nakazanii) is that many celebrate the date of their foundation in the gulag, even if this was in the terrible year of 1937-8. Our aim is to show in as much detail as possible, the main spatial changes in the penal estate over time, and to do this at a series of spatial scales from the national to the local. In referring to the penal estate, we are not confining our attention only to the prison or penitentiary, but, rather, we aim to embrace the whole gamut of carceral institutions that repressed the Soviet population during the Stalin era. For example, we have produced a series of maps on the special settlements, spetzposelenii, using data collected for us by Dr Andrei Suslov of Perm’ Memorial. And we are working at present on using GIS to refine the maps of the deportations that P.M. Polyan produced for his landmark text on the deportations and to add thematic maps (Ne po svoiei volii) to those that we have already produced for the period 1930-1960.
The period from 1960 to the end of the Soviet Union presents a challenge because of the absence of reliable data sources. There was a major re-organisation of camps in the aftermath of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU. This resulted in the closure of many camps and relocation and concentration of prisoners who were not released in the camps that remained, but information about their precise location and the size of the prisoner population remains classified in Russian archives today. There is no equivalent of the Memorial digest for later period. As for the post-Soviet FSIN produces very little information and it has remained particularly sensitive about the geographical distribution of the population of the half a million people in detention today. But a combination of social media, NGO reporting and the webpages of individual regional prison administrations (the GUFSONs and UFSINs) provide data that can be combined to produce thematic maps of the prison estate in the 21st century.
The maps on this website constitute just the first few building blocks for building a cartographic representation of the development of the Soviet and Russian prison system from the inception of the gulag to the present day. Our work on the project has, of necessity, been intermittent. But already the visualisations we have produced has challenged some of the popular beliefs about Russia’s penal geography, suggesting new lines of enquiry for historians and penologists. Since beginning our work, others have taken to using GIS to visualise aspects of Russia’s penal history.