HGIS and Gulag Maps

The production of a complete map series covering the history of penal institutions from 1930 to the present day is a task of decades.  It is gratifying that from our beginnings in 2006, that there is now a plethora of other projects that are using cartography and GIS to help tell the story of the Soviet repression and its aftermath in the Russian Federation, and in the successor states of Soviet communism today. By far the majority of other mapping project concentrate on the Stalin period, that reflects the interest among descendants of the repressions’ victims in the gulag and among academics at the present time in memory studies. 


There are existing maps that employ GIS to represent the landscape of the Soviet mass repressions at different spatial scales. In 1998, an historical and human rights NGO, Memorial that for a quarter century has collected testimonies, artefacts and archival data on the repressions, published a directory of the main Soviet correctional labour camps (ITLs) between 1923 and 1960 (Roginsky et al, 1998). Together with historians and geographers from Moscow State University, Memorial used this directory to produce a small-scale map of the distribution of all the chief labour camp administrations for the period 1923 -1960.  This early project served both to disseminate knowledge about the number, size and location of camps and to provide interested parties with an easily accessible means of finding out more about the camps in which individuals known to them were detained.  The click of the mouse over a selected camp, gives access to a data panel summarizing the, largely quantitative, features of a camp. The Memorial directory has proven to be an invaluable resource for small-scale mapping and has been used in all subsequent projects, including an online map produced by the new official State Historical Museum of the Gulag (https://gulagmap.ru/). The same database was used by the present authors in their website (www.gulagmaps.org) and by Seth Bernstein for a blog (http://www.abstractualized.com/2015/10/mapping-gulag-over-time.html).

These uses of HGIS to represent the geography of the network of labour camps has pedagogic value, but for the victims and their descendants, mapping also has affective resonance.  Memorial Society’s first interactive map coincided with a newly conferred right of descendants of the repressed to see their relatives’ secret files and maps like Memorial’s and the Gulag Museum’s helped satisfy a natural curiosity to find out more about the places where their relative was held or died. Numerous local level initiatives by civil society organisations and regional, kraevedcheski, museums to “emplace” sites of the repression followed (Gavrilova, 2019). The various maps produced provide a resource for contextualising hidden family histories. It is this understanding of the importance of the placing and spacing of terror events to the act of remembering the past that underpins Moscow Memorial’s  recent project   ‘Eto priamo zdes’, or  ‘It happened here’.   The project produces layered maps of the capital city’s “topography of terror” that pinpoint the precise places in Moscow where the instruments and practices of the repressions were planned and enacted by the their perpetrators, and where their victims suffered the consequences.  An analogous mapping project is being pursued by the St Petersburg branch of Memorial that aims to locate the gulag’s necropolises. These activities of emplacement are politically and geo-politically sensitive in today’s Russia. Memorial has been subjected to repeated attempts to close it down, while the necropolis project has been caught up in the storm of accusations and counter-accusation between Finland and Russia about the perpetrators of the mass grave uncovered at Sandarmokh in Russian Karelia.