My multi-year project on Gulag spaces in public memory analyzes the process in which the physical spaces of former GULAG compounds are being re-conceptualized by people who encounter them on a daily basis and who have learned to use these structures to their own advantage. Among diverse forms of the ... (Show more)
My multi-year project on Gulag spaces in public memory analyzes the process in which the physical spaces of former GULAG compounds are being re-conceptualized by people who encounter them on a daily basis and who have learned to use these structures to their own advantage. Among diverse forms of the metamorphosis of the Gulag spaces, some have become attractive as real estate, praised by their new owners for their convenience, size, and even craftsmanship. Other structures have acquired a new meaning and life as modern object of urban development unrelated to residential use (becoming factories, schools, or even department stores). Yet there is also a growing number of Gulag spaces that are becoming desirable for their touristic value. These former labor camps support a booming tourist industry that caters to a rapidly growing number of domestic and foreign adventurers seeking new thrills or intellectual stimulation (or both) in remote locations. In some cases, business owners in the sphere of tourism use these physical sites to channel scholarly fascination with the scope of human tragedy, and they purposefully advertise such sites, maintain them, or even add fabricated detail to them in order to emphasize the social rupture, the sacrifice, the loss, and the full extent of human tragedy. In other cases, the touristic appeal has emerged from the spontaneous expression of the curiosity of the select few who have been fascinated with the remoteness and the natural beauty of the camp settings, and hence such places have become intentionally disavowed or overlooked as sites of memory and mourning. In such advertising campaigns, the spaces of human suffering become akin to Jack London’s Klondike and even Conan Doyle’s Lost World, no longer 'mere' Gulag structures but sites of wild and exotic adventures of the strong-built and the strong-willed. Yet in both instances, such tourist uses deform and reshape the public engagement with the Gulag spaces and distort the public memory of the past.
As such, my presentation addresses the complexity of retaining Gulag memories in light of new public uses of structures associated with the experience, paying a special attention to the distortions created by the tourist industry that uses such sites for profit without any regard for historic preservation. My research project draws upon extensive fieldwork conducted over a half dozen years in the Perm krai, central Siberian regions, Yakutia, Magadan, Kolyma, and the Russian Far East. Enhanced by a broad body of scholarship on the interrelation of space and memory, my paper also presents a rich array of visual and oral history sources to demonstrate how pockets of memory appear when people choose to selectively dissociate the physical space from its prior meaning. (Show less)