No one would say it’s an easy task to memorialize and document atrocity. Take the example of the Holocaust museum. The curator must find new ways of evoking the stench of death, the ruthless efficiency of the killing machine and the unfathomably high number of murdered families (at Auschwitz, those mountains of shoes and eyeglasses begin to do the trick). But in other ways — and largely because of the Germans themselves — there is a rather straightforward narrative to follow. The historical period is limited, usually starting from Hitler’s rise in 1933 and ending when the war does, in 1945, and there is quite an obvious progression of atrocities, from persecution to extermination, from Einsatzgruppen to gas chamber, Warsaw Ghetto to Majdanek. Even the accounts of survivors, now often included in most Holocaust museums, are always dramatic and immediate, filled with overwhelming violence from the moment their lives are touched by the Nazis.
Now consider the challenge of remembering the Gulag. The Soviet network of hundreds of prison and labor camps that spread from Kazakhstan to Siberia existed for more than 60 years and, in that time, encompassed at least 18 million prisoners. Many died brutal deaths, but, generally speaking, the horror of the Gulag was not in the extermination that awaited its prisoners at any moment, but rather in the existence that it imposed on them. This reality is much harder to convey.
How to tell the story of a woman, Maria Tchebotareva, condemned to 10 years in a Siberian labor camp after stealing three pounds of rye bread to feed her children during the 1932-33 famine, a sentence that is then followed with forced exile to the Arctic Circle until 1956? How to describe the terror contained in the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal, in which, in 20 months between 1931 and 1933, more than 100,000 prisoners dug a 141-mile canal with little more than simple pickaxes, shovels and small, wooden wheelbarrows? The suffering of the Gulag was in the hours upon hours of slave labor. It was in the weeks spent in the solitary confinement cell. It was in the slow starvation that came from surviving off a few hundred grams of black bread a day. It was in the isolation of decades, in the violence with which one learns to live, to which one has to accommodate, the violence that shapes one into a monster of a human being.
“Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom,” a traveling exhibit now on display until July 4 at Ellis Island’s Immigration Museum, sets for itself the enormous task of describing the history and the world of the Gulag (the word is a Russian acronym for Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps). The exhibit is housed in a long dormitory hall on the third floor of what was the main processing center for immigrants at the beginning of the past century. With its white-tile floors and institutional design, it appropriately feels like an old hospital or prison ward.
Stalin made the Gulag what it was, using the labor camps as a way to speed up the industrialization of the Soviet Union by imprisoning as many people as he needed to complete his massive projects, like the building of that White Sea-Baltic Sea canal (which, incidentally, was never really operable) and the many roads and railways of the empire. At the time of his death, in 1953, the Gulag had reached its peak with 3 million inmates. The exhibit spends time lingering over this period and then moves on to the 1970s and ’80s, when a much smaller number of political dissidents continued to be sent away, mostly to the camps at Perm in the Ural Mountains near the Siberian border.
It’s a lot of history and a lot of famous prisoners to cover, and ultimately the exhibit does fall short of fully engaging the visitor. A lot of the space is devoted just to explaining basic Soviet history. This leaves little room, in a relatively small exhibit, to really take a long, hard look at the evolution of the camps themselves.
At its most affecting moments, though, the exhibit borrows a method from Anne Applebaum’s recent, definitive account, “Gulag: A History” (Anchor, 2004), in which she broke away from the traditional historical narrative in order to delve into the minutiae of the Gulag’s alternate universe. What did prisoners eat? What tools did they use for their work? What did they do in their free time? What was it like to be a woman in the camps? To be a child? Because the experience of being in the Gulag was of having to integrate into a whole new life, with its own rules and culture, the only way to do justice to a description of the camps is to lay out the details of said rules and culture.
And much like at any Holocaust museum, it is absolutely necessary to make sure that the machinery’s accounts don’t drown out the human voices of its victims. Here, in the exhibit’s most endearing moment, are two toothbrushes, one green and one yellow. They belong to Ivan Kovalev and his wife, Tatiana Osipova, both political prisoners at Perm-36 in the 1970s. Barely perceptible, but etched onto the plastic surface of one toothbrush, is a message from Kovalev, smuggled into the women’s camp: “Tusha. I am crazy about you. Hold on there baby. I am here for you.” He had to wait a year for her response, which came on another toothbrush: “To my one and only husband. Be strong, my darling. I love you and miss you. Tusha.”
Americans will still have to wait for a truly great exhibit on the Gulag. But just to stand before these toothbrushes — to imagine what it must have taken to find a needle to etch the message, an extra toothbrush, a bribe to the guard to pass it on, and then the interminable wait for a reply — this begins at least to give us a sense of the lives that the Soviet Union swallowed.
Gal Beckerman, a regular contributor to the Forward, is writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “ When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, ” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman