Drawing on years of interviews, research, and travel, Gessen (The Future Is History) and photographer Friedman reflect on complex Russian attitudes to the legacy of the gulag in this vital collection of essays and photographs. Established in 1930, the gulag was a vast, brutal network of prison camps kept secret from the general population, in which millions of Soviet citizens were imprisoned or killed. Touching on the various populations of the camps, from the victims of Stalin’s terror to later anti-Soviet dissidents, Gessen’s brief essays focus on contemporary physical markers of the gulag—the symbolic manifestations of how people choose to remember, or not remember, what happened. Many of the people she writes about are those who are invested in maintaining the known sites of camps: for example, Veniamin Iofe and Irina Flige, two members of the human rights organization Memorial, who discovered a mass grave in Sandormokh and worked with government agencies and other activists to eventually erect a series of monuments. Friedman’s moody, panoramic black-and-white photos of the memorial sites convey a narrative that’s fragmented, blurry, and ultimately incomplete, perfectly underscoring Gessen’s text. The combination is a powerful meditation on contemporary Russia as seen through its relationship to the past. (Mar.)
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The Gulag was a monstrous network of labor camps that held and killed millions of prisoners from the 1930s to the 1950s. More than half a century after the end of Stalinist terror, the geography of the Gulag has been barely sketched and the number of its victims remains unknown. Has the Gulag been forgotten?
Writer Masha Gessen and photographer Misha Friedman set out across Russia in search of the memory of the Gulag. They journey from Moscow to Sandarmokh, a forested site of mass executions during Stalin's Great Terror; to the only Gulag camp turned into a museum, outside of the city of Perm in the Urals; and to Kolyma, where prisoners worked in deadly mines in the remote reaches of the Far East. They find that in Vladimir Putin's Russia, where Stalin is remembered as a great leader, Soviet terror has not been forgotten: it was never remembered in the first place.
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Under Putin—whose motto might as well be ‘Make Russia Great Again’—Stalin’s rule is now remembered as a time of glory and order.... It is a grim reminder that once again, as in the 1930s, all over the world authoritarian strongmen are riding high.” —Adam Hochschild, The New York Times Book Review
“A short, haunting and beautifully written book.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Gessen’s delicate prose and deft skill as an interviewer combine with Friedman’s haunting photography to produce a partial record of the ruins of Soviet prison camps in Sandarmokh, Perm and Kolyma, and of the fraught memorialization efforts that followed perestroika and the Soviet Union’s collapse.” — Times Literary Supplement
“The author Masha Gessen and the photographer Misha Friedman have done what they could in Never Remember to combat the erasure of memory regarding the Gulag. They have accomplished this in two distinct but complementary ways—Gessen by interviewing descendants of those imprisoned as well as other private citizens who have in various ways done what they could to document and preserve the record of mass incarceration and state-murder, and Friedman by photographing the ghostly—and certainly haunting—remains of the camps.” —The Daily Beast
“A book that belongs on the shelf alongside The Gulag Archipelago.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Drawing on years of interviews, research, and travel, Gessen and photographer Friedman reflect on complex Russian attitudes to the legacy of the gulag in this vital collection of essays and photographs.... Friedman’s moody, panoramic black-and-white photos of the memorial sites convey a narrative that’s fragmented, blurry, and ultimately incomplete, perfectly underscoring Gessen's text. The combination is a powerful meditation on contemporary Russia as seen through its relationship to the past.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A charged indictment of Soviet terror and historical amnesia alike.If one were needed, a sure sign of the increasingly totalitarian drift of Putin's Russia is the steady rehabilitation of Stalin, long hidden away but now safe enough to be commemorated at a Moscow subway stop. Moscow-born journalist Gessen (The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, 2017, etc.), the indefatigable chronicler of the low-grade fever of tyranny, provides a searching text on the prison state that was Stalin's Russia, accompanied by photographs by Moldovan native Friedman. His work is much reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson's, though with a darkness and graininess that suggest that a permanent pall lies atop the Siberian landscape, a place of endless uranium mines and cemeteries. The text opens with Gessen's meditation on what might have happened to the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, spirited into the gulag at the end of World War II and one of its best-known occupants. As the author notes, were he alive, he would be 104, which makes his death "finally, a fact," if one with "no known circumstance of specific cause." So it is with the whole gulag enterprise: if it were meant to terrorize the populace on the part of the apparatchiks and secret police, "then shouldn't they want to carry out the executions in the public square?" No, and for some reason, most of the extrajudicial activity of the Soviet state took place in darkness. As they travel the land, Gessen and Friedman document some of the efforts of Russians to commemorate the fallen, such as a reconstructed labor camp so chillingly accurate in its detail that, a former political prisoner averred, it "felt exactly like a real Soviet-era prison camp," a comment its restorer and curator accepted as a compliment. But those efforts may be vain, Gessen suggests, in the face of widespread public indifference in the Putin era, as if to say that the Soviet terror "just happened, whatever."A book that belongs on the shelf alongside The Gulag Archipelago.