Brown Essay: Researching the GULAG

Michael Brown, University of Wyoming

In 2012 the University of Wyoming and al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) in Kazakhstan signed a cooperation agreement that has lasted to the present. One outcome was an opportunity to conduct media research in the context of a newly independent country. Kazakhstan was 20 years old at the time.

In 2014 my partners from Kazakhstan and I were conducting research about the use of radio to recover the Kazakh language and interviewing radio personnel in Karaganda. We used some free time to visit a newly opened local museum. This visit provided an unexpected encounter with our first GULAG newspaper.

Discovering Putevka

After a harrowing 40-kilometer taxi ride to the village of Dolinka, we arrived at the Dolinka Museum for the Commemoration of Victims of Political Repression. Activists lobbied the Kazakh government to preserve the original administrative building of Karlag, one of the larger camp systems of the GULAG, and it was turned into the Dolinka museum.

The director was quite welcoming, gave us materials about Karlag, and told us that researchers were welcome, particularly from the U.S. During our tour we were shown copies of Putevka, the camp newspaper. We had no idea that GULAG camps produced newspapers and we felt the need to find out more, and the director’s welcome was encouraging.

Researching GULAG newspapers is difficult and an international quest. Not much research exists and the GULAG camps, Karlag in particular, held many different nationalities so research is conducted in many languages from different countries. We consulted articles published in Russia, Germany, Canada, and Italy as well as the U.S. New online resources made these easier to find and access.

Encountering New Challenges

A couple years after our initial visit we secured funding to return to the museum. I emailed the museum director and received no response. Several tries were in vain and the website for the museum disappeared. After several tries my partners in Kazakhstan received acknowledgement that the museum was still open, but communication was terse.

In spite of difficulty contacting the museum directly, we sought required official permission from the regional cultural ministry to examine the museum’s document collection. Colleagues in Kazakhstan requested and easily received permission from regional authorities. Working with a Kazakh scholar is critical. Only Kazakhs with official clearance are allowed access to most official archives. In many cases archival material has passed from one place to another, which presents another challenge and an additional reason for local cooperation.

When we arrived at the museum, we were greeted by a receptionist who said the director was unavailable and we would meet with the assistant director. The atmosphere was quite different from our first visit. We learned the previous director was gone (not a good thing to hear in a GULAG camp) and a new director was in place. At one point we briefly met the director in the hall. She quickly greeted us then hurried off to a meeting, although my colleagues overheard that we were the only ones in the museum. The assistant director primarily lectured us about the museum, but we had free access to the newspapers and did our initial research.

After we left Karaganda, I was told by my colleagues there are two kinds of administrators for archives. Some are helpful, kind, and welcoming while others are suspicious, aloof, and difficult. This last kind of administrator was called “Soviet minded.” The US Embassy said we might encounter such administrators, and researchers in other former Soviet states share similar experiences. We suspect our Soviet-minded administrator may have been offended or suspicious because we went directly to the cultural ministry for permission.

Questions Remain

Our visit was not particularly comfortable, and we were concerned about return visits for access to other Karlag material that might help us understand the newspaper. Luckily, the Karlag administrative records were moved to the national archives where they were accessible to us. Perhaps permission to access Dolinka documents was given so easily because most material had been moved. As we were wondering about additional trips to the Dolinka Museum to finish the analysis, Karaganda University “Bolashak” (KUB) published the content of the Putevka collection. Because we already accessed original copies of Putevka and had studied the basic layout and content, we finished the analysis using the KUB books.

The opportunity to do collaborative international research is challenging, interesting, and rewarding. We feel good about bringing attention to GULAG newspapers and their content through the analysis of Putevka, but there is much more to know. We can search official documents and read the content of GULAG newspapers to learn something of their production and use.

It is unlikely we will ever have a clear picture of the people who produced them. The newspapers survived but the people who produced them were temporary, expendable, and many did not survive. They left little evidence other than Putevka of who they were and how they conducted their daily journalistic lives in such horrific conditions.

Michael Brown is the co-author, along with Karlyga Myssayeva (al-Farabi Kazakh National University), of “Labor Propaganda and the Gulag Press: The Case of Putevka” in the September 2020 issue of Journalism History.

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