Gulag: Life and Death Inside Soviet Concentration Camps

by Tomasz Kizny

Published by Firefly Books

496 pages, 2004

Buy it online




Crimes Against Humanity

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


It's difficult to imagine the coffee table that Gulag: Life and Death Inside Soviet Concentration Camps would sit on. First of all, the book is huge. At close to ten pounds, it's the heaviest book I've ever lifted that didn't have the letters "O," "E," or "D" in the title. So, right away, you know you need a big, strong coffee table. Second, in a society where coffee table books tend to be pretty or funny or colorful -- and sometimes all three at once -- Gulag is none of the above. The cover is the bright red you'd expect, given the subject matter. But the images between the covers are stark and sharp and while the text doesn't uplift, it certainly illuminates. And it's clear, from the first passing glance, that Gulag is much more than a book: it's a lifework.

"My project on the Gulag took seventeen years to complete," writes author Kizny in his acknowledgments, "with interruptions. It began in 1986, when, in Poland, I met former inmates from the Gulag and discovered that they had kept photographs from there, and ended in 2003, when the work on this book was completed."

Kizny is a Polish journalist and photographer and a founding member of Dementi, a clandestine association of photographers formed in Poland in 1981. His writing in Gulag is as stark as the photographs reproduced here: original photographs from the camps -- most never before published, some from former prisoner's personal collections, others from previously suppressed archives -- supplemented by Kizny's own images of survivors and the abandoned camps.

The book begins with forewords -- essays, really -- by British historian and writer Norman Davies; the writer Jorge Semprum and Segeï Kovalev, a former prisoner, now a human rights activist in Russia. After these three prefaces, Gulag is organized by installations -- Solovki, Kolyma, Vorkuta -- as well as "great" Soviet projects that required the labor of prisoners to undertake. This last category includes the "Road of Death" that Kizny tells us "has become a sort of allegory for the history of Soviet communism -- a road built contrary to common sense, using slave labor, paid for by millions of victims and leading nowhere."

The Road of Death was:

The railway line running across the West Siberian Lowlands at the latitude of the Arctic Circle was to connect the station at Chum on the Pechora Railway line, Salekhard on the Ob River and Igarka on the Enisei River, where a seaport was to be built.

Here, as throughout the book, historical photographs bring home the death-defying struggle brought on by one man's -- in this case Stalin's -- whim. Kizny's contemporary photographs bring to life the fullness of Stalin's folly. Railway tracks on a line never completed, buckled under earth that shifts each year in a climate where winter temperatures can dip below -50 degrees Celsius. Prisoners' bowls and boots and camp paperwork still strewn about the prison camps. An abandoned prison camp being swallowed by a growing forest. A locomotive, left behind like so much space debris when the camps were closed and the project abandoned, far from completion.

Gulag is an extraordinary book. It documents the Soviet Union's state administered labor and prison camps where tens of millions of prisoners were frozen, starved, executed, beaten and worked to death. It is not your usual coffee table book, but it is one you'll always remember. | October 2004


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.