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For an Exploration of Visual Resources of the History of Imprisonment
Photo and Film in Penal Spaces in the USSR (1940–1970)
Irina Tcherneva

The article analyses still and moving pictures taken in prisons and corrective camps in Soviet Union between 1930s–1970s. Penal and Justice State institutions of the Soviet Union frequently appealed to film-makers and photographers in order to create the pedagogic and communication medium. An unexplored corpus of visual documents fabricated within this framework and including training films (for prison guards, e.g.), promotional films and photo-albums, is placed here in the analytic perspective of useful photo and film. The paper examines firstly the diversity of visual conceptions of the imprisonment, the manner that the images shape the gaze of penal institutions, their workers and the authorities which order these pictures. Secondly, the paper approaches the issue of purposes and usages of the visual documents by institutions, as a well as by convicts. In this light, the picture of imprisonment will be positioned as an element of the flux between liberty and confinement. The article compares 3 collections of hitherto unseen or insufficiently explored Soviet documents: photo-albums and films of prisons created to order of the Ministries of Justice and of Internal Affairs (1930–1950); photographs taken by employees of a penal colony aside from ministerial command between 1940 and 1970 and those created by the prisoners semi-legally. The first corpus originates from the archives of the Penal administration. The second one is gathered by the author of the paper in a penal colony in Urals. The third one stems from the archives collected by the research team ‘Sound archives of Gulag’. The paper puts into practice an original analysis, combining visual exams and study of social practice of the image. It examines and historicises the fabrication of these films and photos, their usages by guards, prisoners and penal institutions, as well as their perception. It highlights the migration of discursive and aesthetic motifs between institutional and private images. Within a contrastive approach, the author proceeds to an analytical junction of Soviet documents with the photos and films made in Western places of confinement.

The translation of this work to English was completed by Delphine Pallier and financed by the French Project WW2CRIMESONTRIAL1943-1991, ANR-16-CE27-0001-01. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the advice and suggestions shared with me by members of the “Territories and Identities” Research Unit of the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED), where this work was previously presented during an INED workshop. I would also like to express my deepest thanks to the anonymous reviewers of the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies, as well as to Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski and Anne Le Huérou to whom I would like to express my utmost gratitude.

Pipss is grateful to Robert Wren Gordon who edited this article.

Source: Irina Tcherneva, « For an Exploration of Visual Resources of the History of Imprisonment  », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [En ligne], Issue 19 | 2018, mis en ligne le 03 juin 2019, consulté le 24 mai 2020. URL : ; DOI :

A low-angle shot captures six men outside, dressed in civilian attire. The shot is a close-up, but one can still make out the run-down barracks behind the men. The two men seated in the foreground had agreed to pose for the photo, as had the four others standing behind them. However, these two mise-en-scène differ. The glances of the two seated men seemingly intersect as they dart out of the frame. Resolute and severe, both appear concentrated and focused. The other four men are standing, their arms resting on each other's shoulders, looking straight into the camera. Their nonchalant, slightly provocative body postures fall in line with the cultural practices of young people from modest origins. Their clothing style and postures evoke countless clichés of Soviet youths from the 1940s. The visual record of this scene, captured in 1954, was conserved by a former prisoner at the Vorkuta camp in the Komi ASSR (fig. 12). How was such a picture of detainees taken inside a camp? What was its purpose? A cross-analytical study of the images and the written and oral documents on their production and circulation provides us with the keys to unlock the historical meaning of such shots. The format, grain and the frame’s composition must all be examined alongside data on the accessibility of cameras and the relationship between photographers and their subjects. A reflection on the origin of these images should thus be incorporated into a study on their “framing”[1] (i.e. the choice around the situation represented, the angle, the picture composition, etc.). Combined with an analysis on the nature of the relationships forged around this shot, these queries offer some insight into the socially and institutionally informed representation of the world of Soviet penitentiaries.

There is a wealth of photographs depicting the latter. Thus, certain scholars evoke the staging of secrecy rather than dissimulation[2]. The “products” of this staging are widely employed in a memorial perspective: within compilation documentaries[3] or exhibitions on Gulag history[4]. As of the 1990s, films and exhibitions gave a larger audience access to a series of photographs, placed in a reconstructed environment into which other items from the prison world (e.g. banners, garments, utensils, etc.) were introduced. Thus, the visuals paradoxically acted both as evidence of inhuman treatment and illustrations of propaganda[5]. Converted into meaningful archives encapsulating a story, they experienced a new lease of life through their museum settings or the framing and accompanying musical soundtrack chosen by the documentarist.

While eschewing the pitfalls of decontextualization, this study raises the question of the initial status of these images and their provenance. It brings to light the diversity of authors, considering a prisoners gaze lends a different perspective to a situation than that of a warden or professional photographer. Some of these visual documents came from the central administration and prison staff, while others, from prisoners or journalists. Among them, one should also distinguish utilitarian[6] visual documents. The institutional visual support intended for internal use has raised little academic interest and is only starting to be exploited, but these queries remain outside the frame of the history of detention[7]. Regarding Soviet studies, only a handful have focused on the photographic practice of law enforcement and prison authorities[8] and even fewer papers are dedicated to the visual documentation of the Gulag[9]. For the most part, the appeal from academics to exploit the visual corpus of the prison world — drawings from inmates, tattoos and photographs — has yet to receive a wider echo[10]. Taking our cue from research on visual documentation and identification records from the law enforcement and prison systems of other countries[11], this study suggests shifting the viewer’s gaze from the contents of the images to their intended uses, in order to provide an alternative interpretation of their perceived status from tangible evidence.

Recent analytical endeavours dedicated to still and motion pictures offer at least three methodological avenues to remove them from their condition of mere vehicles for information and address their historicity. Firstly, by trying to understand what archival images “represent, what they meant then and what they tell us now"[12], historians have examined the process of “creating an archive” and have researched how records become archives and the social, aesthetic and political issues raised therewith[13]. Secondly, they have also brought context to the making of images drawing from supporting written sources (memoirs, documents, testimonies) and technical data[14]. Several works present fruitful approaches of “circumstantial analysis”[15] or “interpretative framework”[16], echoing Clément Chéroux’s appeal for an “archaeology of photographic documents”. This archaeology would aim at laying bare the images — unfettered by the many stratified uses and symbolic values they gradually acquired over time[17]. The third avenue has been a study of the social and political uses of these shots[18]. In dialogue with this scholarship, this article focuses on the diversity of photographers, as well as of the modalities of institutional or interpersonal communication through visuals in the detention world. Each of the following three sections is dedicated to a specific type of visual created between the 1940s and the 1970s. First, we examine the reasons behind the creation of the photo albums on forced labour — the Ministry of Internal Affairs intended for them to be used by the Central administration. Then, we analyse the shots taken “from below”, namely by the staff of the Sosva penal colony located in Sverdlovsk Oblast, in the northern Ural region. The third part is devoted to the pictures kept by former inmates (of deportation camps), arrested between 1939 and 1953 in the territories annexed by the USSR. Between 2008 and 2015, they obligingly shared their personal visual archives with historians participating in the Agence Nationale de la Recherche’s (French National Research Agency) “Sound archives. European Memories of the Gulag”[19] project and answered their questions.

What were the circumstances under which these photographs were taken? How were they presented to the viewers gaze and displayed, arranged and assembled in albums? A close analysis of these visual montages tries to answer these questions and unveils a socially and institutionally anchored perspective[20], materialised by the image. Studying their social and institutional context is intrinsically linked to an analysis of their circulation beyond the boundaries of prisons and camps. An examination of these exchanges makes a case for the plasticity and permeability of the boundaries delineating detention spaces in the USSR[21]. Thus, the article strives to show how the image, seemingly extracted from the prison environment, is nonetheless ingrained in the routine interactions that took place within its confines.

Institutional photography as a form of internal promotional communication

The Soviet Union inherited the pre-revolutionary use of visuals in the detention world. Following a general trend in the late 19th century which hailed photography as a new medium of knowledge, Imperial Russian institutions started exchanging images to gather information on detention spaces. As early as the 1880s, following the European example and viewing this practice as a form of modernisation, Tsarist Russia attempted to introduce photography in its own detention system; pictures were used to help identify recidivists[22], as well as standardise facilities (including from an architectural point of view)[23]. However, the scarcity of available cameras provided by the prison administration to penal institutions[24] compelled the latter to enlist the help of local professional photo studios.

At the same time, shots (e.g. photos and films) were reemployed until the early 1930s in campaigns advocating for different prison models. While cell confinement, highly symbolic of Tsarist Russia and its repressive techniques, came increasingly into question, the Soviet penitentiary system subjected detainees to varying degrees of isolation. The introduction of correctional institutions and labour, agricultural and industrial colonies was documented by the production of a substantial number of images. One of the most famous promotional campaigns featured a series of pictures taken by constructivist artist Aleksandr Rodchenko depicting the construction of the White Sea–Baltic canal with prison labour[25]. Other photographs had been taken and published ahead of his work. They intended to capture the event and its location, as well as the educative and cultural activities the inmates were supposedly participating in. The labour houses, as highlighted in the pictures, were perceived as a solution to poverty and vagrancy through forced labour - a consideration deeply rooted in the Russian pre-revolutionary experience[26], as well as in the history of confinement outside Russia[27]. In addition, agricultural and industrial colonies were viewed in the mid-1920s as genuinely experimental places[28]. Soviet authorities were inspired by foreign experiments in the 19th century[29], which have gained recognition thanks to their production and circulation of images[30]. Far from being secret, these photographs of locations in the USSR reflect, on the contrary, the ambition to advertise socialist achievements, including in the penal domain, even if advertising these achievements entailed a process of framing and editing to conceal aspects that could evoke forms of detention, as may be seen in The Agricultural colony of Volosovo for detainees, a film directed in 1924 and left as partially edited footage[31]. Furthermore, as early as the 1920s, visual productions promoted open confinement institutions, which were thought of as a modern alternative to prisons[32]. Many photographs (and some films) from the 1930s insist on the potential for productivity and the land-use planning of these forced labour schemes.

Some of these images were widely broadcast but a whole segment of the visual production was confined to inter-institutional exchanges. The utilitarian images were aimed at limited audiences, i.e. political authorities, partner institutions and the commissions in charge of auditing and investigating the detention facilities, set up in 1923, 1930 and later in the 1950s. The photo albums created by departments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, of which dozens are currently preserved in its archives, fall into this category. Considering the care that went into making these albums (they often boasted thick cardboard covers, carefully bound pages and were at times even enshrined in boxes made of artificial leather), they can be seen as valuable items. Another clue points to their selected audience: they were printed in limited series (between three and ten copies). One can picture them, propped up on a lectern like advertising trophies, during a presentation by an administrator detailing camp organisation.

These photo albums, whose production was regularised between the 1930s and 1940s, can be divided into two categories — those that describe the economic value of the prison workforce and those that detail the conditions of detention. Specimens from the first category outline statistical data broken down by branch of activity and suggestions from the Ministry on how to use the industrial products (fig. 1 a, b). In the 1949 “Album Documenting the Output of the Special Department over 10 Years”, one can find a series of photographic overviews of the labour camps mixed with pictures providing a visual background for statistics on labour camp economy. The way the latter was framed prevents the viewer from identifying any temporal or geographical markers. The focus is on the products in the images (weapons on fig. 1a) or the data on the total metallurgical production output and the millions of roubles saved (fig. 1b). However, the photos do not depict the scale of these achievements and have been intentionally extrapolated or taken out of their original context. The information supplied by the accompanying notes imbues them with a documenting and testifying function. Some of these albums’ creators did not shy away from using the press to bolster the legitimacy of their “products”. Thus, in figure 1c, one can see a reproduction of a newspaper clipping on the pages of the album which features a weapon manufactured by forced labour in “action”.

Fig. 1 a, b, c: “Album Documenting the Output of the Special Department over 10 Years”, 1949

fig 1 a

fig 1 b

fig 1 c

GARF, f. R 9401, op. 3, d. 93, l. 66, 54. Photos # 51, 52, 36.

The second category of identified albums illustrates the conditions of detention. These items were probably destined for foreign authorities[33] and the USSR public Ministry tasked with inspecting these facilities[34]. One of these is a large-format album entitled “Elabuga War prisoner camp #97” (fig. 2-5). This camp, located in the Tatar ASSR, housed about 6,000 prisoners, including German, Hungarian, Italian and Japanese officers[35]. This object, which is not stamped “classified”, was unquestionably made for foreign authorities and/or the German communist party, which had found shelter in the USSR during the Second World War. The photographs seem to have been taken during a continuous session that started earlier, perhaps in June 1943. No effort was made to hide the signs of confinement (e.g. the mirador, barbed wires...). The prisoners are placed at the heart of these shots while, in the albums proffering an “industrialising” perspective on the camps, the prisoners are secondary characters to the industrial yard and machinery. In the Elabuga album, the pages detail the prisoners’ care (the closely framed shots increase this sense of individuality), hygiene (showers, drying laundry), the quality of their food (with accompanying graphs on nutritional norms), sporting activities and cultural re-education. Each picture is intended to buttress a specific piece of information and the text guides the interpretation of each image, for instance, in figures 2 a, b, c: “following the doctor’s orders, the sick [prisoners] are bathing in the sun”. The same situation is exposed according to varying points of view (mirador, building) and the framing underlines the outstanding organisation of the camps (well-kept lawns, brick buildings instead of run-down wood barracks). On other pages, the shots are alternatively framed as wide-angle shots to show the architectural structure or overviews depicting entertainment and amenities.

In this case, the picture layouts and accompanying texts differ from the albums on industrial achievements. Each double page comes across as a narrative, as one can see in photos 3 a, b, c. The representations are laid out according to a linear succession of procedures: a collective assessment of the food, service and interactions. The reader must unfold a long strip of paper on which the photos were glued as if they were slides. The staging of the pictures puts a clear emphasis on the abundance of bread. The way in which the protagonists are depicted highlights the POWs’ involvement in the day-to-day organisation of the camp. The frame was carefully thought-out in order to display slogans and the portrait of Stalin hanging in the refectory. Still, it allows us to see some characters who are not performing any designated action (e.g. a woman on the left-hand side of photograph 3b). The written commentary sets a cheerful tone: “Breakfast is ready! The doctor on duty takes a sample for testing. A warden asks for permission to allow the war prisoners in”.

Fig. 2: “Elabuga War prisoner camp #97”




USSR Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs, GARF, f. R 9401, op. 3, d. 80, l. 9. Photos # 21, 22, 23.

Fig. 3: “Elabuga War prisoner camp #97”




USSR Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs, GARF, f. R 9401, op. 3, d. 80, l. 16. Photos # 44, 44a, 44b.

The omnipresence of military uniforms is particularly striking. Some close-ups show identifying signs and labels from the Wehrmacht. Another page illustrating the morning call displays[36], through the way it was framed, a respect for the military hierarchy. It highlights the specific situation of the POWs and the retention of their status within the camp. This also suggests a form of prisoner self-management, something that was clearly expressed in the pages describing the camp’s club (fig. 4 a, b). The printed text states: “the camp’s club lies at the centre of political and cultural life. A group of antifascists is discussing a document written by the detainees on the creation of the National Committee for a Free Germany. The officers are gathering in the club to participate in prisoner-led training sessions”. The National Committee for a Free Germany, a German antifascist committee, was indeed created in the camp in May 1942[37], as part of a movement that started in other detention facilities in 1941 with the backing of the illustrated press, pamphlets, tracts and caricatures[38]. Other pages of the album also emphasise the available literature (e.g. writings by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin) and on the application of the German Gothic font for the wall newspapers, thus demonstrating a deft juxtaposition of intellectual and visual references. Yet again, the images were intended to promote a narrative. Within this montage, one can see the group (defined as antifascists) in action: welcoming the arrival of prisoners, in a collective, at the occasion of a vote... The photographer was not necessarily overseeing the staging of these frames. The driving force behind the shots was more so the individuals in charge of organising these activities. However, the man behind the camera benefitted from a unique vantage point to exhibit a form of collective, if not massive, adhesion to a new political perspective. The layout of the pictures on the pages and the accompanying commentaries guiding the interpretation create this propagandist dimension.

Some photos evoke spontaneity: one can observe furtive looks being exchanged and glances addressed directly to the camera. Furthermore, they provide the observer with pieces of information (collective baths, meetings held in the camp, lawn maintenance, show performances, the uniforms the prisoners kept wearing) that can be corroborated by amateur photographs taken in the same camp. The photographer, Klaus Sasse, a lieutenant arrested in the city of Königsberg in April 1945, captured life with his camera in four different camps until June 1947, including Elabuga[39]. Some common themes emerge from his work and the administration’s. One can also observe major differences owing to Sasse’s intentions, which were not to transcribe specific information as a spy would, or to reach out to future potential viewers, but to merely use his Minox in the present, to recount the camp’s daily life and take pictures of his co-inmates, as well as self-portraits. In outdoor photographs, he turned the prisoners’ work into a leitmotif. He also viewed his photography as a way to escape from depression and give moral support to his co-inmates. It could have been that the latter asked him to take their pictures, since Sasse confided he sometimes took snaps out of a sense of duty. Therefore, his pictures reflect a proximity to his subjects: through the camera lens, Sasse engaged in a dialog with his peers while they busied themselves with their daily chores. His subject-oriented approach comes in stark contrast to the “institutional” gaze, characterised by clear distancing and a posture of representation and self-representation.

The photo album compiled for Camp #97 also differs from other visual propaganda that can be found in a crossover study of photos of Soviet and German prisoners[40]. In the album, neither the closeness, nor the pacifism, brought about by the eye of professional photographers, such as Timofei Melnik and Boris Vdovenko in 1942 or Mihaïl Savin in 1943, can be felt[41]. We cannot see the vertiginous perspectives offered by the “sea” of prisoners featured in the written and filmed press of 1944-1945 either. The utilitarian photographs of the Elabuga camp do not intend to highlight massive confinement or to produce an emotional impact on the spectators. Their primary focus is the visual rendition of a detention structure that abides by the laws on prisoners of war. The idea this album might have been made as a rebuttal to propagandist representations of Soviet soldiers held prisoners by the Nazis is also misguided. Its format rules out the possibility it was meant for mass circulation (while National Socialist leaflets were issued to reach a large audience).

Fig. 4: “Elabuga War prisoner camp #97”

fig 4 a

fig 4 b

GARF, f. R 9401, op. 3, d. 80, l. 26. Photos # 68, 69, 70, 70a.

However, several layers of political communication are accumulated at the core of this album. The viewer is “ushered into” it by a reminder of the massacres led by the Wehrmacht in the USSR and a eulogy of the Red Army. The first pages (fig. 5 a and b) show a group of inebriated German soldiers, proudly posing for the camera and a picture of the bodies of dead Soviet children. This contrast instantly sets a confrontational tone: one group versus another, opulence versus death, amateur photography versus the depiction of war atrocities on Soviet citizens. Juxtaposing these images on the album’s pages evokes the documentaries denouncing the massacres carried out by the Wehrmacht in the USSR, atrocities which were frequently documented in amateur photos taken by German soldiers[42]. The typescript reproduced under the first shot states:

They came into our country with their arrogance and depravity, filled with dreams of easy conquests. Their first devastating deeds done, they rushed to capture their beastly faces on camera. See above one of the photographs found in their bags.

Upon comparing this picture with the photo of the frozen murder victims, the reader’s eye is drawn to the bottom right-hand corner, with its adjacent note: “Here is one of the many atrocities carried out by the German invaders. The slain children of railway workers from Gartmachevka station”. The album thus starts with an entreaty to avenge the vanquished, which is immediately toned down by the second double-page spread, devoted to a presentation of the Red Army (leaflets and a typed quote from Stalin printed on paper and glued). Such a politically loaded insert is at odds with the rest of an album that reflects a constant effort to show concern for the prisoners.

Fig. 5: “Elabuga War prisoner camp #97”

fig 5 a

fig 5 b

GARF, f. R 9401, op. 3, d. 80, l. 1. Photos # 1-2.

In this second category of albums we identified, other specimens moderate the political undertones, such as the secret album about the Narva Camp (Estonia) (fig. 6). The first pages are a visual reminder of the “German-Fascist destruction” enacted in Estonia, which was annexed in 1944 by the USSR. The country is thus presented from the start as having had to endure Nazi occupation. Neither the pictures nor the written commentaries enable the reader to determine the nature of the charges against the inmates. They do not appear as being condemned for collaboration. The album then covers the various criteria used to assess the detention conditions (housing, educational activities, food), the erection of the barracks, a hair salon, a club and the dispensary. The advertising tone is reinforced by a commentary: “first, there were only two stables in ruins, and then, very rapidly, there was a whole village camp [lagernyi posselok], boasting an array of facilities”. The photographer’s point of view puts the scale of the structure in a flattering light: lines of buildings (fig. 6b), lines of beds in the women’s barracks — whose description is accompanied by the following comment: “the women’s halls are comfortable and well-kept” (6a) – the board for the wall newspapers ... (6c) Another detail is worth mentioning: inside the camp, the notes and banners were all in Russian, but signs of ethnicity were materialised by the traditional outfits worn by the subjects, especially when they are shown performing cultural activities. (6d)

The Narva album combines two registers; it reflects an interest in the conditions of detention and a concern for camp productivity. It encompasses graphs dealing with the camp’s living conditions (1.9 m2 per person) and the norms regulating the forced labour workforce. (6e) A triple form of montage (one within the image, another of the pictures on each page and a third collating several illustrated pages) conveys the idea that the camp is a development tool to be applied to a conquered territory, or even a means of “sovietisation” of the conquered population. Thus, this album echoes photographs of agricultural and forced labour colonies, where re-education through labour and culture was considered of importance.

Fig. 6: “Album detailing the construction of a factory # 7 » - fig. 6 a, # 50 et 51

fig 6 a

Fig. 6 b, # 52 et 53

fig 6 b

Fig. 6 c, # 83

fig 6 c

Fig. 6 d, # 107

fig 6 d

Fig. 6 e, # 110

fig 6 e

GARF, f. R 9401, op. 3, d. 14, ll. 24 ob, 25, 36, 49 et 50 ob.

The layout of the photographs on the page and their combination together with notes is significant. This “visual grey literature” seems to espouse the clash between the “authoritative” white literature, drafted to the line ministries, and internal documents that reflected more prosaic views on the state of these facilities. The way with which they related to the prisoners also varied; they were either considered an anonymous workforce, effaced before the products they manufactured, or a specific social group (German POWs, ethnic groups undergoing sovietisation). The referenced albums concretised visual representations and not tangible realities and de facto participated in a “standardised montage by an institution”[43]. Internal cognitive, technical and institutional codes providing us with valuable cues on explicit or latent commands emerge in this instance. Placing these albums in this alternative perspective helps us uncover the vectors of internal politicisation and understand how stabilised institutional codes gave shape to visual objects. This visual study has already contributed to the observation of the institutional modes of communication at work behind an all-encompassing definition of propaganda. In the future, we will cross-reference the analysis of these albums with textual archives in order to provide insight into how they were manipulated by the political authorities.

Institutional photography taken by prison staff

On the opposite end of the spectrum from these carefully crafted albums, kept in the central archives, are pictures produced from the rank and file, like the photos from the Sosva penitentiary colony. The first camps were established there in 1938 and, at the beginning of World War II, a directorate was set up to manage 42 camps, including nine women’s-only camps. These camps were intended to supply the war front with resources, including wood, and imprisoned a very heterogenous population composed of common-law prisoners, deported Volga Germans and former members of the Security services who had been convicted, among others. Little by little, between 1942 and 1956 the management and the colonies expanded[44].

During a visit to the colony in 2016, we gathered 60 pictures taken between the early 1940s and the mid-1980s and turned them into about seven sets. Some may have been lost or overlooked, as these photographs did not benefit from any serious conservation policy. An interview with the current director[45] revealed that re-education merely consisted in putting the prisoners to work in the 1960s–1970s and that surveillance and security gathered momentum in the 1980s. The interviewee started there as an instructor in 1973. Descending himself from a family who experienced relegation in the 1930s, he spent his childhood close to the camp and confided the sight of common-law prisoners — to whom he confusingly refers as “thieves-in-law”[46] — used to scare him off. Venturing “into the zone” marked a radical shift for him. In 1974 he volunteered to supervise several detainee brigades and enrolled in the military. Later on, he graduated from the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and became an instructor in the colony.

According to the interviewee, photographs belonging to the Directorate of the group of Sosva camps were often inserted in the wall newspapers[47] and used as visual support to promote the activities of some the camp’s departments, or tutorials on logging, for example. However, according to him, these shots were not used in the reports sent to the authorities: “When photos were needed, a special order was placed”. Therefore, these images were more a reflection of the willingness of the managing staff to use the camera themselves than of a political injunction coming from the top. This intermediary level — neither propaganda, nor reportage — has rarely been the object of research. However, its production belongs entirely to a generalised visual documentation on the Soviet detention world.

Fig. 7 a and b: initial caption “Turning wood into logs” Gari Camp. B. Nadtochij. 8 May 1958

fig 7 a

fig 7 b

Directorate of the Sosva camps. Personal archives.

Fig. 8: initial caption “after breaking the rules on loading cut timber on the carrier, choker chain handler Kozlinkin from the Department of the working colonies in Puksinka was wounded.” Not dated.

fig 8 

Directorate of the Sosva camps. Personal archives.

Fig. 9: Photograph – not captioned. Dated circa 1954. Directorate of the Sosva camps

Fig 9

Personal archives

These four pictures are a prime example of the topics usually covered in the visual collection we gathered. Some of them still bear glue or other marks from their insertion in the newspapers, as well as bits of the typescript commentaries that accompanied them, this is especially true in the case of the photographs depicting tutorials on lumbering. Other photographs were created to convey an unforgiving view of the appalling living conditions (fig. 9). Their framing insists on the importance of the work at hand or on the pressing need for better housing. The frame is wide enough to take in elements from the immediate context (setting in the forest, the tools being used). In this regard, the pictures evoke the amateur photos of Sasse, the German war prisoner. Other photographs, however, depict an event that allegedly occurred in the colony like the one in fig. 8. This pragmatic picture was glued to one of the internal wall newspapers. There is no need to remind the viewer that Kozlinkin is an inmate. The internal use of this image makes the clarification unnecessary.

These utilitarian visuals, taken by individuals from the lower or intermediary levels, keep signs of detention out of the limelight. Granted, in the USSR, inmates, who were regularly used as a workforce on construction sites outside the camps or colonies, could enjoy more freedom of movement. Thus, Steven Barnes[48] and Alan Barenberg[49] insist on the interactions between free and forced workers. The porosity of the detention universe with the free world presents a paradox. This permeability was first viewed in the 1920s as part of the reform and then started to be perceived as a flaw in the Gulag. This phenomenon can also be observed in private photographs, as we will show later. Furthermore, one of the former prisoners mentions the tacit bans on the club of amateur photographers, who were former inmates or members of staff living close to the camps. Walter Ruge[50], a German communist, arrested at the beginning of the Second World War, settled down in Ermakovka after his release. According to him, the local amateur photographers had all agreed never to take pictures of barbwires or other signs of imprisonment:

We were respectful of the Soviet Union's “photographic code", a code that did not officially exist but was governed by extremely stringent rules. Everybody knew that taking pictures of daily camp life, the barracks, the train stations or locations where rail tracks or a bridge could be seen in the background was strictly prohibited. Before taking a photo, one had to determine what might hold strategic or military value: a high-voltage pylon, a factory's chimney, boats on the Yenisei River... This tacit code was strictly applied or even “expanded”, depending on the mood of the moment. A fair share of the population was in line with the authorities and wanted the “gains” of the Soviet Union to be photographed, which was something “positive”[51].

Amateur and private photographers tended systematically to remove distinctive signs of imprisonment. Besides, when institutional images depicting detention started to appear in documentaries intended for Soviet viewers, the film directors did not specify these were forced workers[52].

What are the issues brought to light by the gaze of local staff on detention? Used for photo stands, these pictures stand in stark contrast to the post-Stalin administration’s position, which hailed the virtues of prison labour as a means to gain a certain form of dignity. This narrative was also strongly present in the interview we conducted. As for the visual sources, they show the industrial dimension of production under a flattering light. There again, inmates are portrayed as a workforce and are relegated to a secondary role. Since they considered the camps as production facilities assessed according to their output, staff members gave primacy to results and work processes, including in their internal interactions.

These views converged with the post-Stalin perspective — supposedly less centred on the productive value of detention facilities — in public documentary films, such as the medium-length feature In the Ministry of Internal Affairs Kuneevo correction camp (1957)[53]. This film marks a shifting point between the value given to the detainees’ work and the need to break away from the history of the Gulag as a source of free labour. Comparable images were melded into a visual rhetoric that henceforth included the following elements: activist prisoners intervening among the inmates, the threat of forced confinement as opposed to the liberating power of work, the latter of which was also presented as a vehicle for the acquisition of rights. This film, originally meant to be institutional, was commissioned by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and made by the Institute of Scientific Research within the Ministry of Internal Affairs[54]. One of the consultants on the film was criminalist V. I. Monakhov, author of brochures for the Ministry on gangs and texts on the various social groups in penal societies and their practices. V. Pavlov, who had led several projects for the Ministry starting in 1948, also imparted his expertise. Thus, the film occupied an intermediate status: being commissioned by the Ministry, it was destined to be shown to the public. Professing the adoption of a new orientation in penal policy, aimed at rehabilitating prisoners and eloquently evoking the wish of the Ministry to reassert control over the prison system, the rest of the film mentions the work accomplished by the inmates, including the Kuybyshev hydroelectric station. Thus, the boundaries between promotional material destined to a wide audience and visuals destined for internal use were blurred.

The visual documents, restricted to inter-institutional, or even inter-personal exchanges on the lower hierarchical level, were meant to support a narrative on the ability to gain freedom and civil rights through labour. However, as they were neither commissioned nor managed by the central authorities, the photographs unwittingly reveal that the detention system did not completely disengage from its economic dimension. It instead remained of the utmost importance to professionals. Therefore, the Sosva pictures raise the issue of the dissociation of penal policy from its re-educational component and a certain comprehension of the profitability of forced labour.

Photography at the prisoners' service

So far, this study has reviewed secondary sources to analyse the prisoners’and the administrations'perspectives under specific circumstances. This section is devoted to the position of the photographers towards the penal administrations through a research of the photographic collections of the camp's prisoners, gathered by the team of researchers from the“Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”project. This documentation includes pictures taken by the interviewees while in detention and filmed interviews during which they recount their life trajectories and show their private collections to historians. Thanks to these iconographic, audio and audiovisual documents, we can reconstruct the conditions under which the images were taken, how they circulated and then cross-reference them with a visual analysis.

For the most part, the archived photos were taken as the penal regime was loosening its grip after 1954. However, some shots date back to between 1949 and 1953, a period marked by particularly severe detention conditions, plagued with famine and an extremely high mortality rate, coupled with a constant influx of new camp prisoners. This is the case of the material from Juozas Eidukiavicius, who showed historians Émilia Koustova and Alain Blum the photographs he took in the Inta camp between 1949 and 1953. Born into a peasant family in Lithuania in 1929, he and his father were arrested in 1948 and charged with assisting opponents to the sovietisation of the Soviet Republic — often referred to as the Forest Brothers. He was sentenced to 25 years of detention for nationalist activities and sent to a camp. One of the shots he showed the researchers was taken at Inta between 1949 and 1953 (fig. 10): Eidkavicius can be seen with three other Lithuanians, including the friend with whom he tried to escape.

Fig. 10. Escape companions at Inta. Filmed interview at the interviewee’s home

fig 10

“Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2010 EGG RU 0301

The photograph was taken after his internal incarceration and following the extension of his sentence. In response to the interviewer's question regarding the circumstances under which this shot was taken, Eidikavicius said:

- [Juozas Eidikavicius] We had our own amateurs. And, you know… they would find a way to get cameras illegally and would take and print pictures.

- [Interviewer] It must have been difficult to develop and print the photos…

- [J.E.] Not really. It was not that difficult. It was not in violation of the internal code of conduct. It was allowed.[55]

The interviewee refers to the gift/counter-gift practice that took place between the camp’s personnel and the inmates. Often, photographers, artists, sculptors or craftsmen imprisoned in the camp would trade their skills to administration officials and wardens in exchange for small favours[56]. Professional photographers were thus able to develop and print their productions. This is how three more of Eidikavicius’ pictures came to be. Two were taken in Vorkuta between 1953 and 1954 (fig. 11 et 12): the first shows a group of exclusively Lithuanian inmates in front of the barracks they built. The second is of the strike’s organisers before the event.

Fig. 11: Vorkuta, after 1953. Disciplinary colony

fig 11

Crédits ?

Fig. 12: Lithuanians before the strike at Vorkuta, 1954

fig 12

“Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2010 EGG RU 0301.

It was only after their revolt, as Eidikavicius testified, that the conditions of detention became more bearable; the prisoners were able to remove the numbers from the labels sewn onto their jackets and were allowed to move around the camp, organise concerts of national music and exchange correspondence. The third picture kept by the witness was one he took in the Ozerlag, snapped when the local director came in anticipation of their amnesty.

Fig. 13: Disciplinary colony # 308 in Ozerlag, circa 1956

Fig 13

“Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag", 2010 EGG RU 0301

For Eidikavicius, the period between 1956 and 1959 was marked by harsh detainment conditions, as he was confined within the disciplinary colony. Under particularly trying circumstances, the photographers had to work in semi-clandestine conditions. According to the interviewee, “this photographer was one of us”.

Pictures circulated among prisoners and were exchanged, sometimes for free, sometimes for money. In Inta and Vorkuta, photographers sometimes sold their photos, but, as Eidikavicius pointed out, before 1950 “they were simply offering them. They took them and gave them away. Amongst friends. At this time, we were paid a little already”[57]. However, for another witness, Estonian Mia Jõgiaas, the commercial dimension was more significant. Jõgiaas was arrested in the autumn of 1950 for having covertly produced and distributed partisan pamphlets against sovietisation in Estonia. She was deported to the Rechlag camp, where she continued her resistance by insisting upon speaking in Estonian and participating in strikes. During her interview, she also confirmed that detention conditions started to ease after 1954. In particular, there was little supervision over circulation between the production and detention sites. In this context, a free photographer took a series of shots of her and her companions (fig. 14-17). He did not hesitate to negotiate this improvised photo session with their guard and then tried to sell them the pictures. However, the prisoners declined due to a lack of funds. He then decided to give them the photos[58]. This practice carried on, as inmates gradually started to earn income and photography became the object of commercial transactions. This example goes to show how images circulated in and out of the detention space. The object itself, the photo shot, serves as evidence of the informal arrangements struck between the administration and the prisoners, and their interactions. These relationships resulted from mutually dependent practices and also testified to the permeability of the boundaries of the prison system.

Fig. 14 and 15: Vorkuta, 1954

fig 14

fig 15

“Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2009-EGG-EST-0601.

Fig. 16, Vorkuta, 9 February 1955

fig 16

“Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2009-EGG-EST-0601.

Fig. 17: Initial legend “Ellen-Riita-Miia, 1955”

fig 17

“Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2009-EGG-EST-0601

The existence of these practices also raises the question of the migration of themes and visual codes between still and animated institutional images and pictures taken by professionals for private use. Among the photos conserved by Juozas Eidikavicius, there were several pictures from the Chuna camp in 1958, at a time when control was starting to loosen a little. Due in part to their themes and codes, some of these photos, such as two shots depicting a boxing match and ice-skating, were comparable to the institutional perspective. (fig. 18 and 19).

Fig. 18: Boxing match, 1957

fig 18

Personal collection of Eidikavicius. “Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2010 EGG RU 0301

Fig. 19: Ice-skating, 1958, Chuna

fig 19

Personal collection of Eidikavicius. “Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2010 EGG RU 0301

The paper on which the pictures were printed indicates an attempt to reach certain professional standards. Additionally, in order to better capture the match on camera, the photographer placed himself on a platform fitted for the occasion, suggesting that the match was not photographed covertly. The second picture even bears a signature and a date. Their themes echo the visual leitmotif of the official line, i.e. the depiction of cultural activities taking place within the camp. Moreover, whether they showed cultural or labour activities, these institutional photographs portrayed individuals in action. On the contrary, in the history of private photography, little attention was paid to movement before the 1970s as subjects normally posed for photographs[59]. Eidikavicius’ last two photos reflect the author’s primary concern with illustrating an action, while, in several pictures kept by the other former inmates, people can be seen striking a pose, which was amplified by the bed linens hung behind them. In these shots, one can also note that specific attention was paid to the disposition of the bodies and the orientation of their gaze. (fig. 20-22) These reflect certain skillsets and values and indicate that semi-professional photographers worked in the camps. More specifically, these pictures matched the specifications of photo studios and show that this technical know-how was put towards recreating a form of normality.

Fig. 20-21: Prisoners from the Kengir camp, May 1955

fig 20

fig 21

Personal collection of Antanas Seikalis. “Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2009-EGG-LT-0001

Fig. 22: Juozas Eidikavicius and his co-inmates, 1958

fig 22

Personal collection of Eidikavicius. “Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2010 EGG RU 0301

We would characterise the institutional image by its emphasis on depicting the subject in action and a removal of group distinctions among prisoners. The famous film Solovki [Camp][60] was the first to start a trend wherein iconographic production blurred, and later altered, the distinction between categories of inmates (different political movements, common-law vs political prisoners...), Soviet documentary and fiction films perpetuated this omission. In the 1940s, official visual productions expunged signs connecting prisoners to their category, while keeping the supposedly most visible mark of common-law convicts: their tattooed bodies. On the contrary, the representation of groups is an essential feature of images used under a private setting. Moreover, this practice was particularly significant during and after the Second World War, as former inmate Walter Ruge attested:

Between 1937 and 1940, to feature in a group picture could be dangerous. Knowing people, participating in “meetings”, these were all the more reasons to “testify”. The war put an end to these misgivings. Faced with death, we wanted to have a picture of us, all together, one more time, perhaps for the last time, before we were to be separated and drafted into the army. Some photographers worked for the camps management; they were in charge of taking pictures for the identification papers of prisoners who were being released. As a prisoner, I had had my picture taken on several occasions. When my turn came to take a picture of the released inmates, in order to save on film, I used a special technique. I gathered them on a bench by a group of three or four, snapped a shot and blew up each portrait in the darkroom.[61]

This testimony compounds several elements regarding photography in the detention world: cooperation between inmates and the camps administration, the technical possibilities that arose on this occasion and the importance of collective self-representation. The practice Ruge referred to could have been used to take the photographs we analyse here. However, they do not seem to have been sent as cards to the prisoners’ relatives, as was customary at the time. Many of them do not have any writing or signatures on their backsides.

Conversely, they contribute to a reflection on the ramifications of the position of external photographers versus “close” photographers — defined as “ours” — regarding the framing of reality. The former inmates spoke about the rivalries between groups: political prisoners vs common law, moujiks vs thugs, Ukrainians vs Russians, Lithuanians vs Soviets. By cross-referencing their stories with the visual documents, the social dimension of the latter comes to light. This is the case of a picture that Antanas Seikalis, a former prisoner in the Kengir camp, showed to historians (fig. 20-21). Seikalis was born into a family of shopkeepers in 1933 in a city in northeastern Lithuania. Together with his brother, Seikalis supported and provided assistance to the Forest Brothers. In 1950, he was reported to the authorities and arrested and, like his brother, sentenced to 10 years of forced labour. He spent these years in various camps as far away as Steplag in Kazakhstan, where he participated in the great uprising of the Kengir camp in the summer of 1954. Granted amnesty in 1955, Seikalis returned to Lithuania[62].During the interview, he insisted the camp was a society governed by a strong hierarchy. He emphasised the role played by the brigade leaders who were formerly common-law inmates and primarily Russian. Mutual assistance and understanding of the various cultural and religious practices between groups aided in survival.

In this context, group photography takes on extra significance. It was destined to be used by prisoners wishing to demonstrate their affiliation to a collective, in addition to the value highlighted by Ruge. To have one’s picture taken between Lithuanians/Ukrainians meant you were taking sides in the internal prison wars, similarly, showing oneself at work reflected one’s identification with the moujik status and a desire to break away from dependent relationships within the penal society. To have one’s picture taken within a group meant that one was protecting oneself through one’s affiliation to that group and through the visual confirmation there was a group, a dimension that was increasingly reinforced by the fact the photographer was part of an “us”. This choice came against a background where inmates were expected to position themselves within the penal society, while being perceived as part of an anonymous workforce.

In the case of another former prisoner, Bogdan Klimchak[63], this aspect is all the more striking. Born in Galicia in 1937, Klimchak witnessed his father and brother join the resistance against the Soviets during World War II. Deported with his mother and sisters, he was released in 1955. However, in 1956, he protested against the Soviet intervention in Hungary and was condemned and jailed for anti-Soviet agitation at a time that Marc Elie characterised as the “Liberal Gulag”[64]. His pictures were furtively taken between 1957 and 1958 during his detainment at the camp in Vetrennyi, a small town in Kolyma. The very existence of these photographs marks the collective dimension that strongly emerged with Klimchak's transfer from prison to a camp in 1957. They reflect a strong connection between the photographer and those who actively tried to show they belonged to a collective. This is the case of the shot taken in a barrack and the one portraying a fairly well-known member of the Ukrainian insurrectional army. In this shot, he can be seen teaching young Bogdan the essentials of Ukrainian literature — an act serving as a base for collective identification (fig. 23-24). The intent of this photograph is to depict the transmission of political values. As for the third photograph (fig. 25), it plays on the register of emphasised staging and degrees of complicity, which questions the position of the man behind the camera within the group he is photographing.

Fig. 23-25: Vetrennyi. Kolyma, 1957

fig 23

fig 24

fig 25

Personal collection of Bogdan Klimchak. “Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, 2009-EGG-UA-0001.

The photograph does not bear any particular significance per se, but its informative dimension cannot be separated from the subjective interpretation it lends to. The team’s historians frequently observed things had remained unspoken within the former inmates’ families, or even entirely omitted, when it came to the prison experience. Pictures featuring groups of inmates do not seem to have been destined for families. However, the way they were used within social, national and linguistic networks after the liberation should benefit from a further analysis. The collective dimension plays a central part, not only in the way the photos were conceived but also in our understanding of the way they were appropriated in later years. Professional interviews created opportunities for former prisoners to describe the contents of the photographs, to name those with whom their pictures were taken and to discuss meaningful situations. The way the narrative was structured, by inserting the visual dimension, goes beyond the scope of this article. However, we can mention a few examples. Among the interviewed former prisoners, Eidikavicius was neither used to nor experienced in exposing his memories and his pictures. The researchers made him react to the images, something that enabled the interviewee to pay attention to the details and build a narrative around the visual object, even if it meant the story experienced some adjustments along the way. Jõgiaas, Klimchak and Seikalis, however, had already built narratives in the 1990s as all three were active participants in various associations and had written memoirs and compiled documents and photographs around the theme of life in detention. The selective presentation of the photos studied in this analysis was inevitably affected by this pre-constructed narrative.


The corpus saved and sometimes archived sheds light on the know-how of professional photographers in detention spaces and the construction of internal categories through the visual medium. Examining it helps to historically contextualise the fabrication and initial purposes of the images. The three photographic sets studied here can be differentiated by the way their respective authors positioned themselves and by their origins — official ministry photographers, semi-professionals practicing in these places of confinement and amateurs. Thus, these images encapsulate the gaze of the administration and of free and imprisoned photographers evolving to specific interactions. A cross-analysis helped identify institutional, professional and personal visual codes that anchored these perspectives in the same temporal sequence. It also enabled us to show the ways in which these codes became intertwined.

One should highlight the connection between the professional standards of private photography and the intention of penal institutions to capture specific themes on camera. Understanding the propagandist component can therefore only be achieved through the inclusion of professional and institutional dispositions. The latter were not necessarily in tune with the political issues of the time, precisely because the institutions and the Ministry of Internal Affairs interacted with the political sphere through images they had endowed with promotional value. This phenomenon is especially noticeable in the way the albums were elaborated. This study strived to show how these items were tools at the service of the authorities in the sense that they were used, for example, to buttress the economic legitimacy of forced labour complexes. Unlike images taken at the lower level, they contained rhetorical elements from ministry reports. The timelessness of this sort of photograph is particularly striking, as well as the way the practice was anchored in the daily lives of the local personnel and the prisoners, even after doubts began to be raised about the productivity-based dimension of the penal system.

Investigating the photographic layout of the albums and the employments of photographs within the prison colonies — in the first two instances we studied — was combined with an analysis of the context in which the pictures were taken — in the third studied case. These two ways of dealing with the visual object, for now distinct, would greatly benefit from a generalised cross-study in subsequent research. Observing photographers’ practices helps to understand the significance of these visual documents for the people behind the camera, who perceived and offered their diagnosis on the way the detention system operates. Examining these uses also sheds light on the circulation of these visual elements inside and outside the prison world. By circulating between penal institutions and their administrations, between photographers and their imprisoned protagonists, they vehicle glimpses, for which we tried to provide historical context and clarify the distinctions between the “external” world and the one inhabited by people deprived of their civil rights, between forced and free labour. Therefore, they are part of a flow of information that runs across the boundaries of detention and reveals their permeability. Knowledge of the way in which the visual material itself gave shape to this flow is of the utmost importance in approaching these images as fully-fledged documents.

[1]I rely in particular on Jean-Louis Comolli’s notion of viewer-oriented framing and position arrangements as laid out in Jean-Louis Comolli, Corps et cadre : cinéma, éthique, politique, 2004-2010, Lagrasse, Verdier, 2012.

[2] C. Vatulescu, Police aesthetics: literature, film, and the secret police in Soviet times, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

[3]Among the wealth of documentaries, the author would like to point to: Mihail Miheev (screenplay by Varlam Chalamov), Kolyma (a trilogy), Russia, Lentelefilm, 1991. Io. Pasternak and H. Chatelain, Goulag, 13 Production, 2000. S. Fernandez, Goulag, la mémoire enfermée, Paris, Mécanos Productions, 2012.

[4] See the articles about the exhibitions in E. Anstett and L. Jurgenson, Le goulag en héritage: pour une anthropologie de la trace, Paris, Pétra, 2009.

[5] An example of this is the “Goulag, le peuple des zeks” [Gulag, the Zek people] exhibition at the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva from 12 March 2004 to 2 January 2005. It led to the publication of a catalogue, G. Piron, Ch. Delécraz and Th. Obrecht, Goulag, le peuple des zeks, Geneva, Gollion, Infolio, 2005. Also, in the Baltic countries, where visitors to the “Occupation museums” had the opportunity to view many objects, photographs and compilation films on this topic.

[6] Just as Sarah Gensburger, Tal Bruttmann, Christoph Kreutzmüller, and Stefan Hördler analysed two photo albums as an ensemble. S. Gensburger, “Images d’un pillage. Regards sur la spoliation des Juifs à Paris”, Genèses, 78, # 1, 2010, pp. 135-157; T. Bruttmann, Ch. Kreutzmüller, and Stefan Hördler, “L’‘album d’Auschwitz’, entre objet et source d’histoire”, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, 139, # 3, 2018, pp. 23-42.

[7] In France Jean-Lucien Sanchez studied the issues behind the commissioning of such images.

[8] T. Kizny and D. Roynette, Goulag: les Solovki, le Belomorkanal, l’expédition de Vaïgatch, le théâtre au goulag, la Kolyma, la Vorkouta, la voie morte, Paris, Acropole, 2003.

[9] A. K. Glebova, “Picturing the Gulag”, Kritika, 16, # 3, 2015, pp. 476-479.

[10]      An appeal issued particularly by Elisabeth Anstett and Luba Jurgenson, both of whom gathered, contextualised and published the drawings made by a former warden in the Danzig Baldaev camp between 1949 and 1981. Danzig Baldaev, Gardien de camp: tatouages et dessins du Goulag, publié sous la direction de E. Anstett, L. Jurgenson, Geneva, Editions de Syrtes, 2013. E. Anstett, “Art brut et obsession: Dantzig Baldaev et Alexandr Lobanov: dessinateurs”, in P. Bernard-Nouraud and L. Jurgenson (eds), Témoigner par l’image, Paris, Editions Pétra, 2015, pp. 147-172.

[11] The majority of the works are dedicated to the usages of the photo by the police: I. About, “Les fondations d’un système national d’identification policière en France (1893-1914)”, Genèses, 54, # 1, 2004, pp. 28-52; I. About and V. Denis, Histoire de l’identification des personnes, Paris, La Découverte, 2010; M. Renneville, “Paris, capitale du portrait judiciaire. 1885-1914” in L’impossible photographie. Prisons parisiennes. 1851-2010, Paris, Paris-Musées, pp. 164‑173; J. Jäger, “Photography: a means of surveillance? Judicial photography, 1850 to 1900”, Crime, Histoire & Sociétés/ Crime, History & Societies, 5, # 1, 1 January 2001, pp. 27‑51; I. Thiesen, “Jeremy Bentham et la réforme des prisons au Brésil : l’expérience de la Maison de Correction de la Cour”, Revue d’études benthamiennes, # 6, 1 February 2010. Alison Griffiths, Carceral fantasies. Cinema and Prison in Early Twentieth-Century America, New York, Columbia University Press, 2016; Nicole R. Fleetwood, “Posing in Prison: Family Photographs, Emotional Labour, and Carceral Intimacy”, Public Culture, 27:3, DOI 10.1215/08992363-2896195, accessed 6 March 2018.

[12] F. Niney, “Que documentent les images d’archives?” in J. Maeck, M. Steinle (eds.), L’image d’archives. Une image en devenir, Rennes, PUR, 2016, pp. 43-46.

[13] A. Szczepanska and S. Lindeperg (eds.), A qui appartiennent les images: le paradoxe des archives, entre marchandisation, libre circulation et respect des œuvres, Paris, Éditions Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2017.

[14] V. Pozner, A. Sumpf and V. Voisin (eds.), Filmer la guerre: les Soviétiques face à la Shoah, 1941-1946: [exhibition, Paris, The Shoah Memorial, 6 January-27 September 2015] Paris, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2015.

[15] S. Lindeperg, Nuit et brouillard: un film dans l’histoire, Paris: O. Jacob, 2007; S. Lindeperg, La voie des images: quatre histoires de tournage au printemps-été 1944, Lagrasse, Verdier, 2012.

[16] G. Didi-Huberman, Images malgré tout, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 2003. G. Didi-Huberman, Quand les images prennent position, Paris, Minuit, 2009.

[17] C. Chéroux, (Ed.), Mémoire des camps. Photographies des camps de concentration et d’extermination nazis (1933-1999), Paris: Marval, 2001, p. 10; C. Chéroux, “Du bon usage des images”, Ibid., p. 16.

[18] André Gunthert showed that the signification encapsulated in the images can only be established through a process of interaction with their recipients, thus showing that this is actually the result of a process of interpretation. André Gunthert’s seminar at the EHESS [School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences], “Image et fiction”, 2017-2018.

[19] The ANR-07-CORP-004, a programme coordinated by Alain Blum (CERCEC, EHESS/CNRS) in partnership with the Marc-Bloch Centre (Berlin), the CEFRES (Prague) and the CEFR [France-Russia Research Centre for Social Science and Humanities] (Moscow). This study resulted in the creation of a virtual museum “Sound archives, European Memories of the Gulag”, URL, several scientific publications.

[20] S. Breton, “Le regard”, in P. Haag and C. Lemieux (eds.), Faire des sciences sociales, Paris, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2012, t. 2, pp. 225-253.

[21] Steven Barnes and Wilson T. Bell, in particular, highlight the plasticity of these boundaries and how these were the object of constant negotiation between the 1930s and the 1950s. S. Barnes, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011; Wilson T. Bell, “Was the Gulag an Archipelago? De-Convoyed Prisoners and Porous Borders in the Camps of Western Siberia”, The Russian Review, 72, # 1, 2013, pp. 116-141. See also Kritika’s special issue, “The Soviet Gulag: New Research and New Interpretations”, 16, # 3, 2015.

[22] GARF (State Archive of the Russian Federation), f. 58, op. 8, d. 1251; G. Kennan, Siberia and exile system, New York: Century, 1891, vol. 2, # 231, pp. 249-277, pp. 454-456.

[23] NARA, f. RG 59, M 316, box 87, 861.13/4. 28 September 1910. Several files kept in the GARF provide a record of the information-gathering activities of the Central political authorities on active prisons and colonies. GARF. f. 102, op. 301, d. 88; f. 533, op. 6, dd. 5631, 5781, 5757; f. 29, op. 1, d. 1477.

[24] Public archives of the Sverdlovsk Oblast, f. P-258, op. 1, d. 84. GARF, f. 122, op. 1, d. 2664. Note from the Penitentiary Directorate and correspondence on the additional financial funds allocated to photographing the inmates, 5 October 1893.

[25] E. Wolf, “The visual economy of forced labour. Aleksandr Rodchenko and the White-Sea Baltic Canal”, Picturing Russia: explorations in visual culture, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 168-174.

[26] J. Bradley, “The Moscow Workhouses and Urban Welfare Reform in Russia”, Russian Review, 41, # 4, 1982, pp. 427-444.

[27] J. Carré, La prison des pauvres: l’expérience des workhouses en Angleterre, Paris, Vendémiaire, 2016.

[28] A. Smykalin, Kolonii i tiurmy v Sovetskoi Rossii, Ekaterinburg: Izd. Uralskoi gosudarstvennoi iuridicheskoi akademii, 1997, # 53, pp. 79-80.

[29] For further information regarding the history of the creation and disappearance of the model based on penitentiary colonies founded by West philanthropists of the 1830s, see for instance the Mettray colony in L. Forlivesi, G.-F. Pottier and S. Chassat, Eduquer et punir: la colonie agricole et pénitentiaire de Mettray (1839-1937), Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2005.

[30] Une visite à Mettray par l’image : l’album de gravures de 1844, URL Viewed on 18 March 2016.

[31] Sevzapkino, silent, B & W, RGAKFD. This document is part of a collection of five films and newsreels directed between 1919 and 1929 as an answer to the political desire to promote this institution. However, some images showing groups of political prisoners are more ambiguous when it comes to the work they are forced to do. See rushes from Kinonedelia # 29, 1918, edited by Dziga Vertov, silent, B & W, RGAKFD.

[32] Ph. Artières and P. Lascoumes, Gouverner, enfermer: la prison, modèle indépassable?, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2004.

[33] For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross or the UN International Penal and Penitentiary Foundation.

[34] The archives of the Department of Correction of the Public Ministry and of the Detention Facilities Inspectorates are currently more accessible than those from the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs. D. N. Nohotovič, “Les documents du Ministère public de l’URSS comme sources de l’histoire du Goulag, 1945-1953”, Cahiers du monde russe, 22, # 2, 1 September 2008, pp. 549-556.

[35] F.-D. Liechtenhan, Caen Memorial and Research Centre for Quantitative Research (Caen), “Europe 1946: entre le deuil et l’espoir: [Communication from the international symposium, 22-24 February 1996]”, Caen, Éd. Complexe, 1996, p. 95.

[36] GARF, f. R 9401, op. 3, d. 80, l. 23.

[37] C. Becquet-Lavoinne, “Itinéraire du Général Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach (1888-1976): un officier allemand face aux totalitarismes”, Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, 2, # 218, 2005, pp. 53-66, URL

[38] W. Neweschin, “Ideologische Entwaffnung. Die Rolle des Hauptabteilung für Politische Führung des Roten Armee”, A. Fischer, “Vergebliches Ringen um das deutsche Ostheer. Nationalkomitee ‘Freies Deutschland’ und Bund Deutscher Offiziere”, in Kriegsgefangene – Voennoplennye. Sjwjetische Kriegsgefangene in der Sowjetunion, Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1995, pp. 30-35, pp. 66-71.

[39] K. Sasse, Bilder aus russischer Kriegsgefangenschaft: Erinnerungen und Fotos aus Jelabuga und anderen sowjetischen Lagern 1945-1949 (Rückblick), Münster, Waxmann, 2007. His pictures were exhibited in 1990 and 1996 in the Museum of Cultural History in Saarbrücken within the framework of a study on the detention conditions of war prisoners in the USSR. Sasse had been in contact with the telegraphic information service and had a Minox. As this type of camera was no bigger than a lighter, his Minox was not found when he was searched. He kept it, which encouraged him to take pictures. During his interviews he insisted his intentions were not to testify. Sasse took 179 photos on four rolls. His photographs of Elabuga are reproduced on pages 193-225. I am very grateful to Francine Labadie for her translation of German.

[40] Beutestücke Kriegsgefangene in der Deutschen und Sowjetischen fotografie. 1941-1945, Berlin, Ch. Links Verlag, 2003.

[41] Ibid., pp. 60-62, pp. 66-67.

[42] The Soviet authorities seized numerous pictures and used them in the press and filmed news as a counterpoint to the photos depicting the atrocities. See V. Pozner, “L’usage des images ‘trophée’ dans les films soviétiques”, in V. Pozner, A. Sumpf et V. Voisin (eds.), Filmer la guerre: les Soviétiques face à la Shoah, 1941-1946, op.cit., pp. 89-96. New archival records must be identified to study how these images were collected, kept and the way according to which they were accessible to Soviet photographers and film directors.

[43] F. Niney, “Que documentent les images d’archives?”, in L’image d’archives: une image en devenir, op.cit., p. 49.

[44] viewed on 20 July 2018. “Note from a historical report of institution AB-239”. Author Iu. Shevchuk. Not dated. Shevchuk’s personal archives.

[45] Semi-directive interview by Irina Tcherneva on 16 August 2016 in the building where the management of the current-day colony is located.

[46] For further details on this criminal brotherhood, see F. Varese, “The Society of the vory-v-zakone, 1930s–1950s”, Cahiers du monde russe: Russie, Empire russe, Union soviétique, États indépendants. 39, # 4, 1998, pp. 515-538; Anton Oleinik, “Un double monstrueux : la culture criminelle en Russie post-soviétique”, Cultures & conflits, 2001; A. Oleinik, Tiuremnaia subkul’tura v Rossii: ot povsednevnoi zhizni do gosudarstvennoi vlasti, Moskva, Infra-M, 2010; A. Oleinik Anton, A. Touraine and Sh. Curtis, Organized crime, prison and post-Soviet societies, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003.

[47] For further research on the press in the camps, see W. T. Bell, “One day in the Life of Educator Khruschev: Labour and Kulturnost’ in the Gulag Newspapers”, Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, 46, # 3-4, September-December 2004, pp. 289-313.

[48] S. Barnes, Death and Redemption; Idem., “The Gulag Foundation in Kazakhstan”, Global Studies Review, Summer 2008; Idem., “Researching Daily Life in the Gulag”, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Spring 2000, pp. 377-390.

[49] A. Barenberg, Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

[50] W. Ruge and A.-M. Pailhès, Prisonnier n° 8403 de la montée du nazisme au goulag: témoignage, Paris, N. Philippe, 2004, p. 232.

[51] Ibid., p. 215.

[52] This is the case of a documentary film that shows, without any explicit description, prisoners working on the construction of the Kuybyshev hydroelectric station. Bez legend [Without a legend], Kuybyshev studio, directed by Gerceļs Franks in 1968.

[53] V Kuneevskom ispravitelno-trudovom lagere, [In the Ministry of Internal Affairs Kuneevo correction camp],1957, operators: A. Agaponov and V. Zakharov, B & W, 30 min, # 10, 269, State Archive of Photographic and Audiovisual Documents of the Russian Federation. This camp, opened in Stavropol in 1949, held a considerable number of inmates until 1957 in spite of the post-Stalinist amnesties: 32,000 prisoners in 1956; 21,000 in 1957. The majority of detainees had been sentenced to between two and 15 years in prison for theft of Socialist property and anti-Soviet activities. After the amnesty, only those convicts accused of theft of State and private property remained in the camp. The GES was officially opened in 1958. The commentary on the film’s voiceover insists on the public notoriety of the endeavour and the restoration of civic rights entailed therewith.

[54] Editing sheets of the film. # 10 269, RGAKFD.

[55] Interview with Juozas Eidikavicius held on 26 January 2010 in Tanguj at the interviewee’s home in the presence of Émilia Koustova and Alain Blum. 2010 EGG RU 0301.

[56] J. S. Draskoczy, BELOMOR : criminality and creativity in Stalin’s Gulag, Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2014.

[57] Interview with Juozas Eidikavicius.

[58] Interview with Miia Jõgiaas, conducted by Marta Craveri, Juliette Denis and Aigi Rahi-Tamm on 20 January 2010 in Tartu. 2009-EGG-EST-0601.

[59] I. Narskii, Fotokartochka na pamiat: Semeinye istorii, fotograficheskie poslaniia i sovetskoe detstvo, Avto-istorio-biograficheskii roman, Chelyabinsk, 2008.

[60] Directed in 1927-1928 by N. Cherkassov. Silent, B & W, RGAKFD.

[61] W. Ruge and A.-M. Pailès, Prisonnier n° 8403 de la montée du nazisme au goulag, op.cit., p. 216.

[62] Filmed interview with Antanas Seikalis led by Marta Craveri, Alain Blum and Jurgita Mačiulytė at the interviewee’s home on June 24, 2009. 2009-EGG-LT-0201.

[63] Interview with Bogdan Klimchak led by Marc Élie and Dominika Rank on 23 October 2009 in Lvov. 2009 EGG UA 1501.

[64] For an analysis of Bogdan Klimchak’s trajectory, see M. Élie, “Itinéraire pénitentiaire d’un ultranationaliste”, in A. Blum, M. Craveri, V. Nivlon, Déportés en URSS. Récits d’Européens du Goulag, Paris, Éditions Autrement, 2012, pp. 267-284.