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UK Economic and Social Research Council

Mapping the Gulag
Russia's prison system from the 1930s to the present

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About the Project

The initial aim in mapping the geographical character of the Russian penal estate was to illustrate the continuity from the gulag to the present day in the use of peripheral locations for punishment. Feedback we have had from people who have visited this site, have also made us realise that mapping the gulag has a role to play in remembering the gulag. The regional maps, in particular, locate places that have long since disappeared from site, as their foundations have been overgrown by forest. The visualisation of camp subdivisions that we have plotted for a single year, is an appalling reminder of just how the gulag shaped the landscape in the Soviet Union's peripheries and of the countless number of people who moved through them. We had added some new maps thanks to the efforts of Dr Andrei Suslov, Director of the Centre for Education and Human Rights, Perm' and Higher School of Economics, showing the distribution and economy of special settlements in Perm' krai. Our aim is to find other historians to help us make similar maps for other regions.

This website is one element of a research project investigating the impact of Russia's penal geography on women's experiences of imprisonment in Russia and the challenges they face on re-entry to society after release. The idea informing the project is that many of the problems of the contemporary Russian penal system (including high rates of recidivism, family breakdown, physical and mental health problems) may be associated with the location of penal colonies in extra-urban regions in remote parts of the country, and the distance prisoners are therefore sent to serve their sentences. The practice of expelling 'convicted offenders' (however defined at any time) to the peripheries raises important questions about the direction of change in the penal system in post-Soviet Russia.

Since the early 1990s the Russian penal code has committed the penal service to locating prisoners in the region in which they were sentenced, or in which they are domiciled. What isn't known is how close the penal services have come to meeting this objective; the penal colonies in one oblast do not necessarily accommodate people from that region, but often draw from a wide hinterland. The incarceration of Mikhail Khordokovsky in the Far East, after sentencing in a Moscow court, is an extreme example of the opacity of the decision determining where a prisoner is sent to serve his or her sentence.

For women prisoners guaranteed imprisonment in their home oblast is often not possible since there are only half as many penal colonies for women as there are oblasts in the Russian Federation (and in the case of juvenile women only three for the whole of Russia). But even if someone is sent to an institution in their home region, because of the remote location of many colonies they can be costly and difficult to access.

Why map the Gulag?

By mapping the Gulag through time we can correct the impression that there was a complete and continuous coverage of the USSR with labour camps in the Stalin era. In reality, the geography of the Gulag was complex and penal institutions were not fixed in time and space; as new camps were formed, others were closed, and certain regions experienced intense development at certain times and others not, depending upon the economic and political priorities of the day.

The maps included on this site try to capture this changing geography, showing the geographical spread of penal institutions in the USSR at critical periods in its history - the eve of the Great Terror, the War years, on the eve of Stalin's death and of the Secret Speech, and what was left after the major wave of prisoners' releases.

Mapping Russia's penal institutions shows how some regions, having acquired a penal function during the Soviet period, continue to perform the same role in the present day. Today's penal infrastructure largely reflects the decisions made in the 1960s about which penal complexes to retain when the majority of Stalinist camps were closed. Even a quick glance shows that the practice of sending offenders to the peripheries continues. We are not suggesting that this continuity in geography implies continuity of all elements of penal practices (Russia's membership of the Council of Europe requires it to treat prisoners humanely and according to international standards) but, nevertheless, the distinctive geography of prisons demonstrated on this site goes some way to explaining why certain elements of past practices still plague the penal system, such as the etap, or prisoner transports, that can run into weeks or, in some cases, months and difficulties experienced by prisoners' relatives taking up new rights to visit prisoners.

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