Monday, August 26, 2013

Who cares about Stalinist repression? Commemorative databases and regional historical memory

Among of the key movements that came out of the Gorbachev period were those dedicated to remembering the victims of Stalinist repression.  Although organizations like Memorial or the Sakharov Center for Human Rights have since moved to advocate generally for human rights, one of their main functions remains commemoration of the victims of Stalinism, especially by collecting and publishing lists of victims.  Memorial has been particularly active in this regard, putting together a database of almost three million names.  But its list of victims (available here) was for the most part not compiled by the central Memorial organization originally.  Instead, it was researched by regional affiliates and other local groups.  What I am doing today is looking at what regions have been finding these names as a rough assessment of where interest continues in commemorating Stalinist repression in Russia today.

Memorial's database includes not only people who were repressed during the Great Terror (1937-38) but also those exiled during collectivization or deported as members of the so-called "punished peoples" during World War II.  It is an incredible resource.  And Memorial's data (from this database and others) has been used for mapping the sites of the Stalinist repression pretty extensively at  For every entry, Memorial gives as much information as it has about the victim, including name, birthplace, date of arrest or exile and so on.  But for this post, I am really interested in the source of the information itself--who collected the data on these people.

Memorial compiled this list on a decentralized basis.  Each regional affiliate of Memorial or local historical society collected the names of victims and published these names as "kniga pamiati" or a "commemorative book."  And yet not every region contributes equal numbers of victims and some regions contribute none at all.  The introduction to the project explains some of the motivations and limitations of the project in the regions:

"In Russia, the process of collecting and publishing regional commemorative books remains the affair of the regions themselves.  The country has no state program to memorialize the victims of political repression.  There are no normative acts governing the preparation and publication of commemorative books, nor a standardized methodology or criteria for the collection of this data.  Therefore the preparation of the books is varies.  In some places the books are prepared and published by the local administration or various institutions involved in one way or another with [formal legal] rehabilitation..., elsewhere by academic and cultural associations, and elsewhere they are published through the efforts of society with minimal or no support from regional authorities."

Of course, the collection and publication of this data does not correspond perfectly to the interest in commemorating the victims of Stalinism, and that there are other factors involved.  However, I am working from the assumption that there is a general correlation between the number of victims a territory commemorates and the interest in commemoration in those territories.  I think this would generally hold true even in territories where the administration is less amenable to the project.  For example, in regions where official financing for commemorative projects has been minimal, it is likely that the administration is not especially interested in facilitating the release of victims' names but also that the population is not interested in lobbying for these projects.

Using Python, I counted the number of listings for each collection and added collections from the same province together.  Most were easy to assign to a province, although a couple stumped me.  (Does anyone know who put out the databases Pol'skie zakliuchennye vorkutinskikh lagerei or Pol'skie spetspereselentsy v Arkhangel'skoi obl.? They account for almost all of the 67,000 entries I couldn't tie to a region.)  In total, I counted 2,644,774 names from regional historical associations with the other 300,000 published in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.  With the data geocoded, I put it on a density map:

It's awfully small here with the provincial breakdown so I would recommend going to the bigger map, especially because I included the data and key for the geocodes there.  (A limitation of Google's Geochart when working with provinces is that it demands the International Organization for Standardization's code rather than the proper name of a province.)  What I expected when I thought of running this test was that Moscow and Petersburg would be the two big hot spots whose commemorative organizations would publish the names of lots of victims.  This result made sense to me because those cities have more resources than other areas and my impression that there is a larger presence of anti-Stalinist cultural elites (e.g., in Memorial or the Sakharov Center).  And the shear size of the population is bigger in Moscow and Petersburg than elsewhere, although I planned to account for that by normalizing the number of victims per capita as of the 2010 Russian census. Yet the regions putting out the largest number of names (and even more so on a per capita basis) were not Moscow and Petersburg but rather places like Tomsk, Komi and Chechnia.  In general, they have one or both of two qualities:
  1. Autonomous ethnic republics and territories
  2. Territories with large (and maybe just as important, infamous) Gulag camp complexes (see the map from 1931-1941 from below)

I was surprised by this result at first but I think it makes sense in a lot of ways.  The ethnic republics where the most names of victims of Stalinism have been published are naturally the republics from which large numbers of the titular nationality were deported.  The two leaders are Chechnia and Kalmykia, whose titular nationalities were expelled during World War II.  And of course the contemporary troubles in the Caucasus also contribute to its being of special interest.  But even places like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where the titular nationalities were not systematically targeted with repression as far as I know, the numbers listed in their commemorative books are relatively high.  Of the eighty-one territorial units, they ranked fourth and sixth in absolute numbers and fourteenth and nineteenth in per capita numbers, respectively.  I would suggest two explanations for the high numbers in the autonomous republics.  The first is that Stalinist repression has become a touchstone for differentiating a republic's identity from the rest of Russia.  The second is that most of the Caucasians exiled during WWII from these territories went back once freed.

In provinces with high numbers and per capita proportions, connections between Memorial and the police seem to be playing a crucial role in names being published.  In Tomsk the Administration of Internal Affairs contributed 216,926 (!) names of the 240,256 total names listed from that territory.  I tried tracking down information on the connection there but found nothing concrete about it.  My feeling is that in general and in this particular case, it probably reflects the intensity of the efforts in the region to gain legal restitution for the politically repressed.  These efforts are related to the activity of local Memorial affiliates and similar organizations.  (The Tomsk Memorial website is great, by the way, and shows the dedication of that chapter.)  But they also reflect that many people sent to those areas remained there after their release, whether by choice or compulsion.

What is most interesting to me about these results is that they seem to reflect the site of settlement after repression and not the site of arrest.  In a sense, it makes a nice companion piece to the map of the Great Terror in Moscow that I posted earlier.  That data set allowed me to ask what areas were hit hardest by the terror.  In the bigger list of victims lets me ask what areas still remember the the terror and other Stalinist repressive campaigns.  It makes sense that those areas that have the strongest efforts to commemorate the victims of Stalinist repression are those where the largest number of affected people live today.  It reminds us of the impact those policies had and continue to have on the families of people repressed under Stalin and the regions where they live.


  1. Hi Seth!

    I recently scraped some of the Memorial data as well, but haven't got time to do anything with it at the moment. I was just wondering, have you been in touch with anyone from Memorial about this? Are they generally happy to have their data scraped (maximise publicity), or are they a bit possessive?


  2. Hi Rolf--I've worked on a couple things now using their data and had the same concerns as you. I contacted them about using a specific resource (the listings of arrested people's addresses from Moscow in 1937-38) and they were totally supportive. I haven't contacted them about other data they post online but it seems to me that their philosophy is just what you said--whoever can make sense of our resources is welcome to use them. Looking forward to seeing what you can pull out of the data!

    1. Thanks for the reply - this sounds very promising. I was thinking of possibly using leaflet.js. If and when I get around to doing anything with it I'll be sure to report back

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