Monday, October 19, 2015

Mapping the Gulag over Time

From the 1920s to the end of the 1950s, the Soviet government ran a brutal system of camps that came to be known by its acronym, gulag (Chief Administration of Camps). The gulag has been on my mind lately because I picked up Alan Barenberg's Gulag Town, Company Town (see a series of commentaries on the book by its author and specialists here) and also because the latest issue of the journal Kritika carried a series of articles about the camp system. With all this new information coming out about Soviet prison camps, it struck me that there is an opportunity to produce some digital content as well. I have also been thinking of data sets to use with QGIS, a powerful, open source mapping program, and Soviet forced labor provides a good one in many ways. While there was an entire project dedicated to producing gulag maps, it doesn't really take advantage of all the possibilities the data and technology present. Instead, I created a couple video maps from gulag data.

I'll explain what these visualizations are before analyzing what they mean. Using Python, I took the data from the Russian human rights organization Memorial's project on the gulag. I used only the data from the Camp Administrations (Lagupravleniia) tab, since these include individual camps rather than entire camp systems. These camps were only part of the gulag administration that was itself just part of the Soviet policing apparatus (OGPU-NKVD-MVD). The gulag administration ran a vast prison empire that included colonies for juvenile delinquents, ordinary jails and "special settlements" for exiled dekulakized peasants and supposedly hostile national groups. My visualizations only include what might be considered the "classic gulag," the "correctional labor camps" and transit camps of Solzhenitsyn's Ivan Denisovich or Shalamov's Kolyma Tales.  From the entries of 475 individual camps, I pulled the dates of operation, number of prisoners and geocoded the location. This allowed me to create 432 maps like this:

Then using QGIS and a plug-in called Time Manager, I plotted the points over time on a map, creating an image for each month between January 1924 and December 1959.

The first video contains heat maps showing the density of labor camp prisoners:

The second video contains point maps showing the size of camps:

These videos crystallize much of the new research on the gulag. The works of Barenberg, Wilson Bell (here as well) and others are showing that prisoners had far more contact with the outer world than we previously thought. Prison camps were often near towns, prisoners associated with guards and former prisoners were effectively forced to take up residence in the camp town. Although no one is trying to diminish the brutality of the forced labor system, new research suggests that the archipelago metaphor is not accurate. As economist Tatiana Mikhailova shows, cities formed around the gulag itself. And these maps allow us to see that very dense populations of prisoners were relatively close to cities--even Moscow. Moreover, during the final years of Stalin's reign, to March 1953, camps were everywhere. At the same time, it is worth pointing out that the rather dull first ten seconds of the visualizations give a clue as to why Solzhenitsyn's description endured. The main camp for political prisoners until 1929 was Solovetskii Special Purpose Camp, the island-bound prison north of Leningrad. Although the gulag system changed dramatically after 1929, it is worth remembering that this iconic image of Soviet forced labor--like that of many other aspects of the USSR--comes from the 1920s.

My data do a good job of approximating the total number of gulag prisoners at a time. The data set isn't perfect, of course. Memorial's camp data give the number of prisoners on a non-uniform basis. For example, the Birskii camp in Bashkorostan existed from April 1939 to January 1942. However, it only has five data points for that period. Clearly its population changed more that five times and rather than try to guess what it was in unlisted months, I averaged the number of prisoners in months in between. For February through June 1940, my map gives its population as 12,063, the average of its January 1940 population (12,866) and its July 1940 population (11,261). This approximation is problematic during WWII, when the map displays some camps as existing very close to German-occupied territory. My guess is that the NKVD created or reformed camp administrations in advance of the creation of camps on these territories and that my calculation picked up the first data point after the camp population returned. It also means that some of the camp data from February 1953 reflect the amnesty of prisoners in March 1953.

Rather than presenting the gulag's own summary statistics like Getty, Rittersporn and Zemskov did in this article, I tabulated the total number my camp data gave, warts and all. Nonetheless, it comes awfully close to the summary statistics from that article. More importantly, it captures the trajectory of the major expansions and contractions of the gulag over the period:

1924-1929: Limited camp system
1929-1933: Expansion based on wave of collectivization repression
1935-1939: Expansion based on political and social repression in the Great Terror
1941-1945: Contraction during war as prisoners join army or die during famine conditions
1948-1953: Late Stalinist expansion to largest camp system
March 1953-1956: Contraction during post-Stalin amnesty and destalinization

A final point that these maps hammer home is that the gulag system sent people to the far reaches of the USSR but it also had a huge footprint in European Russia. Punishment and proactive incarceration of "anti-Soviet elements" were the main motives behind mass repression under Stalin. However, the Soviet Union had a labor-hungry economy and construction sites and factories throughout the country demanded laborers. Research like Nick Baron's on forced labor in Karelia or James Harris's on the Urals show the large role that forced labor played in the planned economy. Prisoners were famously the key force in building the Moscow-Volga canal. From this data set, it is clear that the gulag increasingly became a tool of settlement in territories far from the populated European territories. However, it should be equally visible that the gulag remained a labor source for the territories that were already relatively developed.

Those are my thoughts on the videos. I will probably write up a little explanation of how I made the maps because it is not difficult to do if you have time staggered geographical data. If anyone wants to play with the numbers, the totals are available in csv form here and the month-by-month, camp-by-camp csv here. Comments are welcome--especially suggestions for music as backing tracks!


  1. Hi Seth, thanks a lot for these posts, very interesting. I would like to work with QGIS on the datasets you provide, but could only access the month-by-month, as the other link seem to be broken. Could you make the CSV file with totals available again, please? Regards, and thanks in advance!

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