Expanding the Gulag Archipelago (No, not that way)

Heroin addicted heroines. Prostitute landlords of Siberia. Prison guards and their incarcerated lovers. And, of course, political prisoners of all types. 

The above prototypes may not be expected to appear next to big budget, patriotic war films, such as Stalingrad (2013) and The Pilot (2021), but indeed, that’s what Russian cinema and television have witnessed over past ten or so years. A new, albeit small subgenre of stories amidst the blockbuster war films now includes those that focus not on the [typically male] soldier story at the frontline, but instead on women’s experiences of the Gulag camps at home. Serials such as Dekabristka (2018), A.L.Zh.I.R. (2019), Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (2020), and Obitel’ (2021) all appeared on state-funded channels, such as NTV and Rossiia-1, during primetime hours to considerably large audiences over the past five years. And all of them, most importantly, borrow successful strategies from big war blockbusters in order to shine light on Gulag victims’ stories.  

Each show is interesting in its own right and many are groundbreaking works of television history. Dekabristka, as the first example, tells the true story of Zinaida Levitskaia, a former court stenographer who used her past work experience to break into court archives and falsify official documents, freeing no less than 410 people from the camps in under three years. A.L.Zh.I.R. is named after the women’s labor camp Akmolinsky camp of wives of betrayers of the motherland (Акмолинский лагерь жён изменников родины), and includes a vast array of women prisoners from actresses and opera singers to chemistry teachers and seamstresses to thugs and thieves. Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes is based off the Guzel’ Iakhina novel of the same name and tells of nearly mute Zuleikha, a Tatar woman victim to both domestic abuse and Stalin’s forced resettlements. Lastly, Obitel’ may have a male protagonist, Artem, but his story focuses on his relationship with Chekist prison guard and girlfriend of the camp’s commander, Galina. In short, they all bring into focus the effects of the camp system on women’s daily lives and, as a group, create the first genre (albeit small, for now) to do so on primetime television.  

These women’s Gulag stories, as I unceremoniously call them for the time being, contribute in significant ways to Russia’s current mediascape. First, the change in setting is important. Moving the subject’s perspective from victims of fascism to victims of Stalinism introduces nuance into representations of mourning WWII-era victims. If the resurgence of Victory Day celebrations in Russia over the past decade speak to a desire to re-create feelings of national pride, the introduction of Gulag victims as equally worthy of grieving expands the narrative, now including survivors and families of camp victims in this communal mourning.  

Similarly, the astounding increase in the number films and television programs set in during WWII speaks to Russia’s national narrative turn to the past to plan the way forward. Over 30 feature films of the last ten years alone are set in the Great Patriotic War (thanks in no small part to the 2008 of the Ministry of Culture, tasked with funding works that feature heroic tales of the nation’s past); averaging over 3 per year, films set in WWII outnumber those of any other historical setting. Many others have already written on the utility WWII offers the current national narrative as a “usable past” (in this case, a martyr-savior story, the hero role of saving Western Europe from fascism, legitimization for the position of global leader, and defender of traditionally conservative values from dangerous Western ideological infiltration).  

When considering national narratives, I have in mind not a presumed discovery of a pre-existing truthful account of some innate Russian essentialism, but the ongoing cultural and social construction of how Russia talks about itself, its past, and its future. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the economically, politically, and socially unstable Wild 90s, Russia has worked hard to reimagine  and rebuild its story. While many parts of this process can be attributed to Putin’s well-known efforts, it would be inaccurate to consider the changing narrative to be only a top-down effort. Instead, innumerable, multifaceted sectors of society contribute to building culture; in screen media alone, various actors are needed from writers and directors to plan projects, performers and camera crews to bring them to life, editing teams to manage the flow of the narrative, audiences to provide economic and social validation, and critics and scholars, myself included, to analyze and discuss. And this is before mentioning the political laws, financial means, and news coverage that often appear in the foreground of historical study. The ongoing creation of culture, in Russia as elsewhere, is a group project. 

Again, representations of prisoners of Gulag camps as innocent victims subject to unjust and irrational state violence is a remarkable inclusion into Russia’s national narrative. It takes on particular significance if we keep in mind the increased censorship on criticisms of state policies, even if that particular state no longer exists. One need only think of the multiple political (and at times violent) attacks on independent media over the past two decades to understand how dangerous a critical eye towards history can be, not to mention the increased regulations and limitations (explicit or not) on what media can be produced.  

Significant, too, is increasing the diversity of marginalized voices represented in these works. While we do see many traditionally uncomplicated heroes (soldiers, commanders, political leaders), we also see the inclusion of those on the margins of mainstream and dominant society, including addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, thieves, dissidents, domestic abuse victims, displaced peoples, various ethnic minorities, numerous political prisoners, and other often silenced voices (or, in the case of Zuleikha, literally silenced).  

Take, for example, prostitute and landlord Katia in Dekabristka. Katia falls into the long line of sympathetic sex workers in Russian culture, dating back to Dostoevsky’s Sonia Marmeladova, among others. While the depiction of kind, caring prostitutes is certainly not new in Russian culture, her inclusion as equally a victim of Stalinism as those incarcerated in the camps is important.  

Or Aglaia in A.L.Zh.I.R.  While not the most sympathetic character, she is nonetheless a thief and heroin dealer who gets by in the camp by selling her product to guards and commanders. Though she may be a villain on the show, she is humanized by her undying love for boyfriend and fellow prisoner, Fedka. The guards, for their part, may be shown shooting up in their office, but they are not condemned for this; instead, it is little more than an interesting aside that does not define the characters’ identity. In contrast to the overwhelming presence of drug abuse in 90s chernukha works, showing addiction in a non-damning way is a distinctive change for Russia’s contemporary mediascape.

In short, these works add to the national narrative in striking ways. New victims from diverse backgrounds are introduced, bringing complexity and nuance into a story that, for the past twenty years, has mostly focused on stereotypically male hero stories.  Whether or not this genre will continue to grow remains to be seen, but for now they nonetheless make an important contribution to the discussion of who Russia is.