A photographer scours Russia for historical memory of the Gulag

Liza Faktor
Jun 13, 2018 · 14 min read
The site of mass executions outside of Moscow. © Misha Friedman

“The death certificates could contain perhaps two truths and a lie, sometimes one truth and two lies. “Place of death” was always a lie. “Cause of death” was usually a lie — “heart failure,” “pneumonia,” nothing at all — but sometimes the truth: “Cause of death: execution.” The one line that was most likely to be true was the one that indicated the date of death. There was no telling, though — often the paperwork claimed that a Gulag victim had lived long past the actual execution date. That was when there was any paperwork at all. […] The early Memorial Societies looked for the bodies, the execution sites, the documents identifying the bodies — the truth. By restoring humanity posthumously, they hoped, perhaps, to restore humanity to the country itself.”

— Masha Gessen


Two years ago, photographer Misha Friedman and writer Masha Gessen journeyed across Russia to re-animate memories of, and from, the Gulag. They delved into personal archives and documents of the NKVD, the secret police that oversaw Stalin’s Great Purge. Friedman and Gessen travelled from sites of mass killings just outside St.Petersburg, to Gulag camps in the Urals; from Berlag on the Kolyma River to the forests of Sandarmokh in which 9,000 people were shot dead; from Moscow to the subarctic, port town of Magadan in the Far East.

The resulting book Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia argues that the Great Purge is something impossible to forget … precisely because it has barely been remembered. Recently, the Russian government was accused of covering up Gulag history by destroying the records of former prisoners. Russia’s most bloody period in history has never occupied a significant space in collective memory. In its place, a drift, and an absence. There’s something there but people aren’t allowed, or able, to acknowledge it. Russia’s phantom collective memory of the past haunts the country’s present.

Misha Friedman has routinely visualized complex issues and surveyed post-Soviet space. In the former USSR, memories are stored in the landscape. In his previous project Photo 51, Friedman looked at the formation and resilience of corruption in Russia, through panoramic landscapes and urban scapes.

Photographing land on which unspeakable cruelty and crimes have taken place is no easy task. For us, born in the Soviet Union, historical memory of Stalin’s repressions has been methodically suppressed as a state policy. Today, as the whole world seems to be in a state of coerced perpetual forgetfulness, and as memories of the Holocaust are already fading, it’s becoming even more urgent to reassess our past and draw lessons from history.

NKVD mugshots (fragment), Memorial archives, St. Petersburg. © Misha Friedman

Liza Faktor: Can you tell us how did the collaboration with the writer Masha Gessen come together? How did you conceive the project and what was your process?

Misha Friedman: The idea was born in Ann Arbor, where we both had affiliation with the University of Michigan. In 2015, I had an exhibition there while Masha was receiving the Wallenberg Award, an honor named after Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede who protected and saved Jewish lives during WWI. I just threw an idea out there. “Let’s go find Wallenberg,” I said to Masha. At first, she didn’t take me seriously. For the past sixty years people have tried to find him with a lot of focus and without much success.

But, I didn’t literally want to find Wallenberg’s remains. My pitch (and quest) was based on intuition; it was clear that Masha and I are interested in memory and I had a feeling that if we put our heads together, we’d be able to arrive at something worthwhile and maybe metaphorically shed some new light onto the subject of memory.

The University of Michigan agreed to support the project and gave us travel funds. Then we took this idea to Columbia Global Reports and got funding for the whole production.

LF: So you basically pitched the idea to Masha? Were you nervous or bold?

MF: I was confident. I didn’t know what I was getting into but it felt right, we previously did a story together in Ukraine, a magazine feature and it showed us that we could work together. Back then I was really nervous because Masha has a reputation as an editor-in-chief and this big name author but our magazine work showed me that we could find a way to do stories together and be comfortable with what we do. So that was important and cancelled my nervousness moving forward.

LF: How did you pick the specific places to focus on? How easy or hard was it to find memorials?

MF: Finding memorials was not hard, they were well known. Masha had extensive contacts with Memorial Society, which was instrumental to our work.

Perm-36 Gulag camp site, Perm, the Urals. © Misha Friedman

We picked locations that had historical significance and that we knew would be pertinent to the story. We chose Sandarmokh because it was the first and to this day one of the few known mass killing sites. We chose Perm-36 because it’s the only known surviving prison that has structures that were built for Gulag.

LF: And also the site of recent revisionist history written by the Kremlin.

MF: We went to Kolyma too, a remote place with uranium mines and harsh conditions. As we were working on a book about memory, we also referred to our own memories. For example, Masha had reported from Magadan fifteen years earlier, while I was in Karelia in 2012.

LF: Visualizing historical memory and bringing to the fore images of massive crimes must have been overwhelming. What were your emotional responses to the sites?

MF: Kolyma was emotional because it’s just so remote and so far from everything. You really understand this notion that distance is punishment. It’s an idea that predates communism, going back to the Tsarist regime. You are going into exile, not just put in prison, you are sent 5,000 miles away. You won’t see your relatives.

I think the challenge between photographing mugshots and visiting these sites is always maintaining the right distance, because you are at these prisons and killing fields in remote corners of Russia, and these places, the way they were, where they were situated, how they were organized, everything there was designed to strip the prisoners of all individuality.

When you find yourself in these places you can’t help but look for some signs of people who were there, you are not just there to photograph stones. At the same time you have this balancing dance, you are photographing mugshots and you are listening to eyewitnesses, horrifying stories of survivors from their next of kin.

You can’t make a visual story about specific survivors. When you are visiting a prison you can’t listen to one prisoner’s story and make the whole project about this particular case. You want to get the basic facts but at the same time pull away because you are drawing a much broader picture of memory. It’s so much to process.

The site of mass executions, Kovalevsky forest, Saint Petersburg. The Kremlin once promised Memorial Society that a museum of terror would be constructed at this site. Plans were drafted and submitted to then president Dmitry Medvedev, but final approval never came. © Misha Friedman

I was making decisions about how to work with the archives, how to process personal information without telling a singular tale in a very common, documentary way: this is a family, this is what happened to it, this is a person that was killed, these are the survivors, this is how they felt.

Learning those details is extremely important work while you are in the middle of it, but it’s important not to get side-tracked from the questions that you’re trying to answer. You find yourself in these open spaces, prison sites and killing fields, you look for personal details but you maintain the necessary distance so that you can keep on asking the questions instead of just retelling stories.

LF: When did you decide how you were going to photograph the subject? Most of your images are void of people, even when you photographed camp sites within urban areas.

MF: I knew that I wanted to work in the format that I was comfortable with and have done before which was panoramas. Plus I had some ideas based on the work about Hiroshima, such as Kikuji Kawada’s book The Map.

Juxtaposing macro photography in archives, and panoramic landscapes, I was acutely aware of constantly looking for the appropriate distance. In archives, you want to be so close that it becomes abstract, while at prison camps, you struggle to find evidence of humanity as they stripped all personhood from both victims and guards. I knew that shooting with macros could potentially compliment panoramic work.

NKVD files (detail), Memorial archives, St.Petersburg. © Misha Friedman

LF: While you were trying to solve that puzzle conceptually and visually, what did you try, what worked, what didn’t work?

MF: There are days when you wake up and you think you’ve succeeded and then there are times when you look at it and you’re not so sure!

I tried the super macro when working with archives, I knew I wanted it to be graphic and a little bit abstract, stay away from portraiture as much as I could unless it was really necessary for the story. At the same time it’s that constant kind of dance or movement where I don’t know if I was able to find the right distance in all the places but I know it was something that was in the back of my head.

LF: What do you think has to happen to give those places some peace?

MF: It’s a fascinating idea that you can’t forget something you can’t remember in the first place.

Russia didn’t go through this process of proper remembering, so therefore you can’t say that “Under Putin we don’t remember anymore”, — the idea we had heard early on from the Memorial activist and historian Irina Flige. It’s not really accurate, because we never really went through the exercise of remembering. So it’s not like we are suddenly forgetting who Stalin was. We didn’t have a national reckoning. Russian society needs to go through a proper exercise of remembrance, akin to what happened to Germany after WWII.

The harbor of Magadan. © Misha Friedman

LF: Your family immigrated from Moldova (then part of the Soviet Union). Can you elaborate on your family background and whether historical memory was something that your family discussed?

MF: I was a teenager in the 1980s and I was away from Russia in the 1990s and, despite having studied the subject in college and having read some books, all of this was still a cacophony in my head. I didn’t know that my own close relatives were in the Gulag. Only in 2017 while working on this project did I discover that my own grandmother was in one of the camps. She was in Bereznyaki, in Perm, the same camp as Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot was. We found that out just by chatting. My grandma was imprisoned around 1942–1945 (that’s our best guess), her brother was also in the same camp and as far as we know they along with other members of the family were ‘free settlers’, not exactly convicts but still working for the Gulag system.

I asked my Dad what he knew and he knew very little because he himself was born in 1948 and he doesn’t know exactly what went down but subject was never brought up in our family. This kind of approach was very common in the Soviet Union — an attitude that the subject shouldn’t be talked about anymore, let the past be past, there’s nothing to discuss. Which speaks volumes about the lack of remembrance in USSR.

LF: How does this project fall with your other work you’ve been doing in Russia in the last ten years or so?

MF: It’s one of those topics that are of interest to me. Working on corruption was a major milestone in a sense that it was solving that riddle, that puzzle. Since I never studied photography when I started I didn’t realize that most photography deals with consequences, what’s in front of you and what you can maybe foresee. But it’s really hard with photography to go into the past and then go back and to understand why things happened the way they did. And more complicated questions in life require of people to do go back. As someone who became a photographer in his 30s, I realized that’s not good enough, I’m not happy with just showing consequences. This is not satisfactory to me as a human being.

I’m trying to understand why things are the way they are and attempt to look at root causes of them. There has to be a way to go back either with words, or sound, or photography, or aesthetics, that would allow me to attempt to go back. In that sense, I really liked the challenge of this project: how do you go back in time? How do you photograph memory? How do you photograph what people felt like 80 years ago? I embrace such challenges, I couldn’t wait to get started.

Uranium mines, Butugychag. © Misha Friedman

LF: Who are you addressing with this project?

MF: General public, people interested in history, Americans, Russians, myself included. Listening in on the many interviews that Masha conducted gave me the opportunity to begin to think about these things — not in a new light — but not as a historian, not as a man living abroad but as someone who is part of it, my family was part of this, how come we never had these conversations.

I don’t pretend that this book has answers or is exactly what Russia needs, I don’t know. I think good stories ask questions and they don’t necessarily exist to provide answers. But if you are asking the right questions then maybe you’re on to something.

LF: Do you both have any plans of translating the book or publishing it in Russia?

MF: Probably not. There has to be a publisher in Russia who expresses interest and I frankly do not see it happening. I’d be pleasantly surprised if it happened, but I just don’t see it with what is happening in Russia today the environment in which the country lives. Would I object to it? Of course not. I would be more than happy if this work were discussed and shown in Russia, but I’m pessimistic. It’s ironic that the one country that has already purchased rights to translate the book is Germany.

I went to Ukraine last month and wrote on Facebook that I was coming to Kiev. The book just came out and Amazon didn’t carry it in Ukraine so I asked if anyone was interested in buying it, I would bring the copies with me. Three people said yes, and what did all these people have in common? They were all Americans living in Kiev. It was telling. I’m curious what the answer would have been had I posted the same message on my way to Moscow. I’d be surprised if the answer was any different.

LF: What has your experience been so far of talking about the work? Masha and you did a few events promoting the book, how much do Americans know about Stalin’s repressions?

MF: Quite a lot. We were lucky to have these events in top American universities — University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Columbia and Harvard which attracted graduate students and faculty. I was blown away by the level of discussion, by the people who came to listen to Masha speak and ask questions and it’s not just people who are interested in Putin and Trump.

While this book has nothing to do with either Putin or Trump it is about the way memory is treated at a governmental level. I always get the customary ‘Why black and white?’ and ‘Why panoramic?’ type of questions, but most of questions from audiences are serious and complex and I’m really grateful to sharing these encounters with Masha as she is able to answer most questions connecting politics and history and the now.

Perm-36 Gulag camp site. © Misha Friedman

LF: What was your experience of working on a book outside of the photography book publishing model?

MF: What’s great is that the finished product is two books in one. Our essays are complimentary to each other, but neither dominate. I am very fortunate that Masha’s previous book won the National Book Award, and as result our book is being reviewed by mainstream press and is marketed as history/politics/non-fiction.

The book format for this project is perfect because it is a book of writing, it is 20,000 words, it is a book that someone can read as a long form essay, get context and engage with images on another level. I don’t think projects like Never Remember that require time perform very well as slideshows that you can quickly click through. I don’t think my work makes sense in that form but it does as a book.

I made sure that the pictures in the book are not structured in a linear way. The book is divided into chapters based on locations, stories that Masha collected, whereas photographs are arranged intuitively and aesthetically. The one luxury you have when you’re working on a book and you know that it’s going be a book from the beginning, is that you are not shooting like a photojournalist while you are there. You know that in this spot you’re only doing the details and macros because that might work with something else from another location, but you are not worried about missing facts from each one of the places that you photograph. That’s a very liberating mindset that you just don’t have in journalism.

LF: What are the most productive environments to talk to audiences and show your work? In what context do you like to present it?

MF: The more I know about the audience, the better. I really like to tailor my presentation to what the audience is prepared for. I want to not be boring. For example, if I’m talking to students, I want to know who these students are — are they art, photography, Russian studies or political science students? Are they freshmen or graduates? What is of interest to them? I hope people actually learn from what I share with them. If they’re going to spend an hour or a day with me there has to be something that they can take away.


Misha Friedman is a photographer with the background in finance and humanitarian medical aid. He regularly collaborates with leading international media and non-profits, including the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Spiegel, GQ, Le Monde, Bloomberg Businessweek, Sports Illustrated, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders. He is the author of Lyudmila and Natasha: Russian Lives and Photo 51. His widely-exhibited work has received numerous industry awards, including multiple grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. A native of Moldova, Friedman lives with his family in New York City.

Follow Misha on Instagram and Twitter. Buy the book here.

Vantage

Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

Liza Faktor

Written by

transmedia producer and curator http://www.lizafaktor.com @faktorl

Vantage

Vantage

Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade