In summer 2016, a few passionate people in the Czech Republic published “Gulag Online”, a virtual museum about the Gulag system. They present interactive maps, biographies of prisoners, and 360° pictures of former barracks. In his interview with Madeleine Janssen, the chairman Štěpán Černoušek explains why the internet is a good instrument to access history and how his work is perceived in Russia.
How did the idea for the virtual Gulag museum evolve?
That is a long story. I started traveling to Russia some twenty years ago, and I traveled a lot to parts of Siberia. These parts are often connected to the history of repression. Maybe that is why I started to be interested in this topic. In 2009, I was looking for remains of the railroad from Salekhard in the northern part of Siberia, which had been built by Gulag prisoners. I had found those remains on satellite pictures online. Along the railroads, you could tell from the satellite picture that every five to ten kilometers there were ruins of barracks. I realized those must have been gulag camps. I was so surprised that there were so many of them in the deep Taiga and Siberia – and that there is not one single museum about them. Also, there is almost no information about these camp relics on the internet. So I decided to go there and organize an expedition. My team and I visited three camps, and surprisingly, some of the camps were in really good condition. We found many items from the prisoners' work and a lot of barracks with prisoners' beds and letters. It is not a museum, it is reality! I thought: How this is possible? When I returned home, I started to ponder: What should I do with that? One article in Czech media is not enough. Then I decided to organize two more expeditions. During the second one in 2013, we mapped these remains of the camps in very good detail with panoramic photographs. We took measurements and created a 3D model later on. This was the beginning of the virtual museum.
Why did you decide to make it a virtual museum instead of a real one in Prague, for example?
Because of financial reasons. We are just a small non-governmental organization, and the first expeditions I paid from my own pocket. It is very far and expensive to go there, and it also very expensive to create a virtual museum. We initiated a crowdfunding campaign last year for “Gulag Online”, and it was successful. We don't receive any support from the government or from the EU. Financing is a big problem. That is the first thing. The second: In my opinion, the future of presenting history lies in computer technologies. Everybody all over the world can visit our museum. In the years to come, we would like to work with augmented reality and with 3D glasses. Maybe we can eventually travel the world on a virtual expedition using 3D technology.
Who is your target group?
Older people may not be able to deal with 3D models or augmented reality.
I think most of the people who use with the internet on an everyday level and who have new versions of internet browsers can work with it. It is not so difficult. We receive a lot of feedback from people, but most of them are older. Maybe some of their relatives had been arrested in the Gulag, and now they ask us for more information. It is also very important for us to see that our work has a sense. In deep Taiga, in deep Siberia, in those remains of the Gulag, I had very often doubts if it had any sense to be there and to map all this. But those reactions from the people tell me that it does.
How much does the general public know about the Gulag?
We had access to some archives in Ukraine which are open now. And we were able to find a few documents about Chechoslovak citizens who were arrested in Gulag camps. These old people who survived know what Gulag was. They know how evil it was. I would say: Young people don't know that. If you compare that to Nazis and Nazi concentration camps: Everybody in Europe and the Czech Republic knows what Nazi camps looked like and what the holocaust was and which people were arrested in concentration camps. It is possible to go to these former camps like to museums. The information is everywhere, and everybody knows it. But almost nobody knows what Gulag was and how many were arrested there. A lot of people think it was just one big camp somewhere in Siberia. Nobody knows that there were 30,000 small labor camps in the Soviet Union from 1920 to 1960, and almost twenty million people went through these camps and almost two million died. Also, almost nobody knows what it looked like because there is only one museum from a real former labor camp: Perm-36. This museum recently saw a change of ownership. The new government of Perm shows more exhibitions of the hard work that the guards had to do in the camps. Exhibitions about Soviet residents are removed from the museum, which is horrible. It is very important to show people what Gulag was and what it was about. And if it is not possible to go to former camps like to museums to get this information, let's put it on the internet.
How many Czechoslovak people had been imprisoned in Gulag camps?
According to my colleagues from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes who work on this topic: They estimate 25,000 people who were in some way affected by the Soviet repressive system. Some of these were executed or sent to exile. Maybe half of these people were in Gulag camps.
How many of them died?
We don't have exact numbers. Maybe one quarter or one third of them. It is not a historical fact, nobody knows it.
How difficult was it for you to access sources such as Russian archives and obtain historic photographs?
I had some material not only from state archives in Russia, but also from MEMORIAL archives which is an NGO and very open to cooperation with international organizations like us. Another source is the State Archive of the Russian Federation, GARF, which is open to the public. There you get information about the system, about the construction of the Gulag, documents about how expensive it was and information on the numbers of prisoners. But there are no personal data of the Gulag prisoners. The details which are most interesting for historians and relatives are still locked away, in the Russian Ministry of the Interior or in archives of the FSB intelligence. But we have good access – and my colleagues from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes – to the Ukrainian archives. The Ukrainian security service SBU has opened its archives to the public. Everybody from all over the world can go there, and they will show him around. It is like a miracle to work with them.
Have you already received comments on your work from the official Russian side?
No. We have a good feedback from Russia, but almost exclusively from people like MEMORIAL. Unfortunately, these organizations are under pressure now from the official Russian authorities because there is a controversy about this part of history. Official authorities like to say that living in the Soviet Union was very good. They don't want independent organizations to say that the Soviet system was unfriendly to Soviet citizens. That is a problem. Sometimes I receive hateful emails from Russians. But I think that is normal under all such articles on the internet.
Are you under the impression that Russia is reflecting upon this part of its history?
That is the problem of today's Russia: They don't really deal with their own history. They don't know how to deal with that. They don't know how to reflect it. Very often I can hear from my friends at MEMORIAL: In Russia, there was nothing like a Nuremberg Trial with communism – and that is problematic. Today, there is no consensus in Russian society that the Soviet system and the Gulag as a part of it were evil. A lot of people know it, but they are a minority. Russians speak about those times as if they had been a natural disaster that came from somewhere up above and as if it had no immediate connection to the Soviet structure and to the Communist ideology. It is something, which officials don't want to speak about. They prefer to speak about their victory in the Second World War and about Stalin who was there during the victory. There is no room for the victims in this rhetoric. There are some Gulag museums in Russia. In Moscow, there is a very good one. But at the same time, they open new Stalin museums and they re-dedicate other museums like Perm-36.
Gulag Online: www.gulag.online