Book cover Our recent book Intellectual Life and Literature at Solovki 1923-1930: The Paris of the Northern Concentration Camps, by Andrea Gullotta, now has an accompanying virtual exhibition, at the Hunterian in Glasgow: though, of course, being a virtual exhibition it can be accessed from anywhere. The link is:

Beauty in Hell: Culture in the Gulag

A single 16th-century monastery in the beautiful and austere Solvetsky Islands, ice-bound in the White Sea, somehow became a capsule of early Soviet history. The painted buildings of Solovki, easy to romanticise — there are paintings of it which could almost be English landscapes — were a bleak citadel in an unremittingly difficult place to live. A trouble-maker, if sent to Solovki, would make trouble no more. Under the Soviet regime this principle, increasingly systematized, led directly to the vast network of gulags. The sheer distance from Moscow; the bitter cold, an unpaid executioner; the impossibility of Western journalists getting much of a look — all of these virtues of Solovki, from the regime's point of view, became standard attributes of any gulag.

And on the other hand, Solovki was unique. To quote from Robert Chandler's review in the Financial Times,

Solovki was a murderous world; many were tortured there, and many died. At the same time, it boasted an excellent library, stocked with books no longer available on the mainland. As the subtitle [of Andrea Gullotta's book] chillingly puts it, it was the “Paris of the northern concentration camps”. In the late 1920s, the prisoners staged plays and produced journals that were less censored than anywhere else in the Soviet Union.

Gulag studies are under almost open attack by the Russian government. The official line is that paying attention to past excesses is a distraction from the greater patriotic story of a unified Russia defeating Hitler. Archivists are getting nervous, and the more persistent Russian historians are just beginning to be arrested themselves. Andrea's book is timely not only in having drawn attention to an extraordinary story, but also in having gathered the data while it was still possible to do so.

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