BEAUTY IN HELL: CULTURE IN THE GULAG

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The Solovki Camp - An Introduction

‌From 1923 to 1939 the Solovki Archipelago, a small group of islands in the White Sea off mainland Russia, was home to one of the Soviet Union’s earliest labour camps. The Solovki Camp, also known as the Solovki Special Purpose Prison Camp or SLON, is widely regarded as the 'first Gulag' of the USSR. These forced labour camps were instated by Vladimir Lenin for the ‘re-education’ of undesirable citizens. It is hard to estimate how many prisoners passed through the Gulag system during the years the Soviet Union was active, but under Stalin the Gulag came to symbolise the systematic repression of any citizen who was seen to oppose the state. 

Beauty in Hell Introduction FilmThis virtual exhibition looks at the unique circumstances of the very first Gulag at the Solovki Camp and how the cultural activity of the intelligentsia held there formed a resistance to the systematic violence and oppression which came to define the camp. 

Beauty in Hell: Culture in the Gulag highlights current research by Dr Andrea Gullotta, Lecturer in Russian Studies at the University of Glasgow and commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the event which marked the beginning of the Soviet era and the state violence which eventually resulted in the creation of the Gulag. 

Map

White Sea Map


Timeline

  • February 1917 
    'February Revolution' uprising, started by the 'common' people rebelling over low food supplies, gains military support from the Tsar’s mutinous troops. Results in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the beginning of the end of the Russian Empire. A provisional government is set up.
  • October 1917 
    'October Revolution' uprising against the provisional government, Bolsheviks take control of Petrograd. Outbreak of the Russian Civil War.
  • December 1917 
    Bolsheviks introduce the secret police, Cheka, under the direction of Feliks Dzerzhinskii. Tribunals begin for the sentencing of 'counter revolutionaries', a new class of criminal emerging in the Soviet state; thousands of people are arrested by the Cheka as they are considered a threat to the new state. Many who face trial are sentenced to prisons and camps, where they would often endure forced labour.
  • September 1918
    Start of the 'Red Terror', a period of the Russian Civil War defined by waves of arrests and executions. The existing prison system is overwhelmed and many prisoners are sent to converted prisoner of war camps from the First World War.
  • 1922 
    End of the Russian Civil War. Establishment of the Soviet Union – Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
  • October 1923 
    The Council of People’s Commissars, the highest decision-making body in the USSR, calls for the establishment of a 'special purpose' camp on the Solovki Islands. 
  • 1923-1924 
    Camp publications begin to be produced through the camp press – establishment of the most significant journal from the camp: SLON, later renamed Solovetskie Ostrova (Solovki Islands).
  • 1924 
    Lenin dies after a stroke. Start of the fight for power, which eventually will lead Joseph Stalin to assume power of the Soviet Union.
  • 1925 
    Naftalii Frenkel', a prisoner of the Solovki Camp - is given a position in the camp administration. He advocates the industrial expansion of the camp’s activities to make the prisoners’ forced labour profitable for the state. He is freed in 1927 and plays a key role in the establishment of Soviet camps in the late 1920s-1930s.
  • 1926 
    At the end of the year the two main press organs of the Solovki Camp, the journal Solovetskie Ostrova and the newspaper Novye Solovki (established in 1926) cease to be published.
  • 1929 
    Socialist writer Maksim Gor’kii visits the camp as a guest of the administration. He writes an article praising the camp system as a strength of the Soviet state. Publication of the journal Solovetskie Ostrova and the newspaper Novye Solovki restarts but ceases for good in 1930.
  • 1931 
    Mass movement of prisoners and camp technical equipment to the White Sea-Baltic Canal building site.
  • 1937 
    Mass shootings of thousands of prisoners on the Solovki, in Sandormokh and in Levashovo.
  • 1939 
    The Special Purpose Camp on the Solovki Islands is officially shut down.