Authenticity, Interpretation and Ideology: The Case of Gulag Tourism in Kazakhstan
Along with Russia and the Baltic States, Kazakhstan holds some of the most important Soviet penal institutions known as Gulags and recently has developed prison museums on several of its former Gulag sites. These Gulag museums are important evidential and commemorative records of the Soviet period but the narratives they present regarding the historical experience of Sovietization can be constructed for visitors in the context of an acceptable past: interpreting, conserving and conveying an image of the tragedy that is ideologically commodified, accepted by the range of stakeholders involved in the development, funding and management of Gulag sites.
This study advanced understandings of the roles authenticity and ideology play in the management of Gulag tourism and its impact for Kazakhstani tourism development. More specifically, the research explored the extent to which Gulag museums could act as performative and educational places of visitation and offer historical re-enactment of atrocity as meaningful Gulag tourism experiences. The research offered new insights into Gulag museum interpretation, conservation and visitation in regard to Kazakhstani heritage tourism development.
This exploratory research project investigates questions of authenticity and ideology in Kazakhstani Gulag museums through the lenses of museum curators and guides, policymakers, tourism operators, local NGOs and experts in post-Soviet prison heritage.
The Kazakhstani Gulag museums whether commodified, selectively interpreted or celebrated for tourism purposes create the context to ask the following questions:
- How do perceptions of authenticity of museum curators and guides, policymakers and tourism developers contribute to informing the characteristics of Gulag tourism experiences?
- What role performance plays in stakeholders’ perception of authenticity of Gulag tourism experiences?
- What are the managerial implications related to the development of authentic Gulag museum practices in Kazakhstan?
- Is the nature of interpretation selective or ideologically constrained in the narratives offered to visitors?
- How does Kazakhstan embed guilt and shame into its memorials, museums and sites of visitation?
- How does Kazakhstan synonymous with the location of these crimes, commemorate the victims?
Project Team and Partners
Lecturer in Tourism (Management/Marketing) at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Glasgow. He has over 15 years of experience in researching and teaching Heritage and Sustainable Tourism subjects in an international context. Guillaume is the programme leader in Dumfries of the triple accreditated Master degree in 'Management and Sustainable Tourism'. His main teaching and research activities focus on the relationships between Cultural Heritage Tourism, Sustainable Tourism Development and Tourism Marketing. Guillaume also conducted and participated in several consulting projects in the fields of Tourism Marketing and Management in Central Asia, New Zealand and the UK.
Professor J.J Lennon, Co-I
In 1996, John created the term ‘dark tourism’ to describe the attraction of visitors to sites of death, mass killing, genocide, incarceration and crime; literally the darkest periods of human history. Since then the term has rarely been out of news media and John has been featured in publications ranging from: USA Today (the world’s largest English language newspaper), the Times, Newsweek, the New Yorker to major coverage on global TV, on-line media, news and radio.
KAZGUU University, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
Project partner in Kazakhstan for the academic-practitioner workshops
Project Publications and Links
- Lennon, J. J. and Tiberghien, G. (2021) Ambiguity and dilution in Kazakhstan’s Gulag heritage. Tourism Recreation Research, (doi: 10.1080/02508281.2021.1875681) (Accepted for Publication)
- Tiberghien, G. and Lennon, J. J. (2020) Gulag heritage conservation, visualisation and interpretation for tourism development: a multi-stakeholder perspective. Tourism Planning and Development, (doi: 10.1080/21568316.2020.1855240) (Early Online Publication)
- Lennon, J. J. and Tiberghien, G. (2020) Kazakhstan Gulag heritage: dark tourism and selective interpretation. International Journal of Tourism Research, 22(3), pp. 264-274. (doi: 10.1002/jtr.2341)
- Tiberghien, G. and Lennon, J. J. (2019) Managing authenticity and performance in Gulag tourism, Kazakhstan. Tourism Geographies, (doi: 10.1080/14616688.2019.1674371) (Early Online Publication)
Research Data Set:
- Tiberghien, G. and Lennon, J. (2019) Authenticity, Interpretation and Ideology: the case of Gulag Tourism in Kazakhstan. [Data Collection]
Media Interest in the Project
Press releases both in the UK and in Kazakhstan were produced about the project:
Dr Guillaume Tiberghien was interviewed at Khabar; live TV footage (#1 National TV channel in Kazakhstan) during the day of commemoration of Soviet repression, 31 May 2019: https://youtu.be/Cz8FwgF5vLw
- The Astana Times (#1 Kazakhstan International Newspaper), 6 June 2019: British scholars suggest developing GULAG tourism to Kazakhstan’s ALZHIR, Karlag camps (https://astanatimes.com/2019/06/british-scholars-suggest-developing-gulag-tourism-to-kazakhstans-alzhir-karlag-camps/?fbclid=IwAR1qlxWcMgHiY8ilE00QwxNbl_sLMv2TtaKugVzqz5yADGEEcDLcheLp5uY)
- The Times (Scotland), 9 June 2019: Soviet labour camps may be next destination on dark tourism map. (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/soviet-labour-camps-may-be-next-destination-on-dark-tourism-map-nb0tz8dwp)
- The Herald (Scotland), 24 October 2019, A world of Darkness: Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Italy.
The programme of impact activities included:
- An international knowledge exchange seminar presenting the key findings of this study was organised at KAZGUU University in the capital city Nur-Sultan on the 29th of May 2019 in partnership with delegates from the Ministry of Tourism and Sport, tourism stakeholders and academics involved in the development of dark tourism in Kazakhstan. The seminar benefited master students in tourism and history from KAZGUU University, with more than 130 attendees altogether.
- The research project contributed to developing a debate and open a new dialogue for public policy development of tourism in former Gulag sites in Kazakhstan with governmental officials including the new governmental agency Kazakh Tourism responsible for the promotion and development of tourism in Kazakhstan (http://qaztourism.kz/).
Advances in Knowledge or Understanding Resulting from the Research
The research provided new directions in which to comprehend the role of authenticity, interpretation and ideology in respect of Gulag museums as both heritage tourism and education sites.
Gulag Museums as Performative and Educational Places of Visitation
- The museum performative practices act as immersive and emotional tools to accentuate the ‘dark’ atmosphere of the epoch and induce a more impactful and participatory visitor experience. For a majority of stakeholders interviewed, the performances of the Gulag life showcased at Karlag and Alzhir museums were enacted as an educational and participatory instrument to inform and prevent any kinds of forms of political repression in the future.
- In the context of Gulag museums, the performative practices of the museums had a stronger effect on visitors in the understanding of the tragedy, beyond the museum effect which relies on the mutually reinforcing relationship among objects, images, and space, altogether linking to a particular site.
Museum interpretation, conservation and visitation
- What is commemorated and conserved and what is ignored, destroyed or redeployed is crucial to understanding interpretation or its omission. The re-use of facilities and Gulag heritage buildings is a recognisable phenomenon indicative of the low value placed on such evidential heritage. These challenges are not unique to Kazakhstan and the legacy of the Gulag is of course found throughout many nations of the former Soviet Union. Such sites if developed and conserved can offer learning and provide evidential heritage often through visitation and tourism.
- Ensuring the narrative of the Gulag sites is transparent, politically neutral and evidentially based on historical documentation is fundamentally important since such sites will constitute for many, the major learning experience related to this subject matter.
Historical Re-enactment of Atrocity and Meaningful Gulag Tourism Experiences
- This exploratory study posed questions about the extent to which stakeholders involved in the management of the Gulag tragedy can offer meaningful visitor experiences that are historically accurate and protect the dignity of the victims while adapting to the dynamic roles of museums as heritage and education sites. One of the many challenges for local cities in Kazakhstan with the Gulag heritage is whose story is to be told and how it will be told in a non-exploitative manner, as well as what local policies and procedures will be in place when hosting visitors.
- There is a need for a stewardship model based on mutually beneficial partnerships between various stakeholders involved in the management of the Alzhir and Karlag Gulag museums that could help understand how they can position themselves in the future in relation to collections and constituents. As agencies and repositories of authentic artefacts of the Gulag legacy, tour operators and specialists of the history of the Gulag suggested the need to offer a more diverse range of evidence in the performances about the life at the Gulag as means to (re)create narratives that incorporate testimonial from archives, local communities’ views as well as more institutional transparency.
- Involving further local communities including schools and universities from the villages surrounding the museums in the performances of Gulag museums and allowing them to play a primary role in the interpretation and the public display of information presented in the museums could be a way forward. This could help build effective partnerships between local communities, museum curators, tour operators and government officials involved in the development and promotion of Gulag tourism.