Monday, December 6, 2010

Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag: The Pain of History

Drawings from the Gulag makes explicit the capacity one individual has to destroy another. It shows how moral borders disintegrate, and how the descent into indifference can be sanctioned, justified and excused in pursuit of a flawed ideology.

-the last two lines of the introduction to Drawings from the Gulag

Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag is a deeply disturbing book that documents, through detailed drawings and concise captions, the horrors of the Soviet Gulag system. Drawings begins with the conception of the system, which Baldaev dates to 1917; that panel carries a dedication to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “a giant of Russian literature.” A bit of background: Baldaev lived part of his childhood in an orphanage for children of enemies of the people; he later worked as a warden in the Kresty prison in Leningrad.

Drawings from the Gulag, published by Fuel, preserves Baldaev’s descriptive Russian-language captions for each panel and provides English-language translations from Polly Gannon and Ast A. Moore, plus footnotes and quotes from other sources that decipher acronyms and offer further information. The drawings are divided into categories – e.g. journey to the camp, children, and the country becomes a Gulag – and a series of short articles in the back of the book offers additional background, including definitions of slang. By depicting political prisoners and criminals, as well as the workers who interrogated, guarded, and maltreated them, the book becomes a small pictorial dictionary of intense suffering.

I knew Drawings from the Gulag would be rough, uncomfortable reading because of its unsparing, brutal, and graphic accounts of prison camp torture, sexual abuse, and other forms of humiliation and debasement, but I wasn’t expecting it to affect me as deeply as it did. I read in small installments. Baldaev’s black-and-white drawings balance the grotesque and the realistic in each panel, revealing and releasing more pain and disdain, from his subjects (and, I suspect, Baldaev) than photos could. Many drawings include prisoners’ tattoos: Baldaev meticulously recorded the meanings of tattoos, and I’ve known his work for years because of his contributions to a Russian dictionary of prison language that has a section on tattoos.

Drawings from the Gulag is an angry book – the title for a panel on the holodomor reads “Famine – dearest child and companion of the Communist Party” – and Baldaev’s last chapter of drawings compares the Gulag system to the Holocaust. That section of the book includes pages about the sinking of barges carrying prisoners, mass killings in Kuropaty, and mass shootings of enemies of the people. Many of Baldaev’s drawings depict, with sharp irony, patriotic slogans: a prison wall quotes Beria with “The Gulag is the best correctional institution for criminals in the world.”

More than anything, I wish that life hadn’t given Baldaev – or anybody else – the experiences and raw material that inspired him to create Drawings from the Gulag. Nearly everything that I’ve tried to write about the book’s many merits feels trivial. But I will say this: given the history of the camps and the large body of Russian-language fiction that they spawned, I found in Drawings, like the dictionary to which Baldaev contributed, a very valuable account of what happened in the Gulag and the language used to describe the horrendous, unthinkable things that people did to each other.

For more: Fuel’s Web site has a small slide show of images from the book.

For a different angle on the book and further perspective on Baldaev himself: Roland Elliott Brown writes in a review in The Observer that “Viewers may also question whether the artistic merits of Baldaev’s drawings redeem their potential prurience”… and (sort of) answers his own rhetorical question about merits by comparing Baldaev’s work to that of Goya and Doré. From my perspective: Having read historical and fictional accounts of guards’ abuses of women in the camps – Aksyonov’s Generations of Winter springs to mind first – I would have been very surprised if Baldaev’s book hadn’t included sexual content.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Fuel editor Damon Murray for contacting me and sending Drawings from the Gulag.

Up Next: Afanasii Mamedov’s Фрау Шрам (Frau Scar), a not-too-long novel that takes place during the 1990s in Moscow and Baku. It’s oddly enjoyable.


  1. Wow, the reviews on Guardian are pretty negative... But I am still interested.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Lik. Yes, the Guardian reviewer and I certainly read the book very differently.

    For someone like me -- not a specialist in art or history but a reader of Russian fiction, which often refers to the Gulag -- the book is extremely valuable as a concise, bilingual account of what went happened. And what went wrong. It's a difficult book to read because of Baldaev's strong focus on the horrible brutality within the Gulag, but I think it's important for readers to have his perspective.

  3. do all versions of the book have english translations of the captions?

  4. As far as I know, yes, Anonymous, though several of Baldaev's books are available in Russian.