Drawings from the Gulag
Kresty Prison, St Petersburg
PLOT SUMMARY: Danzig Baldaev’s collection of 130 drawings in Drawings from the Gulag showcase the horror of everyday life experienced by prisoners and witnessed by guards such as Baldaev. The myriad of images depict interrogations, prison life, violence perpetrated both by guards and prisoners on other prisoners, as well as glimpses of hope in the terrible lives of the inmates. The drawings include captions which depict the realistic pictures drawn by Baldaev while he worked as a guard. His depictions of the everyday violence in Russia, particularly Gulag camps, serves as a critique of the prison system and government. In fact, it wasn’t until 1988 that was the book published.
Despite the name alluding to prison life, the drawings also include occurrences outside the prison. For example, some drawings demonstrate the corruption going on in Russia at the time, and the KGB arresting individuals despite their innocence. All the drawings that Baldaev drew were either from first-hand experiences or a result of interviews with witnesses. Though the images are violent and grotesque, Baldaev’s position as a guard adds validity to these images.
ANALYSIS: Danzig Baldaev’s choice of drawing the horrors he and others witnessed is thought- provoking as readers navigate his work. Baldaev was not able to take photographs because even as a guard he was not able to report on the goings-on of prison life and had to first sketch his drawings in a code he created. However, this piece demonstrates the power of drawings over the power of words, especially as this is one of the unique pieces documenting Gulag life. The drawings present a reality that is so grotesque that it makes it hard to witness. Though there are little alterations to emphasize certain points, most of the pieces appear as one can assume they would in real life. Captions alongside the drawings explain in more detail what is happening, but the drawings themselves bear the weight of the emotion.
Baldaev’s work also presents the vast array of torture methods that were inflicted on prisoners. Moreover, his drawings demonstrate violence that deviates from the guard/prisoner dynamic. Instead, it showcases how prisoners acted violently towards other prisoners in equally horrible ways. Baldaev’s role as a guard also makes one wonder of whether his silence is problematic. Though he documented the horrors he witnessed, it is striking that he did not stand up and instead did his work in silence. Additionally, one wonders if he ever inflicted any pain upon the prisoners he guarded. This calls into question whether this work can be placed in the same realm of literature as memoirs or stories from prisoners who experienced the maltreatment themselves.
“Initially they appear over-dramatic, focusing on the abject, the grotesque and the abject. Perhaps because they aren’t photographs it is easier to dismiss them as a figment of a disturbed imagination. But even a basic reading of the literature concerning this period reveals that they are undeniably ‘factual', drawings. There is a disturbed imagination at work here, but it belongs to the interrogator, the guard and the criminal.” (9)
“The decree of 5th September 1918 gave the VChK an unrestricted right to claim the lives and freedoms of the citizens of the country. Over a short period, using methods of physical persuasion and execution, over 500,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands more were placed in prison camps. Only through the most brutal terror and repression of the people were the communists able to retain their power.” (14)
“Using the most vile and inhumane forms of torture, akin to those of the Middle Ages, the Stalinist NKVD forced innocent people to make the most ridiculous and outrageous 'confessions', such as 'spying for the bourgeois state of Antarctica.’” (31)
BIOGRAPHY: Danzig Baldaev was born in 1925 in Ulan-Ude, in the Republic of Buryatiya. Buryatiya is located in Siberia which makes up the Eastern part of Russia. Baldaev’s father was a prominent photographer and ethnographer who was deemed “an enemy of the people.” As a result, Baldaev grew up in an orphanage for children of political prisoners. He later enlisted in the army and served during World War II, afterwards working as a warden at age 23 in the infamous prison Kresty, which was known for its brutality.
As a prison guard, Baldaev was able to document the prisoners’ tattoos through drawings, and though he was reported to the KGB for this activity, they surprisingly supported his art due to the fact that the status of a criminal could be determined through their tattoos. Baldaev’s work allowed him to visit a variety of reformatory settlements through the USSR and Russia between the years 1948 and 2000. While documenting Russian inmate tattoos, Baldaev also compiled drawings that displayed the horrific treatment of political prisoners, which he published in Drawings from the Gulag. The first volume of The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia was published in 2004. Baldaev’s work has been critiqued as some believe it reflects how he was complicit in witnessing the horror of the Gulag in silence. He died in 2005, and several new volumes of The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia have been published posthumously.
Brown, Roland Elliott. “Drawings from the Gulag by Danzig Baldaev – Review.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Oct. 2010, www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/17/drawings-gulag-danzig-baldaev-review.
“Danzig Baldaev | FUEL.” Danzig Baldaev | Biographies | Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive, fuel-design.com/russian-criminal-tattoo-archive/biographies/danzig-baldaev/.
“Danzig Baldaev's Drawings from the Gulag by John Reed - BOMB Magazine.” Danzig Baldaev's Drawings from the Gulag - BOMB Magazine, bombmagazine.org/articles/danzig-baldaevs-drawings-from-the-gulag/.
“Drawings from the Gulag | FUEL.” Drawings from the Gulag | Current | Publishing / Bookshop, http://fuel-design.com/publishing/drawings-gulag/.
Galeotti, Mark. “The World of the Lower Depths: Crime and Punishment in Russian History.” Global Crime 9.1-2 (2008): 84–107.
This article looks at organized crime and the way that outsiders in Russian society found a place within prisons and in the criminal groups that they created. Part of this subculture included tattoos, and this article examines the ways that tattoos played into this subgroup of Russian society.
Jacques, Scott. “What Criminals’ Tattoos Symbolize: Drawing on Darwin, Durkheim, and Lombroso.” Deviant Behavior 38.11 (2017): 1303–1317.
This article forms a typology to translate tattoos, and uses frameworks provided by Darwin, Durkheim, and Lombroso to understand them.
Sundberg, Kristina, and Kjellman, Ulrika. “The Tattoo as a Document.” Journal of Documentation 74.1 (2018): 18–35.
This article investigates the meanings of tattoos and how they can signify things about the identity of the tattoo wearer. Besides identity, they can be used as a form of memory retention.