Remembering the Gulag

"There is nothing more inconspicuous than a monument," said the Austrian writer Robert Musil a hundred years ago. From the ruins of another empire, Russia's, I would add: There is nothing more conspicuous than an absent monument.

Monuments compose the body of a nation on display. By looking at monuments, we feel how a nation-state affirms its continuity. When revolutions disrupt this continuity, they wreak violence against monuments. As the example of Saddam Hussein teaches us anew, to overturn a monument is easier than to try a dictator. Post-revolutionary periods, however, allow for more variety. Sometimes, new monuments are erected. Sometimes, old monuments return to their original spots. Sometimes, monuments are in absentia, like professors on sabbatical.

While Holocaust deniers have been purged from German universities, Russian universities employ a number of professors of Russian history who conspicuously maintain the Gulag's absence from their lectures. Though terror in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia created many millions of victims, the memories of these events are vastly different. The most arresting but unrecognized of all post-Soviet monuments to the Gulag is the 500 ruble banknote, issued in the late 1990's and widely used today.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. An employee works at a chemical fiber weaving company VCG/Getty Images

    China in the Lead?

    For four decades, China has achieved unprecedented economic growth under a centralized, authoritarian political system, far outpacing growth in the Western liberal democracies. So, is Chinese President Xi Jinping right to double down on authoritarianism, and is the “China model” truly a viable rival to Western-style democratic capitalism?

  2. The assembly line at Ford Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

    Whither the Multilateral Trading System?

    The global economy today is dominated by three major players – China, the EU, and the US – with roughly equal trading volumes and limited incentive to fight for the rules-based global trading system. With cooperation unlikely, the world should prepare itself for the erosion of the World Trade Organization.

  3. Donald Trump Saul Loeb/Getty Images

    The Globalization of Our Discontent

    Globalization, which was supposed to benefit developed and developing countries alike, is now reviled almost everywhere, as the political backlash in Europe and the US has shown. The challenge is to minimize the risk that the backlash will intensify, and that starts by understanding – and avoiding – past mistakes.

  4. A general view of the Corn Market in the City of Manchester Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

    A Better British Story

    Despite all of the doom and gloom over the United Kingdom's impending withdrawal from the European Union, key manufacturing indicators are at their highest levels in four years, and the mood for investment may be improving. While parts of the UK are certainly weakening economically, others may finally be overcoming longstanding challenges.

  5. UK supermarket Waring Abbott/Getty Images

    The UK’s Multilateral Trade Future

    With Brexit looming, the UK has no choice but to redesign its future trading relationships. As a major producer of sophisticated components, its long-term trade strategy should focus on gaining deep and unfettered access to integrated cross-border supply chains – and that means adopting a multilateral approach.

  6. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now