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.

Seemingly a testament to the nation's proud history, this banknote carries a hidden message. It depicts the Solovki monastery, a historical complex on an island in the White Sea, which also served as the earliest and one of the most important camps in the Gulag. Local historians at Solovki believe that the atypical cupolas illustrated on the note date the picture to the end of the 1920's, the time of the camp's peak development.