Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag by John Reed

Danzig Baldaev, hired by the KGB to document tattoo symbolism within the Russian penal system, secretly sketched the atrocities inflicted on political prisoners. The drawings are now published in Drawings from the Gulag.

Part of the Editor's Choice series.

BOMB 115 Spring 2011
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Danzig Baldaev 01

Image from Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag.

FUEL, 2010

There were three kinds of prisoners. The common criminals: thugs, thieves, murderers, prostitutes, pimps, and drug smugglers. The “enemies of the revolution,” the political criminals: academics, artists, radicals, conservatives, and people who ended up on the wrong side of the Communist party, some by no more than an anonymous phone call. The third were the prisoners of the nation: these prisoners weren’t held in gulags, they weren’t beaten or physically tortured. Their lives were spent in a long tunnel of conscience, and their suffering was that of brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, who had lost their dearest loved ones. Russia, in the throes of Joseph Stalin’s purges and famines, lost 20 to 40 million people, according to Russian historian Roy Medvedev. In mass murder, Stalin is second only to Mao Ze-Dong.

Danzig Baldaev (1925–2005) was the third kind of prisoner—a prisoner of tyranny. As a child, he was brought up in an orphanage for the children of political criminals. As a man, he was a warden of the State. After World War II, the 23-year-old Baldaev was enlisted to direct St. Petersburg’s Kresty Prison, an institution known for its brutality. In the service of the NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), Baldaev observed the tattoos of the prisoners, and replicated them in illustrations. Baldaev was reported for his activities, but the KGB immediately saw a usefulness to a catalogue of the tattoos, a complicated series of symbols and images employed by the Russian underworld as identification, rank, and dossier of deeds. For 50 years, Baldaev traveled the Russian penal system, archiving the tattoos and their meanings. The works are available in the three volumes that comprise the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia.

Baldaev’s other archive, of the horrors visited upon political criminals, was necessarily more secret. Political criminals, reviled, were victimized by the authorities and the common criminals who were the aristocracy of the gulag. With deft simplicity, Baldaev illustrated scenes indicative of common practices—tortures, rapes, murders. Only now, with Fuel’s elegant publication Drawings from the Gulag, have the works been available to the public. The 200 pages of drawings, accompanied by Baldaev’s captions and editorial notes and quotations gleaned from authoritative texts (such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread, and Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, A History), present a startling view of history, immediate and compassionate.

Few books reach across the ravine of history with such a commanding grip. In our own day of unknown prisons and unspoken acts—and heads turned away in denial and/or complicity—the more unsettling realization is how very close we stand to the cliffs of the chasm.

John Reed’s Tales of Woe is newly available from MTV Press.

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New York, London, Berlin—all are familiar names on the global trade routes of contemporary art. Less so Moscow, which has only regained some of its avant-garde glory in the new century. In this short time, Olga Chernysheva has emerged as an acute observer of post-Soviet life.

Originally published in

BOMB 115, Spring 2011

Featuring interviews with Joe Fyfe, Katharina Grosse, Luis Camnitzer, Jim Shepard, Sebastián Silva, Thomas Pletzinger, Robert Wyatt, and Sibyl Kempson.

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