Online Resources for Learning About the Soviet Gulags
The 1930's and 1940's were characterized, in part, by the rise of totalitarian societies throughout Europe. The rise of Hitler, the Nazi party, and the resulting Holocaust is a topic well represented in most history classrooms. By the time students reach high school, they've been bombarded with history and stories about the Holocaust almost to the point of fatigue.
The Soviet gulag system and Stalin's reign of terror is far less well taught. Stalin's policies were responsible for the death of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930's, and many historians have argued that this was tantamount to genocide. Millions of people were also sentenced to hard labor in the gulags, and well over a million of those "criminals" died before their sentence was up.
It is an important topic that deserves a paramount place in history. In an American history class, it would be appropriate to study this before studying World War II, and it also makes a convenient topic against which to compare the Holocaust.
To help you incorporate more about the gulags and the history of Soviet Russia into your course, here are a few online resources that can get you started.
The Virtual Gulag
The first item on our list is an impressive, hi-tech resource: a virtual gulag.
The virtual gulag is an interactive world, similar in many ways to modern video games. It's 3 dimensional, and you walk through the world exploring a gulag camp in Soviet Russia.
Spread throughout this virtual world are sign posts, similar to what you'd find at a museum, describing different parts of the camp. Through your exploration, you'll learn about rations, work, living spaces, and the types of prisoners in the camp. It's a fairly thorough and comprehensive description of the gulag, and it's made all the more impressive by the physical environment that you're moving through as you learn.
It's not a perfect tool. For example, there's little interaction in this "interactive" and immersive game world. But it's definitely worth a look. You can read more about the virtual Gulag and find a link to download it here.
Gulag History: A Gulag Museum
The next item on our list is a website related to a museum in Russia: Gulag History. The website is produced by a group at George Mason University, but it centers around information exhibited at a museum about gulags in Perm, Russia.
One of the particularly interesting parts of the website is the exhibit titled, "Days and Lives." This exhibit relates first person accounts of the gulag system and organizes it around a series of topics, like the original arrest, the guards, how prisoners survived, and the eventual fate of prisoners.
What makes this exhibit even better is that most of it is published both as a video clip and as a transcript. So, for example, you can watch and listen to a one minute long video clip about people being arrested or you can choose to read the transcript. This is great for students who are struggling readers. Instead of they can listen to the audio and either watch the pictures synced to the audio or read the transcript along with the narrator.
There are a few other exhibits and bits of information worth checking out on the website. But the "Days and Lives" exhibit is the one that I found most useful. It's even more informative than the virtual gulag, although perhaps slightly less engaging and immersive.
A Masterful, but Old, Film
An excellent novel portraying the gritty life of a prisoner in the Soviet gulag system.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
The novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a classic in modern Russian literature. In it, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes a day in the life of a gulag prisoner. And he would know what it was like. He spent eight years in the gulags, from 1945 to 1953.
The book itself is excellent, and it's a brief but powerful portrayal of the forced labor camps in Stalin's Soviet Russia. I read it in college, but I don't see why it wouldn't be approachable by high school students. If nothing else, it's brevity - only about 150 pages - would make it appealing.
But, assuming you don't want to assign an entire novel to be read in your social studies class, you could watch a movie. Casper Wrede directed a cinematic version of Solzhenitsyn's book in 1970. It's a bit dated and slow moving, as most movies were in the 1960's and 1970's, but it's a faithful representation of the novel and well worth an hour and a half of your life.
Unfortunately, it's hard to get a copy of this film, and if you do find it you'll end up finding a used VHS. But the good news? It's on Youtube!
Yup, someone apparently digitized an old VHS tape, and there are a few versions of it on Youtube. The one displayed to the right is the entire movie, about an hour and a half long. So watch it yourself and use some clips in class, or assign it as homework or an enrichment activity for your students.
A Complete Curricular Unit on the Gulag System
Looking for something you can simply download, print, and use in class? Well, you're in luck there, too.
A group at Harvard has produced a brief curricular unit about the Gulag system, available for download here. Scroll down to the segment titled "Downloads" and choose the file titled "GULAG: Soviet Prison Camps and Their Legacy - a curricular unit."
The unit is divided into three "days" or segments. If you try to read and discuss all of the topics as well as complete at least one activity for each segment, I can easily see this lasting a week or more in the typical high school classroom. Perhaps if you have a block schedule, you can actually accomplish all of this in three days.
Regardless of scheduling, this is a great resource. Each segment has a brief reading - about 10 pages - to summarize an important topic. Day one provides an overview of the gulag system. Day two provides a description of what the gulags were like. Finally, day three discusses the process of "de-Stalinization," of reforming the gulag system, and of stepping back from the absolute totalitarianism that Stalin imposed on Russia.
Depending on your own curricular goals, you may want to just use part of this unit. For example, in a Modern U.S. history class discussing the development of totalitarian states in Europe, you could use either day one or day two to accomplish your goals. Day three could be used separately during a unit on the Cold War, as well.
Educate Yourself. Educate Your Students.
If you don't know much about the gulags and Soviet Russia yourself, no one can blame you. It's often glossed over in a typical American history class. Depending on your focus in college, you very well could successfully navigate the path to getting a teaching license without learning much about the gulags or the extent of Stalin's repression of his own people.
That's ok, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, you should read through these resources yourself and get a handle on the subject. Then, you can think about how best to broach the subject with your students.
But the bottom line is that this is a tragedy and atrocity on par with Holocaust. Some would even argue that Stalin's murderous policies exceeded those of Hitler's, but it's hard to ignore Soviet Russia if you're concerned about teaching about human rights, genocide, and civil liberties.
With that in mind, it's hard to argue against including Stalin's reign of terror in the curriculum. So use these resources to figure out how best to do so.