A quick look inside Memorial’s photo archive – Soviet repressions, dissidence, and remembrance

communistcrimes.org, 07. January 2022

On 28 December, 2021, the Supreme Court of Russia ordered Memorial International to be "liquidated" for violations of the foreign agent law and creating a "false image of the Soviet Union." Over the past three decades, the organisation has been studying the crimes of communism and preserving the memory of the victims. They have created unique archives, virtual databases, published many books, and carried out other educational activities. The photo archive was created during Memorial's founding years when the regime's victims and their loved ones began donating images to the organisation. It mainly consists of photographs  depicting Soviet repressions, GULAG history and dissident movements. A small number of those photos are  available in an electronic archive.

The electronic database contains photographs from the archives of Memorial’s various branches. Currently, only 803 photos are available online. The total size of the photo collection is about 12,000.

The stated goal of the archive is to "preserve the memory of the tragic pages in the history of our country, to collect historical evidence of the state terror and its victims, the resistance to the regime, and the difficult everyday life of the Soviet people.” All online materials can be ordered and used free of charge for all educational and research purposes , making the archive  an essential source for historians, journalists, and teachers,  among others.

The photos in the electronic archives are divided into three categories: 1) Political repressions in the Soviet Union 1917-1956; 2) Political repressions and resistance 1956-1986; 3) The activities of Memorial from 1987 to the present day.

Political repressions in the Soviet Union 1917-1956

This part of the collection contains photographs of forced labour and prison camps, dating from the Soviet Union’s revolutionary beginnings to the demise of its infamous dictator Joseph Stalin. Among those crimes depicted are those of the Solovki prison camp (established 1923) and the construction of the White Sea Canal (began 1931).

Prisoners building a railway on the Solovetsky Islands, 1928. PHOTO: Memorial (Moscow).

At the time, photography was forbidden in the camps. Still, some pictures were taken, sometimes by camp chiefs to illustrate reports sent to administrative centers, and other times by security officers (for instance, for a souvenir or  wall newspaper).

This photo depicts a brigade of prisoners working in a gold mine. Magadan, village of Jagodnoye (1939). The image was made for  a wall newspaper. It was given to Vera Grigorievna Nikonova in 1966 by prisoners who had previously stolen it from the camp. She later gave it to the Memorial. PHOTO: Memorial (Moscow).

Some photos were even covered in the mass media at that time. For example, the image below was published in the magazine "Kolyma" for the 15th anniversary of the Dalstroi Trust in the Magadan region.

"GULAG. USSR Ministry of the Interior. Vitamin factory". Many prisoners suffered from vitamin deficiency because of the harsh weather conditions and bad nutrition. The vitamins were intended to reduce the deficit. Magadan, Taskan, no later than 1946. Photo: Memorial (Moscow). PHOTO: Memorial (Moscow)

Many of the photos in the collection reflect the  political processes of the time and the violence that accompanied them, such as the persecution of religious minorities, shootings, and deportations, among other forms of repression.

Estonian deportees plowing with oxen. Krasnoyarsk Krai, Novoselkovsky District, 1950s. PHOTO: Memorial (Moscow)

Political repressions and resistance 1956-1986

This collection contains photos of dissident movements, meetings, trials, and  other such themes of the post-Stalinist period

A group of dissidents who came to support the dissident Alexander Ginzburg during his trial in July 1978. PHOTO: Memorial (Moscow)

There are also photos of detention centers of this era: prisons, camps, and psychiatric hospitals,  among others.

Perm-36—a prison camp for political prisoners, 1979. PHOTO: Memorial (Moscow).

The activities of Memorial from 1987 to the present day

Memorial was founded in the late 1980s amidst the unprecedented transparency and freedom of thought brought about by the new policy of glasnost. Accordingly, this collection contains  many photographs from the group’s founding years. These are valuable sources of history that reflect the history of the organisation, and indeedthe entire country: first meetings, demonstrations, rallies, and other such initiatives to preserve the memory of the victims of political repression.

Rallies have been held in Krasnoyarsk for various purposes since 1988.  Memorial participated in those aimed at democratisation. August 1989. PHOTO: Memorial (Krasnojarsk).

Among those specific events depicted in the collection are the Week of Conscience in December 1988, and the unveiling of a monument to the victims of Stalinist terror on October 30, 1990 . These initiatives of Memorial elicited a strong, largely positive public response at the time.

The first exhibition on the crimes of Stalinism,  the “Week of Conscience”. December 1988. PHOTO: Memorial (Moscow).

This collection also reflects the varied activities of Memorial's branches, including excavations of mass graves, the unveiling of new monuments, human rights advocacy, and the hosting of memorial events, educational activities, exhibitions, and conferences.

A protest against the war in Chechnya. The people lying on the ground represent the victims of the war. The text on the poster reads: “No to war in Chechnya!”. February 23, 1995, Moscow. PHOTO: Memorial (Moscow).


Representatives of the Syktyvkar Memorial commemorating the victims of political repression on the day of the 50th anniversary of the shooting of the strikers at Vorkuta mine No. 29. PHOTO: Memorial (Syktyvkar).


The idea of the project called "Last Address" was to install memorial plaques on houses whose residents were arrested for political reasons and did not return. Moscow 2016. PHOTO: Memorial (Moscow).

The online photo collections can be viewed in full HERE.

Kasutatud materjalid

Международный Мемориал, Фотоархив. http://www.foto-memorial.org/ (visited 5.01.2022)