In his new book on the Soviet gulags, Alaska historian Tyler Kirk examines the lingering effects of the penal system

“It was very striking to me the ways in which the Soviet past reverberated in the present,” Tyler Kirk said, discussing his his travels in Russia. “It was very present there.”

Kirk, a tenured history professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, recently published “After the Gulag: A History of Memory in Russia’s Far North,” which explores the lingering impacts of the notorious Soviet penal system on daily life in the Soviet Union and Russia after the camps were closed.

Kirk’s narrative centers around the northwestern Komi Republic, where he spent considerable time, and where several camps operated. How this is remembered by Russian citizens today is his central theme. “I think taking this kind of approach provides a window onto a larger historical landscape that would be frankly very difficult to investigate in its totality,” he explained.

In order to understand this history, one must understand the role the Gulag played in the Soviet system, which went beyond imprisoning criminals and political dissidents.”The Gulag served three functions,” Kirk said. “It served the economy. It served to colonize remote regions of the Soviet Union, especially resource-rich regions. And third, and this was purely, in the sort of ideological penal theory sense of it, it served to reforge or rehabilitate wayward citizens and wayward people and to turn them into good Soviet citizens.”

Countless books have been written about the Gulag at its height, but Kirk is interested in what happened to prisoners after they were released. “One of the things I found that was really fascinating was that the social networks that prisoners created in the camps to survive followed them outside of the camps after release,” he said. These networks “enabled them to reintegrate back into Soviet society.”

Kirk also learned about the Gulag’s geographical magnitude. “Like many other Americans, I thought the Gulag was in Siberia or some places east of the Ural Mountains,” he explained. “I learned the Gulag spanned the entire breadth of the Soviet Union.”

In Komi, where he did most of his research, he found that “this history is largely acknowledged as a fundamental part of their past, even by the provincial government.” He added that, “Komi became known by the late 1980s, the period in which the book starts, as the the Camp Republic, because six of Komi’s seven small cities were built by prisoners.” Many prisoners remained in the region after their release, continuing to build the settlements and infrastructure, “but the foundations were all laid in the Stalin period by forced labor.”


In his research, Kirk learned that most Gulag prisoners were sentenced for murder, rape, theft, and other crimes. Contrary to widespread belief, political exiles were the minority, and many were condemned under fabricated charges or because they were related to the wrong people.

Nearly 65 years after the camps were formally closed in 1960 by Nikita Khrushchev, and decades after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the memory of the Gulag remains, not only in the minds of Russia’s citizens but on the landscape itself. Kirk encountered this firsthand in Komi. “It was striking to me that the railroad I used to go travel north, and the cities that I was walking through, the infrastructure I saw, were built by people who had gone through the Gulag.”

Kirk first visited Komi in 2009 as an exchange student while pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Maine, where he stumbled into the topic that would consume the next 15 years of his life. Late to register for classes one term, he took what was available. This included a Russian language class and a course on Soviet history. “I became fascinated by this experiment to build the world’s first workers’ state and state socialism,” he said.

In 2009, Kirk studied Russian in Syktyvkar, the capital city of Komi, as an exchange student. There were few English speakers. “It was a sink or swim opportunity to fully immerse myself in the language.”

Subsequently, as he worked through graduate school, earning a master’s at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Arizona State University, he made additional trips to Komi, culminating in a lengthy stay from 2016 to 2017, when he studied under a Fulbright scholarship. Kirk pored through memoirs and papers donated by former prisoners to the Syktyvkar Memorial Society, a local branch of the Nobel Prize-winning organization Memorial, which documents the Gulag and is working on digitizing its records. “I met Mikhail Rogachev, founder of this human rights group that was focused on commemorating Stalin’s victims and telling this history, rehabilitating the survivors in the sense of getting recognition of their innocence.”

In Memorial’s archives, Kirk found writings by “all of these people who had experienced the camps,” he said. Their narrative “smashed the Communist Party’s idea that it was primarily party members that had suffered under Stalin.” People who had not been political prisoners came forward “to use their lives as evidence of this unwritten history.”

Unlike the concentration camps used in the Holocaust, which have been preserved for historical memory, Kirk said most of the Gulag’s prisons were bulldozed. But physical reminders can still be found. “I wasn’t walking past guard towers and barbed wire or anything like that. But it was fascinating to me to think about the living legacy of Stalinism in both the infrastructure that stands today, and also the stories. People’s life stories that they wrote down and donated to make this archive outside of the Communist Party archive. To tell an alternate history of their country.”

As Vladimir Putin has resealed Soviet archives while carefully cultivating a heroic narrative about Russia in the Second World War during the peak of Stalinism, these privately held documents have gained importance. Recently, however, most local Memorial offices have been shuttered by the government, and their papers are much harder to access. Meanwhile, owing to escalating political repression under Putin and the book he wrote, Kirk is no longer able to visit a country he loves.

“Putin has crushed civil society in Russia today. The Memorial Society has been outlawed by the Russian Supreme Court,” he said. “Political repression in Putin’s Russia today is at a level akin to the Stalin period. It’s really really bad.”

He added that it’s unsafe for him to contact the people he met and worked alongside. “I have some dear friends and colleagues who are part of this human rights movement that mentored me and I learned a lot from them over the years. One of the difficult things has been having to respectfully pause our relationship.” He said of those who assisted him in Komi, “I owe them copies of this book out of personal debt, and I can’t send them to them. It would be dangerous for them.”

“After the Gulag,” which has been nominated for both the Wayne S. Vucinich and the Bruce Lincoln book prizes, is unavailable in Russia, where the government is attempting to erase the system’s memory. Kirk hopes one day Russia will reckon with its past. “The arc of history bends towards the just, I hope,” he concluded. “So I’m hopeful that this moment will pass in my lifetime.”

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at