Drawing on Flesh: Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag

The son of an “enemy of the people,” Danzig Baldaev (1925 to 2005) was brought up in an orphanage for the children of political criminals. He served in the Russian army during World War II, then took a post as a warden for the infamous Kresty Prison in St. Petersberg, where Russian gang members identified themselves through an extensive language of body art.

Baldaev began to compile a dossier of prisoner tattoos, and in a Stalinist era of paranoia, vengeance and careerism, he was reported for his activities. The KGB, investigating, saw an applicability to Baldaev’s efforts. With the tattoos decoded, authorities would know the histories and rankings of the criminals. Baldeav began a long tour of Russia and the states Russia had annexed, documenting the tattoos in an encyclopedia that saw publication in three volumes (also from Fuel): Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volume I, II and III.

Over the course of the nearly forty-year project, Baldaev undertook another (necessarily more secret) task. He documented what happened in the gulags, from the prisoners’ transport to arrival, interrogation to torture, and ultimately, to death. The estimated sixty million dead (at the very least, twenty million) is an unimaginable number. Who can make sense of that many corpses? It would seem an insurmountable challenge, requiring a biographical sketch of every murdered man, woman and child.

Comics” might not be the best word to describe Gulag, Baldaev’s lifework, but the terms “graphic novel,” with the implication of fiction, and “graphic memoir,” with the implication of narrative, are yet more inaccurate. In a straightforward illustrative style, black ink on white paper, Gulag meticulously chronicles scenes of rape, mutilation and murder… an endless array of atrocities. These episodes are not out of his imagination, and Fuel, the publisher, corroborates Baldaev’s tableaus, supplying footnotes and quotes from memoirists, journalistic accounts, and cultural histories such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread, and Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, A History.

Baldaev didn’t personally witness every scene he depicts, but there’s a spooky certitude that he’s been in a great many of these interrogation rooms, where men and women were humiliated, degraded and crippled beyond any desire to continue living. That Baldaev so carefully researched his subjects was an act of heroism in itself—to talk about or question the interrogation techniques employed against the reviled “enemies of state” was to risk having those techniques applied on himself.

At first glance, Baldaev’s illustrations appear to be sketches, albeit careful ones. Upon further study, he reveals conscientious composition. The locations feel so real that it’s difficult to imagine that he hadn’t been in these rooms, experienced similar scenes. The mass grave sites, the isolation cells, the card tables—Baldaev conveys the grease, the oppressive augur of death in every line of graffiti, every bent nail.

Baldaev was an assiduous compiler of details, and their presence in his illustrations weighs the work with heavy verity. Baldaev was no less attentive in populating his visual testimonies. These are tools, weapons, tables, overcoats and people that he saw, whether he committed them to memory or roughed them out in a notebook for later use. Baldaev insisted on getting everything right. Nowhere does he give readers cause to question his reliability.

The book features one image per page, with a few deft words describing the scene. The most obvious correlation one can draw is to the political cartoon or illustrated newspapers of the nineteenth century. In those venues, the drawing was not meant to serve a photographic function. Rather, it served an informational function, providing visual cues that indicative of a larger social context.

While Baldaev’s illustrative style feels familiar, like something that could have come out of the same comix movement that produced R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Mark Alan Stamaty, the work is more akin to gallery artist Marlene McCarty’s psycho-sexual drawings of young women killers, or Nicky Nodjoumi’s unfunny satirical paintings of Iran in the throes of political catastrophe.

Drawings from the Gulag is a blunt trauma, a crack on the head, a blink of pain and fright, and a sudden, monstrous vision of humanity. Perhaps most terrifying, the purges of Lenin and the atrocities of Stalin, don’t look like nightmares from an enemy land. In our current state of financial collapse, the gulag seems less cautionary, more plausible. The scenes depicted in Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag seem even more than probable; they seem futuristic.

For those who didn’t suffer first hand the wounds and indignities of Stalin’s horror show, the act of witness was the torture—the stifled conscience and culpable silence and an absolute futility of hope. Baldaev—with the sorrow of half a nation, half a century—sat somewhere in a dark room, drawing and redrawing these images, not knowing if they would ever be found, published or read. Few books reach into history and become part of it. Drawings from the Gulag comes at you from across a continent, an ocean, and a great divide of death, decades, borders and lost ideals. Look up, wave your hands in the sky, maybe screaming, maybe hailing the heavens, and catch it.

RATING 9 / 10