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  • One day at the State Archive in Azerbaijan, I found a list of Azerbaijanis arrested and shipped to Stalin's Gulags in Siberia. The word gulag is itself an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey i kolonii, "The Chief Directorate [or Administration] of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies". What they were called in many of the documents I have read translates as "concentration camps". It was here were almost anybody who was deemed an "enemy of the state", which could be could be someone actually fighting the regime to somebody who stole some corn to feed their family, most likely would be sent. For the vast majority sent to the Gulags, they were worked to death.

    So I was doing my usual rummaging through documents, when I opened up one file with a list of people who had been sent away. I turned the page, and the list continued another page, then another page, then another. I turned to the last page of the 60 page file, and that was where the list ended. This was another one of those times when all I could do was just exhale and whisper to myself "fuck". I mean, I've read many books on the subject of the Gulag, and countless books on Stalinist Russia, as well as thousands of actual Soviet documents with some very heinous acts. But it's always the lists of names that hit me hardest, they make everything seem more personal, more real. And it also makes you realize the true scope of what went on during the period. Unlike actual court documents and arrest records, a list like this puts a cold, bureaucratic face on everything. The names truly become the ghosts in the machine. I couldn't help but take pictures of all 60 pages, though they weren’t that important to my work. It was like by taking photographs of the list was an acknowledgement of what these people went through, a sign of respect. Here, I see you, you lived, and you were destroyed by the machine like tens of million others, but you are not simply ghosts, you were a human being.

    I started off just taking a picture of one page at a time, but the sheer numbers made me switch to two pages at a time. In the end, there counted 1314 names on the list. And this was for the year 1930, beginning on April 13. Who knows how many more there were from Azerbaijan before and after, or if even this is a complete list. And this is just one little part of the USSR, this doesn’t even take into account of all those others sent away throughout the Soviet state.

    I took a break and started looking through some dry reports on irrigation canal construction.
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