Dantsig Baldaev. Gardien de camp: Tatouages et dessins du Goulag. Edited by Elisabeth Anstett and Luba Jurgenson. Geneva: Edition des Syrtes, 2013. 128 pp. ISBN 978-2-940523-02-3.
Sarah Gruszka. Address for correspondence: Université Paris–Sorbonne,
Centre universitaire Malesherbes, 108, Boulevard Malesherbes,
75850 Paris CEDEX 17, France.
A true immersion into the Gulag world and into Soviet reality in general, Camp Guard: Tattoos and Drawings from the Gulag is a unique source not only for historians but for sociologists and art historians as well. Composed in 1989 by Dantsig Baldaev (1925–2005), an employee of the Soviet Interior Ministry, it is a scrapbook that comprises two parts, both of which convey a common reflection on violence. The first part is a classification of some of the prisoners’ tattoos; the second part is a look at camp life through drawings made by Baldaev during the second half of the twentieth century, based on his own observations as well as on collected accounts. Centered on the time of Joseph Stalin but encompassing the whole Soviet era up until the war in Afghanistan, these 74 pages offer a remarkable graphical representation of daily life in the Gulag, including its most violent aspects (living and working conditions, torture, humiliations, executions, corpse management). Beyond the drawings themselves, the singularity and strength of this work lie in the dynamic articulation of the words and images, in a subtle play on language that expresses itself through a meticulously crafted layout interweaving original illustrations, collages of newspaper clippings and postcards from the Brezhnev years, and captions and parodic intertexts that twist the meanings of propaganda slogans. Unlike previous volumes based on Baldaev’s drawings (e.g., Baldaev 2010), the book under review is a complete collection of plates, which respects their initial order and the original decorations