Professor J. John Lennon

Glasgow Caledonian University

Keynote Abstract: “Memory and Commemoration of Dark Heritage Sites; the case of Kazakhstan” 

The confluence of memory, interpretation and commemoration are important elements in considering the darker periods of human history.  Why such dark sites interest visitors has been at the core of their consideration in tourism (Lennon and Foley, 2000; Sharpley and Stone, 2009). This paper will consider the relationship and make reference to Gulag incarceration sites in Kazakhstan (Lennon and Tilberghein, 2022).

The development of ‘dark’ heritage sites are the result of contrasting perceptions, ideologies and interests. These factors influence which histories are interpreted and which are ignored. At a national level, collective consciousness benefits from historical narrative and evidence maintained by museums, archives, libraries and heritage buildings. Some nations have chosen to deal with difficult or traumatic periods of their history either selectively or by omission. This paper will explore the concept of a ‘usable’ past in the context of Kazakhstan (Adams and Rustemova, 2009). In this nation freedom of information is not a given and openly critical evaluation of recent historical events is unusual. Knowledge and understanding of the period of Soviet repression has been influenced by limited Gulag conservation and interpretation (Gessen and Friedman, 2018). Indeed, despite a national network of Gulags incarceration sites in Kazakhstan, only two have been developed and conserved. This approach, whether in museum interpretation, conservation or even discussion, could be understood as a legitimate response to the period of deportation, incarceration and fear. As Hirschberger (2018), records, aside from the horrific loss of life and impact on survivors, such collective trauma can also result in selectivity in understanding the past, whilst allowing individuals to redefine their current (present) identity. Similarly, Kalinowska (2012), considered this as a defensive reaction in the collective psyche providing a stabilizing context for national identity. However, the Gulag legacy exists throughout the former Soviet Union, and sites, if conserved, can offer learning and evidential heritage. However, non-commemoration, deterioration and loss is not simply ideologically driven and factors such as; ownership of narratives, historiography, operational conservation skills and local economic priorities are contributing factors. 

In tourism, war, genocide and death sites can operate as both a deterrent to visiting destinations, but also as a motivation. Government responses to commemoration and commercial development of ‘dark’ sites varies and the ambiguity and selectivity exhibited in respect of wider Kazakhstan Gulag heritage is not unique. However, the scale of the Gulag narrative means that the relationship between heritage sites and memory is significant. Memory as a reconstruction of the past is invariably based on the present (Halbwachs, 1992). Where heritage site interpretation is limited and access to sites is difficult and/or expensive, then awareness can be diluted. Survivors and relatives constitute a further source of data. Yet, many of those who lived through this period are reluctant to reconcile that past with the present and there is at some levels partial societal amnesia. This is not unique to Kazakhstan, in many nations emerging from traumatic events; citizens seek to distance themselves from difficult histories (Roth, Huber and Liu, 2017). Such a response, whether in museum interpretation, conservation or conversation, is not unusual. However, explaining the causes of this ambiguity and the relationship to memory is pivotal to understanding the marginalisation of Gulag heritage.