44 Lenin Avenue

A researcher's journey to Siberia

The afterlife of Nikolai Klyuev

Filed under: Stalinist repression — Wilson Bell at 2:11 pm on Wednesday, April 1, 2020  Tagged , ,

As I delve a bit deeper into the life of Nikolai Klyuev (Kliuev), I’ve become fascinated by his afterlife, the way his life and death became used, politically. Yesterday, I came across a newspaper (Za rodinu) in the on-line St. Petersburg archives from Pskov in 1943 (Nazi occupied territory), that discusses Kliuev as a new poet of the peasantry for the 20th century, highlighting him as a key victim of Bolshevism (the paper claims he died from cold and starvation in Siberia sometime after 1934).  I’ve already pointed to the mystery of his death as a key point of discussion during the Glasnost years of the late 1980s. While Kliuev’s death is no longer a mystery, it is fascinating (though not surprising) that one issue not discussed in these pre-1991 accounts of Kliuev was Kliuev’s homosexuality. We now know, as Michael Makin writes, that “Klyuev had fallen victim to Stalinism partly because he was labelled a ‘kulak poet’ and partly because he was denounced as a homosexual.” (p. 58) The timing of his arrest/exile to Siberia couldn’t be clearer, as it occurred just after sodomy was re-criminalized in the Soviet Union.

Anyway, it is very interesting to see how various political actors (the Nazi occupation regime in 1943 and both liberal- and nationalist-leaning groups in the late-1980s) saw in Kliuev a usable past.

Research in the time of Covid-19

Filed under: Conferences & Presentations,Methodology — Wilson Bell at 1:41 pm on Friday, March 27, 2020  Tagged , , ,

It is a little strange being on sabbatical during this pandemic and the accompanying social distancing. The TRU community is figuring out how to work its shift to on-line instruction. Nova Scotia (where I’m located) has declared a state of emergency, and we’re supposed to go out only for neighbourhood walks (avoiding people) and essentials. Not everyone is following the rules. So far the number of cases in NS is relatively small. Given my job and situation, I’m certainly one of the lucky ones right now.

Of course, my worst work-related news (still not that bad, considering) is almost certainly that my 2.5-month, 3-country trip to Europe, starting in May, will be cancelled. For the month of May, I am officially a Visiting Scholar in Paris at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and some of my talks have even been advertised. EHESS has cancelled the visiting scholar program for April, but has not yet made a decision for May. Even if it goes ahead (however unlikely that is), TRU has banned foreign travel through April and seems likely to extend that ban. And how wise would it be to go, anyway?

After Paris, I was planning on two weeks of research in England (at the British Library and at Oxford University), followed by one month of research in Russia.

While I’m sad that this trip almost certainly won’t happen, this problem is nothing compared to what many people are going through. I can conduct some of my research through on-line sources (such as the Tomsk NKVD Remand Prison Museum website) and via materials that I’ve already collected and other on-line resources.

With kids at home, and worries about the state of the world, it is certainly difficult concentrating on research and writing. If anyone has tips, those would be greatly appreciated. Mostly though, it seems like a good time to be concentrating on kindness and empathy. Please take care, and thanks for reading!

Klyuev in Tomsk: A story worth exploring?

Filed under: Late-Soviet Period,NKVD,Stalinist repression,Tomsk Memorial NKVD Remand Prison Museum — Wilson Bell at 4:36 pm on Wednesday, February 19, 2020  Tagged , , , , ,

One of the more interesting stories in Tomsk in the 1930s was that of poet Nikolai Kliuev (sometimes spelled Klyuev), discussed earlier in this blog.

While I’m still not fully committed to a focus on Kliuev, he draws together some interesting threads from other subjects I’ve been working on in the 44 Lenin Avenue project.

  • Memory (part 1): Kliuev’s case was one of the first explored by the Tomsk Memorial Society, according to L.F. Pichurin in his short, 1995 book, Poslednie dni Nikolaia Kliueva (Tomsk: Volodei, 1995). It is the Tomsk Memorial Society, of course, that took over basement 44 Lenin Avenue in 1989 with the purpose of creating a museum. Why was this one of the first cases? Aside from being a well-known poet, there had been a mystery surrounding his death. It was well-known that he had been exiled to the Tomsk region in 1934 and had spent time in both Kolpashevo and Tomsk, but his death remained a mystery until there was archival access in the late-1980s. Reports from the 1960s had stated that he died of a heart attack at a train station on the way back to Moscow. Archival documents, however, confirmed his arrest and execution in 1937.

  • Memory (part 2): Kliuev, interestingly, was also subject of an article in the late-1980s in the conservative literary publication, Nash Sovermennik. Iurii Khardikov published some thoughts and re-published some documents pertaining to Kliuev’s time in Tomsk in the 12th issue of the journal from 1989. This publication is noteworthy for the 44 Lenin Avenue project in part because Nash Sovremennik had a slavophile bent, and in some ways fits into some of the ideological debates and discussions that had surrounded the 1909 murder of Ignatii. In Kliuev, we also see early evidence of the memory battles that have played out in post-Soviet Russia, which have seen conservative-nationalist versions of the past pitted against more liberal, human-rights versions (for more on this, see Zuzanna Bogomił’s book, Gulag Memories).
  • Russian Literature: In the 1909 murder of Ignatii Dvernitskii, I have discussed the real or imagined role of Dostoevsky. Kliuev, like Dostoevsky, was in some ways a conservative writer (at least from what I understand – I need to do more research!) who saw something distinct and spiritual about the Russian peasantry. This element to Kliuev’s writings is probably the reason for Nash Sovremennik‘s interest in the writer. But it also links Kliuev to another writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was the first official visitor to the Tomsk Memorial Society’s museum at 44 Lenin Avenue in 1994.

One problem with all of the links to the 44 Lenin Avenue project in the Kliuev story (which is fascinating for a number of other reasons, too, that I won’t explore right now), however, is the lack (so far) of direct evidence that Kliuev spent time at 44 Lenin Avenue. It is likely that he did. The building was, after all, one of two headquarter buildings for the NKVD for the whole period that Kliuev was in Tomsk (1934-37). It also housed an investigative prison in the basement where he could have been incarcerated before his execution. Right now, I’m going through some of these publications pertaining to Kliuev’s time in Tomsk, to see if the building is ever mentioned.

Year in Review: 2019

Filed under: Conferences & Presentations,Gulag,Knowledge mobilization — Wilson Bell at 11:21 pm on Tuesday, December 31, 2019  Tagged , ,

In terms of academic accomplishments and milestones, 2019 was an exciting year, including for the “44 Lenin Avenue” project. Here are some of the highlights:

  • My book, Stalin’s Gulag at War, came out in December 2018, but has a 2019 imprint, and I think of it as my first, big career-related news of the year. There have been a few reviews on Goodreads, and likely academic reviews will be coming soon. Like any first-book academic, I’m nervous to see what people have to say about it! It was fun to see it in the “wild,” so to speak, at Chapters in Halifax (picture below).


  • The publication of the book led to podcast discussions with the SRB Podcast and the “On War and Society” podcast. I just found out that the SRB interview was one of the ten most popular of 2019. There were so many great interviews on SRB in 2019, so I’m especially honoured that so many people chose to listen to me.


  • I gave public lectures or conference presentations on my research (either Gulag or the “44 Lenin Ave” project) at the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic, and Disarmament Studies in Waterloo, Ontario; at the Stokes Colloquium Series at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia; and at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Convention in San Francisco, California.


  • I earned tenure, promotion to associate professor, and a sabbatical for the 2019-2020 academic year! The sabbatical has given me the time to delve more deeply into research for this project (and to resurrect this blog).


  • I won a Visiting Scholar position at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, which I’ll take up in May 2020. This award is specifically for research and dissemination of the “44 Lenin Ave” project. I will be delivering four lectures over the course of the month.




  • An anthology chapter, for a multi-volume Cultural History of Slavery, was officially accepted, and should come out in 2020 or 2021. In this chapter, I explore comparative forced labour systems from 1900-45, and it is amazing how pervasive the use of forced labour remained during this period, despite the abolition of serfdom and slavery. All major political and socio-economic systems of the period resorted to forced labour in various forms.


  • In terms of contributing to the academy, more broadly speaking, 2019 has also been an interesting year: I was part of a team developing a proposal for a new MA at Thompson Rivers University, which was an eye-opening experience, and I also served as a program reviewer for an undergraduate history program, which was (perhaps surprisingly) a lot of fun!

All in all, 2019 was a very good year, professionally, and I’m very much looking forward to 2020. Thanks for reading this blog!

‘Agents of Terror’

Filed under: Methodology,NKVD,Stalinist repression — Wilson Bell at 6:23 pm on Friday, December 6, 2019  Tagged , ,

In looking for an interesting angle to explore the history of 44 Lenin Avenue during the building’s time as OGPU/NKVD headquarters, one possible topic is that of the perpetrator.

In recent years, we’ve learned a lot more about the NKVD agents and bosses who carried out the Great Terror (1937-38), in part due to the crucially important scholarly work of Lynne Viola (Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial) and Alexander Vatlin (Agents of Terror).

I purchased Vatlin’s book at the recent ASEEES convention in San Francisco, so it is fresh on my mind. Translated and edited by Seth Bernstein, Vatlin’s book presents some fascinating stories, relying mostly on documents related to the arrests and investigations of NKVD agents and bosses arrested in the latter part of the Great Terror, after they themselves had presided over many arrests. Vatlin focuses on the small town of Kuntsevo, near Moscow, to recreate a picture of the mass operations and targeted arrests of this period. Some of the stories are clear corruption, for example Karetnikov’s securing of a central Moscow apartment by arresting the occupants. There are no doubt similar stories related to NKVD operatives in Tomsk (for some on the corrupt behaviour of Gulag personnel, see Chapter 4 of my book).

In any case, one encouraging aspect of Vatlin’s book is that he relies heavily on documents located at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) collection (fond) 10035 («Управление Комитета государственной безопасности СССР по г. Москве и Московской области» … KGB Administration of the USSR for the city of Moscow and Moscow Province). This makes me wonder if there are similar collections for other local administrations. I’ve worked a lot, in the past, with GARF collections 9401 (which includes NKVD operational orders), 9479 (the special settlements), and 9414 (the Gulag), but a collection similar to 10035 (but for Tomsk) would likely include considerable documentation related to the building at 44 Lenin Ave. I’ll need to do a bit of digging.

Architecture of Repression

The building at 44 Lenin Avenue was of course originally an educational institution. It became a site of repression (*nods to Foucault*), serving as one of two local headquarter buildings for the OGPU/NKVD from 1922-1944. Structurally, this involved converting the basements (of both buildings, if I’m not mistaken) into a remand or investigative prison (следственная тюрьма), and connecting the two buildings via an underground corridor.

According to the Tomsk Memorial Society, the corridor was used for executions and to transport arrestees, unseen, between the two buildings. The director of the museum at 44 Lenin Avenue, Vasilii Khanevich, has a dream of restoring this corridor and making it part of the museum.

In any case, it’s interesting to think about the architecture of repression, in this case: both in the sense of how easily it was to convert a building from an institution of education to an institution of repression, but also how, architecturally, the worst elements of repression were underground, and hidden from view.

Anyway, below are two pictures from the museum’s website, linked here (along with a discussion of the restoration project).

Map of the ‘Monument Square’ outside 44 Lenin Avenue, showing the underground corridor between the two buildings.








Image of the underground corridor, via the NKVD Remand Prison Museum website

Does the murder method matter?

Filed under: Conferences & Presentations,Ignatii Dvernitskii — Wilson Bell at 3:17 pm on Wednesday, November 6, 2019  Tagged ,

When I presented at Dalhousie’s Stokes Seminar in September, one interesting question that came up in discussion related to the method of murder in the Ignatii case.

Krista Kesselring, Chair of the history department and expert in the history of crime in early modern England, noted that in her research she found that only about 5% (if I remember correctly) of murders in her data set were by strangulation. Moreover, in almost all of those murders there was an intimate connection between the victim and the perpetrator (they were close relatives, or lovers, or married, and so on). Dr. Kesselring thus questioned if the method of murder in the Igantii case (strangulation) meant that the relationship between Ignatii and the pupils was somehow closer than might appear (perhaps there had been some abuse, for example?).

I had not thought much about the murder method before this question, and just assumed that strangulation could be explained in a relatively straightforward way: the perpetrators did not need to find a murder weapon. But, the question does make one wonder if there’s a deeper meaning behind the method, and also if perhaps cultural differences between early modern England and late Imperial Russia are too great to draw any conclusions. Nevertheless, I’m now very curious about murder methods in late Imperial Russia: how common was strangulation? In strangulation cases, was there usually an intimate connection between the perpetrator and victim?

In any case, it’s fascinating to find further avenues to explore in this project.

Poem about Klyuev

Filed under: Tomsk Memorial NKVD Remand Prison Museum — Wilson Bell at 5:46 pm on Tuesday, November 5, 2019  Tagged , , ,

Vasilii Khanevich and the staff at the Memorial Museum: NKVD Remand Prison in Tomsk (44 Lenin Avenue) are constantly adding information and material to the museum’s website. While browsing, today, I came across this video of Tomsk singer Pavel Evgrafov singing a poem by Mikhail Andreev about the 1937 execution of Nikolai Klyuev. Evgrafov is singing in the museum itself. Klyuev likely spent some time in the building when it was a remand prison, although available information about his incarceration and execution in Tomsk is sparse.


More on Ignatii

Filed under: Ignatii Dvernitskii,Orthodox Church — Wilson Bell at 2:23 pm on Thursday, October 31, 2019  Tagged , ,

My current research assistant found a blog post from 2012 that is, essentially, a scan of a pre-revolutionary publication about the murder of Ignatii Dvernitskii. Unfortunately, the blogger (a priest named Andrei Spiridonov) did not post the publication information for the book, and I’ve asked my research assistant to look into this.

In any case, the publication includes several photographs, including one from Ignatii’s funeral procession (below). It is also a defence of Ignatii, and includes a lot more information about the murder than did the newspaper reporting at the time.

Funeral Procession of Ignatii Dvernitskii. Original source unknown.

For instance, this publication states that yes, Ignatii was found strangled, but also that his neck was broken, and that his hand was clutched around his cross. The publication also defends his role at the school: admitting that Ignatii was very strict, the (still unknown) author states that Ignatii improved the food at the school and was generally a positive influence in what had been a hotbed of revolutionary activity.

If we can believe the basic details in this publication (and yes, I need to find out more about it), the author provides a description of how the Kuimov and Iurinov were caught. The author writes (forgive the rough translation),

The police chief found a fragment of a mother-of-pearl button from a shirt on the floor. Since all the buttons on the shirt of the deceased were intact, the police gathered all of the pupils and examined them. Gerasim Iurinov’s shirt had a broken button. When placed with the broken button found in the monk Ignatii’s room, it turned out that they fit together. […] The criminal first obfuscated, but then in prison not only confessed, but named his accomplice, Grigorii Kuinov [sic.]

Anyway, there is a lot more information to unpack in this piece, that I won’t bore you with, now. I’m skeptical, considering that the church went to great lengths to depict Ignatii as a martyr, that everything in this piece is true. Still, so far, it is the most detailed available account of the murder and the arrest itself.

P. V. Vologodskii and the legal angle

Filed under: Ignatii Dvernitskii,Russian Revolution,Sibirskaia Pravda — Wilson Bell at 4:04 pm on Thursday, September 12, 2019  Tagged , , , , ,

One aspect of the Ignatii Dvernitskii murder that I haven’t really explored, yet, is the trial itself. This is partly because, as mentioned previously, the case was tried by military tribunal on Nov. 23, 1909, and the records have likely been lost. Because the authorities closed military tribunals to the public, moreover, there was only limited reporting on the trial itself. Sibirskaia pravda, the newspaper of the nationalist Soiuz russkogo naroda, reported on the trial in its December 5, 1909 issue (pictured).

Cover page of the December 5, 1909 issue of Sibirskaia Pravda

While there are quite a few points of interest in the Sibirskaia pravda article (including the republication of the photograph that supposedly shown Ignatii’s body refusing to decompose), I’m particularly interested in the note that one of the accused, Kuimov (misspelled as Kuinov in the article) was represented by an attorney with the last name Vologodskii.

While the Sibirskaia pravda reporting does not give the first name and patronymic of the attorney, it seems likely that he was P. V. Vologodskii, a very well-known Socialist Revolutionary (SR) lawyer in revolutionary-era Tomsk.

If it is indeed the same person (and hopefully it won’t take too much digging to confirm this information), that would help explain the accusations that Kuimov was involved with the SRs. Vologodskii also helps bring the the story of Ignatii’s death full circle, moreover, as Vologodskii was a key lawyer involved in the trails related to the 1905 pogrom, trials that also took place in 1909 Tomsk (August).

P.V. Vologodskii. Image via Wikimedia commons, public domain.

His biography is fascinating. From the Tomsk region, he trained as a lawyer in 1880s St. Petersburg, but was expelled for poor behaviour, and managed to finish his studies back in Tomsk. He was on the Tomsk city duma (city council, basically), from 1901-1917, and was a founding member of the Tomsk SRs in 1905. He would eventually go on to become editor of Sibirskaia zhizn’, just before the 1917 Revolution. In January 1918 he became part of the anti-Bolshevik, Provisional Siberian Government, and served as foreign minister. All of this to say, the threads of the Ignatii murder go in so many fascinating directions, and I need to pay more attention to the trial and those involved, even if I never find the trial records.

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