Anoka High School grad earns Fulbright Scholarship

For the next 10 months, Anoka High School 2006 graduate Katie Hiatt will be conducting research on the religious life of prisoners in forced labor camps in Ukraine during Joseph Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union.

Katie Hiatt with University of Minnesota Professor Theofanis Stavrou, who inspired her interest in Russian history. Submitted photo
Katie Hiatt with University of Minnesota Professor Theofanis Stavrou, who inspired her interest in Russian history. Submitted photo

This opportunity to work with local universities in Kiev and Lviv on her PhD dissertation on religious life in forced labor camps during the Stalin era is possible because Hiatt was one of more than 1,700 U.S. citizens to receive a Fulbright Scholarship to study abroad for the 2013-2014 school year.

European history has always fascinated Hiatt because it is so much longer than American history, but her interest in Russian history really took off when she took Russian history and Eastern Orthodoxy courses at the University of Minnesota with Professor Theofanis Stavrou.

During her junior year at the University of Minnesota, she received a Boren Scholarship to study the Russian language and culture in St. Petersburg for 10 months. She received her undergraduate degree in 2010 and is a fourth year PhD candidate at Indiana University.

The Gulag was the Soviet Union agency that administered the forced labor camps. The camps did hold convicts, but many were prisoners because of their religious or political beliefs, as prisoners of war or for petty issues. In the Stalin era, a person who was late to work three times could be sent to the Gulag for three years, according to information from a traveling exhibit’s website ( called “GULAG: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom.”

“Soviet authorities found the Gulag to be a useful tool in neutralizing and often physically destroying, all real or imagined opposition to the Communist Party’s dictatorship beginning in 1917,” according to a “Days and Lives” exhibit on the Gulag, online at

The prisoners chopped down trees, worked in coal, gold, silver and copper mines, worked in oil fields, built roads and canals. They even built highways and skyscrapers in Moscow, Hiatt said. There was typically regional Gulag camps that oversaw a series of camps strategically located where the resources were.

This is a difficult topic to study because “Russia is not very interested fully about it,” Hiatt said.

There is only one Gulag camp site preserved and finding documents can be difficult. After the Soviet Union fell in 1989, one of the first questions scholars asked was how many people were impacted.

According to the “Days and Lives” exhibit, “some 18 million people passed through the prisons and camps of the Gulag, and perhaps another six to seven million were sent into exile. More than one and a half million prisoners died in the Gulag at the hands of their government.”

One of the first massive construction projects was when over 100,000 prisoners dug the 141-mile White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal in 20 months with pickaxes, shovels and makeshift wheel barrels.

With America in the Great Depression, Hiatt said the Soviets touted this as a feat of communism, but the canal ended up being too narrow and shallow for most sea vessels.

The first labor camps were started in 1918 right after the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, but the Gulag prison camp system officially began in 1930 and ended in 1960.

Hiatt is focusing on the time frame of Stalin’s rule in the early 1920s until his death in 1952 after which the forced labor camp numbers started to decline.

She will be reading memoirs and watching or listening to taped interviews of Greek Catholic priests and their families who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs.

To follow Hiatt’s journey through her blog, visit

About the Fulbright Scholarship

The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. government is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of other countries, according to a press release from the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Arts.

Participating governments and host institutions, corporations and foundations in foreign countries and the United States also provide direct and indirect support.

The program operates in over 155 countries and was established in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas.

Since its inception, the program has given approximately 318,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists, scientists and other professionals the chance to study and work overseas. A few notable alumni are Grameen Bank founder and 2006 Nobel Peace Price recipient Muhammad Yunus, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and John Franklin Hope, noted American historian and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

Eric Hagen is at

  • John Christey

    Religion is the opium of the masses.

  • Urszula Muskus

    Good luck Katie and I hope to learn from your blogs. My grandmother was a prisoner in the gulags for 16 years and my grandfather was murdered in the forest outside Kiev by the Soviets, one of the 22,000 Poles who died in the Katyn massacre. Be inspired by Peter in Scotland.