Perm 36: The Soviet-era Gulag museum where Putin is rewriting history

In 2008, a Moscow television station ran an opinion poll. The aim was to find – and declare – the greatest Russian of all time. In 2002, the BBC had run a similar contest in the UK, with Winston Churchill coming out top dog. In Russia, Churchill’s wartime ally Josef Stalin, was, for a good majority of the campaign, the frontrunner. The producers were alarmed by this surprise showing, and then concerned at this unexpected leaning. In a bid to stop it, they pleaded with voters to pick somebody else. In all, 50 million Russians voted in the poll, and many of them claimed Stalin as their man. Although eventually pipped by Saint Alexander Nevsky (once the subject of a 1938 propaganda feature film – famous for its recreation of a battle on ice – directed by Sergei Eisenstein), Stalin’s popularity led to a discussion in the country, which fed into other areas of cultural remembrance and, indeed, cultural forgetting.

‘Little Father’, ‘Uncle Joe’ or ‘Koba’ was a mass-murdering dictator whose corrective-camp labour system, known as Gulag (‘Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei’, translated as Main Administration Camp), led to the displacement and deaths of millions. Mid-20th century Russia and its rocket-paced progress was built on the backs, and then the bones, of the dead – when it comes to infrastructure programmes like roads and canals, that’s meant pretty much literally. But to many, Stalin was the leader who saved them from the Nazis during World War II and created a socialist country that went from an agrarian state to global superpower in a heartbeat. There was – and still is – a romantic notion to contend with: that Stalin always had the best intentions for the country and if he went wrong along the way, it was due to enemies of the people or was ultimately justifiable, a means to an end. But do the means really justify the ends, when so heavily reliant on slave labour and widespread murder?

The modernisation of Russia into a superpower cost millions in lives. To suggest every single prisoner was a class enemy, a wrecker or saboteur, is preposterous. If not arrested and exiled on imaginary pretexts or crimes, they were taken at the least provocation. One man was arrested and sent to a corrective-labour camp for selling a piglet at market. He was denounced as a ‘speculator’. Trumped up charges like these meant a steady stream of expendable workforces. Only the strong survived. Those who couldn’t handle it were left to die and would be replaced easily enough.

Stalin walking on a Moscow sidewalk in the late 1920s

The development of the Gulag system happened piecemeal and grew into an industry of total horror. There is nothing to celebrate. But unlike in post-war Nazi Germany, Russia never underwent a soul-searching phase when the USSR collapsed. Archives remained firmly shut and Stalin could never quite be depicted as one of the 20th century’s great monsters, as in other western countries. For a while, the Gulag system or crimes against humanity such as the Holodomor (the state-sanctioned famine in Soviet Ukraine) were kept out of sight and out of mind. There has been no attempt by any Russian administrations to criminalise acts of the past or even recognise them as crimes. Nikolai Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ to party delegates in 1956, denouncing Stalin and his rule, wasn’t formally recognised by the USSR as historical fact until 1989.

Stalin’s cultural and political rehabilitation coincided with Vladimir Putin’s own increasingly authoritative approach to ruling, in role-swapping positions, which he’s maintained since 1999. He’s won elections, but his role in Russian politics has not gone unchallenged. It isn’t so black-and-white, either. Putin has aired opinions about Stalin – that the Katyn Massacre of 1940 was a war crime ordered by Stalin and carried out by the NKVD – but he has also found the image of Stalin as a useful guiding light to re-establish Russia’s superiority. The struggle between revisionism and accepted historical reality is creeping rather than a blatant, wholesale rewriting.

The October revolution of 1917 had created a new breed of criminal for the Bolsheviks: the class enemy. The biggest crime was who they were and not specifically what they had done. Tsarists (the Whites), the bourgeoisie and aristocrats are easy enough groups to understand, but also rival factions of communists and socialists, who hadn’t signed up to the Bolshevik project, were targeted. Then it was farming peasants – kulaks – who needed taking down. They all had to be dealt with definitively to protect the revolution. The ambiguity of the language used – ‘class enemy’ and ‘kulak’ – allowed the regime plenty of leeway in making arrests and building up a propaganda campaign against them.

The British and German use of concentration camps in South Africa and Namibia provided a model for Lenin to follow. Trotsky was familiar with British concentration camps, too, because of his readings about the Boer War. Armed with their colonialist inspiration and built on the foundations of the Tsarist-era Kartorga system of forced labour in Siberia and the Russian Far East, Lenin and Trotsky – who commanded the Red Army – found an ingenious way to rid the country and land of undesirables, but also have them working for the country’s interests. Now the cosseted, spoilt bourgeoisie would learn all about manual labour, sweat and toil.

Prisoner labor at the construction of the White Sea – Baltic Canal, 1931–33

In the very early days, prisons were severely overcrowded with political prisoners – colloquially known as ‘zeks’ (an abbreviation of ‘zaklyuchennyi’, Russian for ‘prisoner’) – and they were housed and confined in everything from empty apartment blocks to basements in government buildings. The early camps, too, operated in disarray. Anarchists and socialists were also getting word out to their friends in the west, that they were being politically purged and repressed. Facing a PR disaster, in a bid to remake the nation and forge a new path for Russia, the administration decided to send enemies into far-flung corners of the country. The largest country on earth, which stretched from Europe to the Pacific and reached the Arctic, was perfect for this.

After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin decided on rapid expansion and infrastructure-building which, in hindsight, is the sort of thing one would expect from a megalomaniac who seemed to see people in the abstract, as objects to move around and set in place for a wider project. Given the economic scale of the endeavour, costs would be an issue – and they frequently were. Camps had to be self-sustaining and as far as possible self-financed. It was an economic imperative that costs were kept down. Why have prisoners languishing in jail on the state’s dime when they could be used as cheap labour in camps and colonies? Russia was resource-rich and Stalin was keen to get his hands on said resources. The forests provided near-limitless timber. There was coal and gas. Gold, too, in the Siberian wastelands where few Russians had ever tread. In some cases, prisoners took on the role of permanent exiles and colonists, as they did in the Tsarist era. They were forced to stay there. In one instance, a group of exiles was sent to swampland in northern Russia. With little-to-zero provisions or knowledge of the local fauna and flora, survivors resorted to eating the dead.

Close to the point where Russia becomes Asia is the city of Perm. From 1940 to 1957, it was renamed ‘Molotov’ and was, during the Cold War era, closed to all foreigners. Gulag camps were dotted all around the country, but only Perm-36 has survived almost entirely intact, through the hard efforts of volunteers and those who demand that history is not made a mockery of or rewritten to suit the aims of current administrations. Nearly all former Gulag sites and camps today are mere ruins and shells. Liquidation, demolition, thievery and nature’s course have conspired to erase much of the evidence to show they were ever there at all.

Perm-36 – located 95 kilometres away from the city, in the village of Kuchino – stopped being a camp/colony in 1988, and since then has been developed as both a memorial and a museum to the Gulag system. Post-Stalin, the camp and repressions continued – they didn’t suddenly stop with Uncle Joe’s death in 1953. From 1995 to around 2012, when the encroaching menace of revisionism saw the site divested of associations with Stalin and the museum effectively depoliticised, there was a shift in focus. A new government-backed administration widened the scope while removing or altering displays and exhibitions. Perm-36 was remade into a museum and memorial to the penal system – intent on beginning the story in the 17th century and therefore making much of 20th century events part of a wider tapestry. The Gulag era parts stayed but were re-configured to showcase Soviet might and success in the old days – specifically, timber production.

An tower looms over Perm-36’s main gate (c) Wulfstan

Since 1995, the site had operated as a museum dedicated to the history of political repression, not just Soviet prisoners of the state, which could include POWs, spies, ordinary criminals and the like. 20 years of restoration went into the project. 20 structures – predominantly made from wood – needed attention and the site covered 12,500 square kilometres. This was a passion project for the enthusiasts and volunteers who saw it as their mission to restore the place and help in understanding Russia’s recent past and the communist-era crimes against its people.

From the start, however, funding was a problem and local government funding bodies proved tight-fisted. In 1998 and 2000, three buildings were selected for repair in what had been a high security zone: an infirmary, hut and administration headquarters. The estimated cost of this endeavour was 3,488,650 roubles. The museum secured a measly 1,355 roubles from the regional coffers. Attempting to restore a building damaged by fire in 2004, a job estimated at over 1 million roubles, they secured 860 in funding. To save as much money as possible and keep down costs, the museum did all its own repair work ad hoc, using the same team time and time again.

The Perm-36 memorial and museum does have a geographical problem. It’s in the middle of Russia and while not as far as the Kolyma region in the extreme north east, where only the most hardened and experienced traveller is ever likely to venture, it’s still a tough place to get to, even in Russia. Things were looking up in 2004 when UNESCO advised it should be included – at least potentially – as a world heritage site. But for that to happen, there needed to be more bureaucratic wrangling and for Perm-36 to receive federal funding. The Ministry of Culture told the directors that there wasn’t any money available to speed through the project and any restoration jobs, planned to fit UNESCO’s demands, must be privately funded.

Viktor Shmyrov, the former director removed from the post in 2014, envisaged the site less as a sightseeing operation and more as a unique site of great historical interest, at home and abroad. It would take a while to get the museum aspect of the memorial site up and running. “Being aware that, being located ‘out in the woods’, almost 300 kilometres away from the regional centre, the museum will take a long time to become a popular tourist site and is set up, first of all, in order to preserve a unique historic site, the world’s only Gulag-era camp compound rather than for sightseeing purposes,” he wrote down, as to the site’s aims and plans for cultural development.

A barrack reconstruction at Perm-36 (c) Wulfstan

The repression against the museum started in earnest in 2012, along with other targets in Russia. It began with a general assault on NGOs and extended to other cultural outlets that received foreign money. Organisations had to be registered as ‘foreign agents’ – a specific Stalinist term in vogue again – and taxes raised to discourage them from operating. Memorial, a human rights organisation which ran Perm-36, as Ola Cichowlas wrote in a New Republic article in June 2014, found itself the centre of a ‘political game’. It got worse. Gas and electricity supplies were cut off and raids took place.

Because of its remit as a memorial to political repression run by a human rights crew, which covered the entire spectrum of Soviet history, not just the Stalin era, it came up against not only what might be deemed a resurgent nationalism, spurred on further by episodes such as the Crimea crisis and the battles with the Ukraine administration, but a campaign directly against the museum. ‘Locals’ reported Perm-36 for ‘vindicating’ Ukrainian and Lithuanian nationalists for fighting the Soviet Union. The central crux, here, is that Perm-36 was considered anti-Russian and was ‘rewriting history to suit its own aims’, rather than offering brutal truths about the past.

A 2014 television documentary stuck the knife in further, describing Perm-36’s remit as “to teach children that Ukrainian fascists are not as bad as history textbooks portray them, while their grandchildren cause genocide in eastern Ukraine.”

A new governor decided not to hand over any money to the museum at all in 2014 and refused to sponsor the examination needed to secure UNESCO status. Things got worse for Memorial, however, when Perm-36 was removed entirely from the government’s cultural policy toward remembrance of victims of political repression. This is most interesting, because it removes the most sensitive aspect of the memorial. Public awareness programmes were abolished, too, and a national body took over the running of the camp. Shmyrov described how lumping prisoners under one blanket category offered a deliberate perversion of history:

“We filmed one display. It told about the prisoners of that camp. Like any camp, it confined actual dissidents and human rights advocates together with, literally, Nazi collaborators, as well as recidivist gangsters, and spies. The paradox is that, according to the display we filmed, there was no difference between the former and the latter, which is both immoral and unprofessional.”

A corridor inside the main prison building at Perm-36 (c) Wulfstan

What the future holds for Perm-36, whether it becomes a UNESCO world heritage site or not, the lack of care towards the camp and the lack of consideration for its history – the camp is structurally being altered with walls being painted and asphalt driveways laid down – is disturbing. There has been no dialogue in modern-day Russia about its recent and distant past. Communist atrocities are disputed or rationalised.

In 2007, a government educational initiative aimed at the national curriculum proposed to teach school children that Stalin’s plans and courses of action were not the result of a despotic madman who crushed opposition and repressed his people on an unimaginable scale, but rather were well thought out, understandable and sound. Even if we remove bias, political affiliation and revisionism, archival documents, sites and eyewitness accounts attest to the crimes against humanity and political oppression committed in the name of revolution and a dictator’s ambitions.

In 2015, the Levada Institute, a non-governmental polling survey body, found that 52 per cent of Russians held Stalin in a positive light. Roman Romanov, the director of a new, state-funded Gulag museum based in Moscow, told The Independent, in 2016, that:

“Some people say it’s demoralising to remember and talk about the horrors of the past. Some people say that it’s better to forget – or that it was only criminals who were sent to the camps, so why memorialise them? We have to find a language with which to communicate about these things again, even if it’s difficult.”

There is a cultural battle being fought in today’s Russia, when it comes to the act of remembrance and control of the past and its narratives. A human rights organisation running a memorial and museum for political oppression is against a vital sense of nationalistic control that the Putin administration demands and sees as politically useful. At the same time as opening the new museum in Moscow and the current president ordering a new monument to be built dedicated to the memory of the oppressed, in other parts of Russia there are celebrations of Stalin (in May 2015, a cultural centre celebrating Stalin opened in the Tver region, at the village of Khoroshevo).

It’s a tale of mixed messages, in a 21st century Russia, which refuses to completely condemn Stalin as a tyrant and mass-murderer. Looking from the outside in, it looks bleak and strange. When this lack of curiosity about the past or attempts at rehabilitation affect places like Perm-36, whose purpose is to speak out for those killed by the state in the name of progress or retribution, the result is far more dangerous than having the face of Stalin emblazoned on a t-shirt, or his mug printed on a coaster, as if he’s a Che Guevara type.

Myth is certainly no substitute for history.

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