The word gulag sends shivers down the spine of anyone unfortunate enough to have lived under Stalinist terror. Soviet history is ragged with deportations, forced labor, starvation, executions, and political repression. Yet in the whole of Russia, there is only one museum, a converted labor camp located in a remote village in the northern Ural Mountains, that documents these abuses. Today, as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to revive the grandiose Stalinist narrative of Russian history, it is on the verge of shutdown.
Soviet-era Russia was dotted with hundreds of prison camps. Today, Perm 36 is the only preserved Stalin-era labor camp in the country. It operated as a prison colony for political dissidents until the end of the Soviet period; the last prisoner left in 1988.
Many in the West are aware of the horrors of the gulag, but few may realize that many Soviet camps stayed in business well into the reform era of Mikhail Gorbachev. In Russia, repression is often publicly associated primarily, and sometimes solely, with the Stalinist period. Russian museums, such as Moscow’s State Gulag Museum and Tomsk’s interactive NKVD museum, exclusively memorialize the Stalinist terror and the Great Purges. But Perm 36 is the only former labor camp that immortalizes the lives of political dissidents throughout the entire Soviet era.
The Perm Region, still home to the largest convict population in Russia, was known for what’s called the “Perm Triangle”—the three camps that held legendary dissidents like Vladimir Bukovsky from 1972 to 1988. Today, Perm 36 is run by Memorial, a Russian human rights group dedicated to preserving unvarnished history of the Soviet era. Since 2005, the group has hosted an international forum for Russian and European pro-democracy activists and historians on the campgrounds.
For a while, things seemed to be going relatively well for Perm 36. I worked for Memorial’s Perm branch, which consisted of two rooms in a Krushchev-era building, back in 2010. Perm was a different city then. Authorities pushed ambitious plans to remodel the industrial city, which had been ravaged by the post-Soviet gold rush. Perm’s governor at the time, oligarch Oleg Chirkunov, embarked on a “cultural revolution” and flew in European and American designers for the purpose of opening a lavish modern art gallery in an abandoned Stalinist ferry station. The New York Times hailed the city as a “Bilbao on the edge of Siberia." The avant-garde Moscow art curator Marat Guelman was assigned to head the gallery, and he in turn set up an annual White Nights theater and music festival modeled after Edinburgh's.
But Perm’s dream was short-lived. In late 2011, Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency. Moscow saw the largest protests in its post-Soviet history, and the Kremlin began a crackdown on dissent that continues to this day. Far-flung Perm was not spared. The art-lover governor Chirkunov was replaced by an ardent Putin ally. Guelman was blocked from continuing his project in Perm after staging an exhibition satirizing the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Memorial was increasingly targeted as an “anti-Russian” organization. In June 2012, the government launched a nationwide campaign against NGOs. In an effort to discredit human rights and opposition groups, all organizations receiving foreign funding were forced to register as “foreign agents.” For Perm 36, it was the beginning of the end. Memorial’s Perm branch, where I worked, was regularly searched and locals were encouraged to dissociate themselves from the group; the NGO’s finances were cut and its tax rates raised. The organization’s summer 2013 festival was barred from inviting foreign guests. Perm 36 found itself at the center of a political game. Today, during Putin’s aggressive Ukraine campaign, a museum documenting the Kremlin’s attack on dissent sits uncomfortably with the authorities—who threaten to shut the museum’s doors to the public.
This month, the Russian state television network NTV aired a documentary aimed at discrediting the museum as a pro-fascist, American-funded institution. “The aim of Perm 36,” the narrator intoned, “is to teach children that Ukrainian fascists are not as bad as history textbooks portray them, whilst their grandchildren cause genocide in eastern Ukraine.”
The film accused Memorial of taking money directly from the U.S. State Department—which was also, according to the film, funding Kiev’s Maidan Revolution. An Orthodox priest told viewers that “such people have no motherland, as they are prepared to betray [it] at any moment.”
Rather than interview former political prisoners, NTV focused on the former guards of the labor camp. “I was there when they released the so-called dissidents,” said a frail one-time guard. “They were all spies and they all went to the West.” Former prison guards and pro-Kremlin youth groups make up a significant proportion of the opposition to Perm 36; they argue that Memorial deliberately embellishes the severity of custody for “anti-Soviet propaganda” while ignoring the evidence provided by the guards themselves.
Unlike Germany after World War II, post-Soviet Russia was never wracked with collective guilt for the crimes of the old regime. No Truth and Reconciliation Commissions were established in Russia as they were in post-apartheid South Africa. Nor was there any opening of secret police archives, as in east Germany or Hungary. In Germany, a vigorous public debate continues over memorializing its totalitarian period, both Nazi and Soviet. By contrast, Russian elite groups have manipulated national memory, reflecting both a reluctance to deal with Russia’s totalitarian past and its less-than democratic present. Far away from Moscow, Perm 36 is an island of truth in a Russia that increasingly distorts and belittles the Kremlin’s cruel past.
The Kremlin has produced no legal documents that recognize state terror as a crime. All it has approved along those lines are two insufficient lines in the preamble of a 1991 law on the rehabilitation of victims. There is neither a national document nor a national museum dedicated to commemorating the victims of communist terror. In the new Russia, there has never been a trial against the Kremlin’s willing executioners that left millions dead throughout the whole of the Soviet period.
Is it, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s widow said, “too late for words?" Would, as Putin seems to believe, Russia crumble if the skeletons in the Kremlin’s closet came into view?
So long as the KGB has its own man ruling the Kremlin, Russian society has little hope of shedding its totalitarian mentality. Meanwhile in the Urals, the Perm triangle is once again slipping into the government’s control.
Ola Cichowlas is a journalist writing about Russia and Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter at @olacicho.