I stepped off the bus and into the endless grasslands of the Urals. Although it was only mid-September, an icy wind sweeping across the open fields of Russia’s Perm Krai blasted me. The bus driver jabbed his finger towards a village in the distance, slammed the doors shut and sped away.
I zipped up my lightweight jacket and soldiered on towards the ramshackle village of Kuchino. It had been little more than a month since I had visited Japan during the sweltering heat of summer. The last few days of my trip had been spent visiting the Atomic Bomb Memorial in Hiroshima, a harrowing experience which had infused me with a deep sense of pessimism about the nature of humanity.
I glanced at my crumpled map and followed a muddy path through a small community of dilapidated farmhouses. Unseen dogs barked frantically. I picked up my pace and trudged towards the horizon.
After what seemed like hours, but was perhaps 20 minutes, I saw a barbed wire fence looming in the distance – a barbed wire fence that enclosed a museum.
I followed the fence around until I came to a rundown building. The once white paint had begun to disintegrate, exposing the rough concrete behind it. I carried on until I reached the doorway, where a small sign indicated I was about to enter the former labor camp of Perm-36.
Also known as ITK-6, Perm-36 is the last remaining example of several hundred gulags, secret prison camps that once dotted every corner of the Soviet Union. Now known as The Memorial Complex of Political Repression, the museum has been educating the public about this dark episode in Russian history since 1994.
I knocked on the door and waited. A heavily-built man in his late forties finally opened it. He introduced himself as Sergei, my guide for the day. He took me through to a large room filled with a variety of objects in glass cabinets. In one corner sat the stripy uniform of a zek, or prison inmate. On the wall beside it, a Soviet-era drawing of Josef Stalin hung from the wall. It depicted the handsome and confident General Secretary aboard a boat as he steered the good ship USSR through choppy and dangerous waters. The reality, however, was very different for so many Soviet citizens.
The camp first opened its doors in 1946. Inmates were forced to cut down trees and ship them down river to help rebuild the many towns and villages that had been destroyed during World War II. At its height, the camp could accommodate a thousand prisoners, who slaved away in dreadful conditions for up to 16 hours every day.
“The most famous inmates were political prisoners,” said Sergei. “But the majority of convicts were just ordinary people caught up in an impossible situation. Making an innocent joke about Stalin or stealing a few potatoes to feed your family could land you in the gulag for many years. Nobody was safe, not even children.”
Dissent was crushed and prisoners were often beaten, placed in solitary confinement, or strip searched in the freezing cold. The unremitting savagery of the camp took its toll and many people died there, where they were often buried in a grave marked only by a numbered post in the ground.
We went out into the main part of the camp, where Sergei showed me the inmates’ quarters. Nestled amongst a small copse of trees, the rustic, wooden hut looked just like a pleasant holiday home. The inside, however, was another story. The building was crammed from wall to wall with nothing more than crumbling, flea bitten planks.
“In some years, as many as 20 percent of the inmates died,” said Sergei. “A few were beaten to death or killed trying to escape, but most of the time, the conditions were just too much for people to take.” Although deaths began to drop after World War II, the camp was converted into a site for political prisoners in 1972 and remained operational until the late 1980’s.
Camp life was harsh and unremitting. From 7.30am to sunset, the prisoners would be marched out into the forest to cut down dozens of trees. Even after dinner, duties would continue. Inmates would often shovel snow and coal, chop firewood or fix and repair roads until as late as 11 o’clock.
We left the barracks and toured the rest of the camp. With boundless enthusiasm that shone through his limited command of English, Sergei relayed in great detail the daily life of the inmates, including the camp’s most famous resident, the Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus.
“Dissidents like Stus were a real threat to the Communist Party,” said Sergei. “His poetry and activism were influential in getting people to question the system people found themselves in. After forming the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, an organization committed to human rights monitoring, he was soon arrested. By the time he died during a hunger strike in 1985, he had spent more than half his life in the gulag.”
After visiting several other buildings, including the hospital, punishment block and outhouse, we ended our tour at the perimeter fence. Several inmates had lost their lives here, cut down by machine gun fire as they tried to flee.
As a biting gust of wind sent a chill through my body, I thought about how important it was to preserve such a monument to prevent future generations from making the same awful mistakes.
Unfortunately, the museum is now under threat. Even before my arrival, the camp had been placed on the World Monument Fund’s list of 100 most endangered sites. But since the Ukrainian Crisis began in late 2013, a new wave of Nationalism has swept across Russia. Shortly after my visit, the museum was temporarily closed when the NGO that had helped finance it was forced to disband after it was accused of being an ‘instrument of foreign power’.
When it reopened under new management a few months later, much of the focus had changed. Instead of concentrating on the appalling conditions in the camp, the exhibition space is instead devoted to timber production at the camp and its involvement in helping the Russians to victory in 1945. Individual stories of the prisoners, which were so vividly related to me by my guide, were removed and replaced with information stressing that the inmates were criminals and dissidents who had tried to sabotage the Russian war effort. It seemed that the main function of the museum was no longer to remember the past, but to reinvent it.
As the tour ended, Sergei insisted that I took a picture of him. Once I did so, he gave me a firm shake of the hand.
“Russia and Britain are friends,” he said. “We must not be enemies.” As I made my way back down the trail, I wondered how much longer he would be able to say that.