A recent past remaining in the present: a journey to the former GULAG camp “Perm-36” Posted by josefina on Feb 28, 2008 in History, Soviet Union
After one hour on the bus from Perm, located on the European side of the Urals, there is only snow and dark green pine trees outside my window as far as the eye can see. With at least one more hour to go before arriving at the museum “Perm-36”, those small villages that one passes by every once in a while along Russian highways become scarce, allowing for a lonely landscape heavy with snow under a dreary grey sky to take over. It’s late morning on a cloudy Tuesday in February, and there are hardly ten people on the bus. Suddenly the driver pulls over and stops where a smaller road starts off from the main road, shouting back at me: “This is it!” The day is not cold, it is only minus one degree Celsius, yet the wind coming from the south is strong and icy; it feels like needles hitting against my face when I stand and watch the bus taking off, leaving me alone in the middle of nowhere. The first thing I notice is the silence. Except for the occasional car passing by on the road, there is nothing out here – only snow-covered fields and tall, murky pine trees.
The proper way to begin must be by saying that there are no buses from the city of Perm to the village of Kutchino, where the former GULAG forced labor camp for political prisoners “Perm-36” is located. If you want to come here you can either pay for a very expensive taxi ride, or, if you are a poor student like me, succumb to buying a ticket on the bus that goes north to the small town of Chusovoj. All you have to do is politely ask the driver to make a stop at “Perm-36”. When I called the museum earlier that same morning, and the nice woman on the phone explained this situation to me, I had imagined that the bus would drive me all the way to the entrance. It did not. It stopped at the crossroads and then left me with 3 kilometers to walk through an austere country landscape draped in thick blanket-like covers of spotless snow. Another important fact is that a visit to the museum must be arranged in advance, as it is by appointment only, though it is open with staff working every day of the week from 10.00 till 17.00 except for Mondays. Not until I walked up to the gates of the former camp did I realize why making an appointment is essential – a male member of the staff has to unlock and open the heavy three meter tall steel doors, painted green, for visitors, then close and lock them again. In my case it was a man wearing the standard Russian winter outfit – fur coat, fur hat, knee-high [‘valenki’] boots – who said to me: “I’m waiting for you”. This is obviously not a place where people randomly ‘drop in’.
The gates close behind me and the man shows me the way into the camp. As we walk past the five security fences dressed in different kinds of rusty barbed wire and a view of a handful of buildings located here and there in a cramped territory opens up ahead of me, a feeling comes over me which I do not succeed in shedding throughout the visit. It is a feeling of presence; despite this camp being a part of the past. It survived the obsolete system it was part of and the country it was located in, yet the twenty years that have passed since it closed have not been enough for it to become distant. It is still current, though most Russians grew tired of remembering this aspect of their past during the 90’s. In the glasnost and perestroika of the 80’s memoirs and books and articles dealing with GULAG camps and telling about the fate of dissidents and other innocent so called ‘enemies of the Soviet State’, where printed in millions of copies, read and discussed by everyone. Then came the 90’s with economic crash in combination with widespread corruption, fresh capitalism and new troubles, causing most Russians to wonder what the good use was of all this talk about the past. And that might be the biggest reason as to why the people in Perm don’t know about the only Russian museum for the history of political repression. Despite the hard and dedicated work carried out by the organization Perm Memorial with bringing school children, students and young adults here on excursions and even summer camps at the museum, people of Perm are still largely ignorant of the site only a couple of hours away that are on the list of the 100 most endangered sites in the world. The nice couple that allowed for me to spend the night on their coach on account of me being a poor student and incapable of affording a hotel room, reacted with that special kind of Russian sadness, full of bashful regret, when I told them the aim of my journey; they’d love to go, but for one reason or another they know they never will.
All of these facts play a role in the reason as to why visitors to “Perm-36” are more or less likely to have the whole entire camp territory to themselves. The meager entrance fee consists of 50 rubles and is paid at the main administration building, located in the middle of the camp. It is a one storey building painted in white and equipped not only with a bathroom, a restaurant and a small movie theater, but also a library and an extensive archive. For 500 rubles you get a 1,5 hour tour of the territory in Russian, for 1500 rubles you get the same tour in English (though it is most likely you must call a couple of days ahead for that), and a permission to take photos in and around the prison costs 50 rubles. The museum is well-prepared to take care of foreign visitors, who come here from all over the world, as the 20 minute movie, included in the beginning of the guided tour, shown in the movie theater is available in both English and Russian.
The camp was built during Stalin’s lifetime, in 1947, and closed in 1988. The last prisoners were released on December 29th 1987. This camp is unique in more than one way, and a visit here is something you’re not likely to forget anytime soon (though you might try your best to do so). Out of all the thousands of GULAG camps that were scattered over the vast Soviet Union both as a part of Stalin’s effort to create fast economic growth, and later as a way of tucking away political prisoners in remote places, none but “Perm-36” has survived intact up until this day. The camps were generally built out of wood, constructed fast and scruffily by the prisoners themselves, who often lacked both proper education and any motivation to do a good job. They were commonly erected around a factory or some other industrial project, such as road building or dam building. When a project was done, the camp was destroyed and nothing was left behind of it. The camps that were not destroyed have with time decayed and now mostly resemble archeological sites, where the graveyards are among the most well-preserved reminders of what these places used to be ‘home’ to. “Perm-36” is still standing thanks to a fortunate twist of events – the local government in Perm decided to use the old concentration camp as a ward for mentally disabled people. Yet when the first photographers arrived in 1989 to take pictures of the site and even film a movie, KGB sensed it was not in their best interest to leave the camp as it was, and many of the buildings were destroyed, completely or only partially.
Most of the 90’s was spent restoring the camp by Perm Memorial, an organization made up by a group of dedicated individuals, among them even former prisoners, with help from many volunteer organizations not only in Russia but worldwide in combination with extensive funding from many countries. When the woman who greeted me with a big smile at my arrival asked me what country I was from, I answered “Sweden” and she told me that a group of volunteers from my country spent the summer of 1999 here painting all the fences white. The renovation of the camp is still not finished; as the tour guide takes me through the territory he points at the bath house and says: “That will be fixed and opened by next year”. There are also plans for restoring the other one of the two living barracks, the only two surviving out of the four original ones. Every building has a large sign with an educational clarification of what its use was in the past, written in both English and Russian. While listening to the young tour guide telling me about the history not only of this camp, but of GULAG camps in Russia in general – he is a boy of my age (22 years) – and walking through the exhibition halls, it seems to be very ironic that this must be the best museum I have ever visited in Russia. And I have not only visited a large number of museums; I also worked in one, the Dostoevsky Museum in Omsk, Siberia. “Perm-36” is neat and informative, everything is clear and speaks in simple terms about the most difficult and cruel facts. The message is apparent and cannot be missed by anyone – the past must be remembered in the present or it will repeat itself in the future.
Before leaving the camp I drink a cup of coffee in the restaurant. The staff offers me a ride with their truck to the main road and I’m too tired and not brave enough to turn it down in order to walk the 3 kilometers back. Out on the main road I will have to wave down a bus, since there is no bus stop here, a task that proves rather hard, yet in the state I am in I don’t mind it at all. After thirty minutes of doing jumping Jacks on the side of the road I am finally on a bus and only two hours drive from Perm. And it is not until about an hour later, while traveling through the small town of Kungur on the way back, that I realize exactly why this journey is so important to make. In the center of Kungur there is a prison built around a church and inside the walls of a 19th century monastery. Last year I visited the tourist hot-spot in Kungur – the ice cave – and the sight of this prison was a horrifying realization for me then. The rusty barbed wire, three meter tall concrete walls originally painted white but now a dirty shade of grey, the golden cupola of the church in the middle, towering over four green painted watch towers, all of this is nothing but horrendous proof of the desperate state that the Russian penitentiary system is in today. Looking up at this on the way back from “Perm-36”, it hit me that though there are no political prisoners behind those walls, those people in there are still people. They are still living in terrible conditions today, in 2008.
A widespread slogan used everywhere in Russia today to inspire the population is «Россия, вперёд!» [“Russia, forward!”] It does not, and perhaps rightly so since nobody exactly knows, indicate to where this ‘forward’ will lead. Let’s hope it will not lead us to where we’ve already been.
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