From Memory to Denial in Russia

LONDON – My most painful experience in Russia was a visit to Perm-36, the only one of Stalin’s forced-labor camps to have been preserved, in 1998. I was in Perm, a city in the Urals, to take part in a seminar of the Moscow School of Political Studies. Founded by the remarkable Lena Nemirovskaya, the school’s purpose was to introduce young post-communist Russians to democracy, self-government, and capitalism.

One bitterly cold March day, I joined a few friends on a trip to the former camp. Built in the early 1940s as a “regular” labor camp, Perm-36 was converted into a concentration camp for political prisoners in 1972.

The last prisoners were released in 1987, three years into Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule. Now it was being restored as a Gulag Museum by Memorial, a human-rights group founded by the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, to remind Russians of their totalitarian past.

We were shown around the maximum-security wing. Surrounded by a barbed-wire perimeter, it had housed the political prisoners, mostly from the non-Russian Soviet republics, who were considered to be “particularly dangerous recidivists.” After a Ukrainian television crew filmed the site in 1989, part of it was deliberately destroyed.