Let history be judged: the lesson of Perm-36


The collapse of the USSR in 1991 led to historical reconsideration, but unlike in Germany or South Africa, there has been no 'truth and reconciliation' process in Russia, and many of its most shameful chapters are yet to be properly confronted. A museum set up at one of the most notorious Gulag camps attempts to redress the balance, reports Susanne Sternthal.

Susanne Sternthal
6 January 2012

I set out with a driver to the village of Kuchino, some 120 kilometres north-east of the Russian city of Perm, just west of the Ural Mountains, during its first snowfall of the season. The desolate landscape was barely visible in the blowing snow. We turned off the highway on to a dirt road, drove by the tilting, abandoned homes of Kuchino, and pulled up in front of a large green metal gate. A high white wooden fence crowned with rows of barbed wire defined a perimeter. Green-painted watchtowers peered out. A sign read: ‘Memorial Historical Centre of Political Repression Perm-36’. We had arrived at the only preserved Stalin-era Gulag in all of Russia.

The museum, in the middle of nowhere, is a solitary monument to the millions of political prisoners who suffered and died under communist repression, not only during Stalin’s rule, but decades afterward. Twenty years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the legacy of Stalinism and totalitarianism still cast a shadow over the Russian polity. Russia has not officially judged this dark chapter of Soviet history and is struggling even today with its historical narrative. The failure to issue a legal judgment on its past and free the country from its lingering grip has retarded Russia’s ‘modernisation,’ contends Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. The idea that the past must be faced for the nation to develop is the purpose of the museum of Perm-36; its expanding civic and educational mission; and its objective to place the museum on the map.


A room with a view: the bleak vista from one of the buildings of the Perm-36 labour camp, one of the harshest of what Solzhenitsyn termed the 'Gulag Archipelago' that dotted Siberia from the Stalin era to the 1980s. (Photo: Susanne Sternthal, all rights reserved)

Perm today

Present-day Perm bears very little resemblance to what it was in the Soviet days. Under Stalin, the city and region (renamed Molotov after Stalin’s foreign minister) became one of the major hubs for defence production and was one of more than 60 ‘closed’ cities during the Soviet period. Residency in and travel to Perm were restricted for Russians, while it was strictly off-limits to foreigners until 1989. The city, some 800 miles east of Moscow, was left off many Soviet maps.

Today, Perm is one of the more progressive regions of Russia. The regional Governor, Oleg Chirkunov, 52, is one of the few appointed governors who is not a member of the government party, United Russia. The city itself is dynamic, determined to overtake Moscow and St. Petersburg for avant-garde culture and is often referred to as the ‘Bilbao of the East’. But as it reinvents itself, Perm has not allowed the dust to settle on its ignominious past.

The region of Perm is remote, sparsely populated and rich in timber and ore deposits, making it an ideal location for the chain of labour camps and prisons described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as ‘the Gulag Archipelago’. There were 170 camps in the Perm region towards the end of the Stalinist period, outnumbering villages, and holding some 150,000 prisoners. While many in the West are aware of the Stalinist labour camps, of which there were at least 95,200 and where some 20 million died, few realise that the camps kept working well into Gorbachev’s period of glasnost and perestroika. Among these, the ‘Perm Triangle’, comprising the three most notorious camps, Perm-35, -36 and -37, held many famous dissidents from 1972 to 1988, including Natan Sharansky, Sergei Kovalyov, Balys Gajauskas, Vladimir Bukovsky, Vasyl Osvienko, Vasyl Stus and Yuri Orlov. Lesser-known dissidents were freed only in 1992.


Victor Shmyrov, 63, a medieval historian, who looks the part with his dome-shaped pate and trimmed goatee, is the founding director of the Perm-36 museum. He remembers the societal taboo of acknowledging arrests, disappearances, political repression, and prison camps. On the surface there was the bright, official narrative of progress towards building socialism, but roiling beneath was something sinister, incomprehensible and chaotic, about which people kept quiet. Only as a teenager when Shmyrov began listening to the forbidden broadcasts of Voice of America, Radio Liberty and BBC, years after Stalin’s death, did he learn the repression was systematic and encompassed the whole Soviet Union.

'Unlike Germany, which has confronted its past, Russia has sidestepped many of the disturbing facts of its history.’

In Perm the people became emboldened to confront and expose their nation’s past with the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev. In December 1988 Aleksandr Kalikh, now board member of the International Memorial Society, interviewed Perm’s regional public prosecutor about the rehabilitation of victims of Stalinist repression in the Perm region. At the end of the interview, readers were urged to write to the newspaper, Zvezda, [Russian for ‘star’] about what they had suffered. Thousands of letters came pouring in and this, says Kalikh, a lively 70-year old, was the beginning of Perm’s activism about acknowledging the crimes of Stalin and remembering the victims of communist repression. Six days later, Perm’s Memorial Society was formed. Today, the Memorial Society, an organisation dedicated to human rights, the documentation of Stalinism and the political repressions under communism, has offices in Moscow, in St. Petersburg and a number of former Soviet republics.


An oasis of self-examination: the Perm-36 labour camp, now
a 'Memorial Museum of Political Repression', is
geographically remote and also stands far apart from
mainstream thinking in Russia, which shows little interest in
fully examining the dark side of the Soviet period(Photo: Susanne Sternthal, all rights reserved)

Kalikh recalls that in the late 1980s, ‘there was the hope that the Party will understand, the Party will acknowledge its crimes’. But, unlike Germany, which has confronted its past, Russia has sidestepped many of the disturbing facts of its history, refusing to blame the Soviet government for its crimes against its own people. The problem, Kalikh and others contend, is that Russia has not had its own ‘Nuremburg’ process: it has not issued a legal judgment of its past.

De-Stalinising Stalin

The official efforts to mould a historical narrative, which often contradict accepted historical fact, bring to mind Russian satirist Mikhail Zadornov’s description of Russia as a ‘great country with an unpredictable past’. The subject of Stalin is especially charged. Many Russians reject the idea of judging Stalin for fear that the entire Soviet period will be condemned as criminal. Stalin is revered as a leader who presided over the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, but historical facts about Stalin’s cooperation with Hitler are not part of the official narrative. The Great Patriotic War, as Russians call WWII, is central to Russia’s sense of nationhood and is commemorated yearly with great fanfare and no aspersions on Russia’s role in WWII are tolerated.

When the European Parliament called on its member states and other European countries in April 2009 to observe the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism starting August 23, the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of non-aggression, Russia responded with a decree of its own. Within a month, President Medvedev announced the ‘Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russian Interests’, which was ‘to defend Russia against falsifiers of history and those who would deny the Soviet contribution to the victory in World War II’.

It has become something of state policy to keep Stalin apart from his deeds. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has extolled Stalin’s transformation of the Soviet Union into an industrial superpower and defeat of Hitler in World War II and, while acknowledging the repressions under Stalin, Putin has not blamed him or the Soviet government.

Teaching the past

To help teachers navigate the slippery formulations about Russian history, a government-sponsored teaching manual came out in April 2010 entitled A History of Russia 1900-1945. It informs teachers that the Great Terror of the 1930s was the result of Stalin not knowing ‘who would deal the next blow, for which reason he attacked every known group and movement’. It also instructs teachers that ‘it is important to show that Stalin acted in a concrete historical situation’ and that he acted ‘entirely rationally – as the guardian of a system’.

'The Gulag is not a closed chapter in history - it still exists in the Russian mentality, in its slavish manner, in its willingness to accept propaganda and lies, and in its indifference to the fate of its people and to the crimes of the government.’

- Sergei Kovalyov, human rights activist

In March 2011, the Russian Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights released a proposed programme called ‘On the Perpetuation of the Memory of Victims of the Totalitarian Regime and of National Reconciliation’. The programme seeks to free society of the many vestiges of Stalinism, without naming the man himself. Even so, the proposal, which is under review by the government, has become known as the ‘de-Stalinisation,’ programme, and has been met with criticism. Fedotov has defended it, explaining that the Council is not, in fact, ‘at war with the image of Stalin… No one is touching him’. He explained that the proposed programme’s ‘main task was to overcome the totalitarian way of thinking, to surmount the remnants of totalitarianism in society and in practice – in other words, to modernise consciousness’. The only way to do this, states the ‘first and main proposal’ of the programme, is ‘to acknowledge the tragedy of the people during the totalitarian regime… to emphasise not the fault of our forebears, who perpetuated the genocide and the destruction of faith and morals, but [to focus] on honouring and committing the memory of the victims of the regime to eternity’.

Sergei Kovalyov, 81, a biophysicist and human rights activist, spent seven years in Perm-36. Now Chairman of Memorial and President of the Sakharov Foundation, he contends that ‘the Gulag is not a closed chapter in history. The Gulag still exists in the Russian mentality, in its slavish manner, in its willingness to accept propaganda and lies, and in its indifference to the fate of its people and to the crimes of the government. It is the legacy of the Gulag that paved the way for the imprisonment of the first de-Stalinisers, the dissidents, who demanded justice and freedom after Stalin’s death and for decades afterward’.

Honouring the memory of political prisoners began in Perm on 13 July 1992, the 20th anniversary of the transfer of the first political prisoners to the three Perm camps from Mordovia, an autonomous republic in south-western Russia, where camps were considered lax. Under the auspices of Memorial former imprisoned dissidents gathered and agreed that the memory and history of political repression had to be preserved. Inside Perm-35, now a labour camp for criminals, a memorial plaque was placed on the former infirmary: ‘Here the last political prisoners of the communist regime were freed’. This had happened less than six months earlier, in February 1992, after President Boris Yeltsin announced an amnesty for all remaining political prisoners.

Travelling next to the village of Kuchino, about a two-hour drive from Perm, the former dissidents visited Perm-36. When they arrived, they saw that the larger and better-preserved part of Perm-36 had been taken over by a psychiatric ward. The patients had been moved into the remaining camp barracks soon after the camp was closed in January 1988. Gorbachev had yielded to Western pressure and freed a number of political prisoners; those who were not given amnesty were transferred to Perm-35.

‘I was surprised by what I saw’, recalls Shmyrov. ‘The camp was so anachronistic. It was made of wood and it was large, originally with four barracks, holding up to 1000 prisoners. This immediately jumped out at me. It was not a typical camp. And this was the beginning of it all’.

Perm-36: an unusual camp

Perm-36 was built on a plot of about 10-acres in 1946 as a ‘corrective labour timber-logging camp’. All that the handful of villagers of Kuchino knew was that the inmates were the worst of their kind and the most dangerous: they were ‘enemies of the people’.

After World War II, the Soviet prison population grew exponentially, and thousands of forced labour camps sprang up to reconstruct the post-war economy. Some 40% of the timber supplied in the 1940s came from Gulag labour camps such as Perm-36. During this period, perhaps in part because of the need for labour, the arbitrary and surreal nature of arrests expanded. Ivan Burlyov, a beekeeper from Perm, made the mistake of not casting his vote for the one-party candidate in a 1949 ballot; instead, he wrote ‘comedy’. But humour, among so many other traits and beliefs, could be considered treasonous in Stalin’s time. After analysing the handwriting on the ballot, officials arrested Burlyov and sentenced him to eight years in Perm-36.

‘Day-to-day life in Perm-36 was characterised by a highly charged tension from the constant psychological battle between the prisoners and the camp administration.’

In the 1960s the Soviet leadership saw new threats. These were dissidents: writers, nationalists and human rights activists who criticised the regime during the brief ‘thaw’ under Khrushchev. ‘When Andropov became head of the KGB in 1967,’ Shmyrov explains, ‘he, unlike many others in the Politburo at the time, understood that the dissident movement posed the greatest threat to the future of communism.’

The greatest irritant for Andropov was that news from the imprisoned dissidents was leaking out to the West. Another, stricter, place of internment had to be found for these ‘particularly dangerous state enemies,’ who were of special interest to the Soviet leadership and whose fate was carefully tracked. So when a new wave of repressions against political dissidents began in the early 1970s, the reinforced security camp of Perm-36 was selected as a specially enclosed place, from which no information should get out. The other two camps of the infamous ‘triangle’ of labour camps, Perm-35 and Perm-37, also were prepared for political prisoners. But of the three camps, Perm-36, with its ‘strict regime’ and ‘special regime’ became the harshest in the Soviet Union.

Sergei Kovalyov

In 1975, Kovalyov was sent to Perm-36 for the crime of ‘agitation and propaganda’.  The Perm region that year registered a record cold of minus 40.8° celcius. Dressed in a thin cotton shirt and trousers, Kovalyov was placed in a cell of 11 square meters — the so-called ‘shizo’ [the Russian acronym for the penal isolation cell]. It was damp, bone-penetrating cold and it reeked of human waste. Here Kovalyov would spend a total of three years out of his seven-year sentence.

voting with dark blue thread

A 'shizo' isolation cell at Perm-36, where incoming prisoners
were 'quarantined' upon arrival in order to try to prevent them
bringing information or messages into the labour camp.(Photo: Susanne Sternthal, all rights reserved)

The shizo is a small, unassuming white brick building that stands apart from the wooden barracks in the ‘residential zone’ of Perm-36. All new prisoners, healthy or ill, were put into the shizo for ‘quarantine’ and Kovalyov spent a week there alone, before being released into the ‘zone’, as prisoners called the camp. Kovalyov, an avuncular and energetic man, speculates that ‘quarantine’ in the shizo was instituted to make sure that the new prisoner was not carrying any information for other prisoners. The transmission of such information would involve writing in minuscule handwriting on very fine, transparent paper which would be rolled into the form of a bullet, tied with string, wrapped with layers of polythene and sealed with a match and then swallowed. If it was expelled too early, it would be washed, one layer of the polythene would be removed and it would be swallowed again. In this way the information would be passed on to visiting family members. In the course of a week, the guards hoped to find such information if the prisoner had it. In this case, Kovalyov did not, though during his term he managed to send a number of letters to the west in this way.

Day-to-day life at Perm-36 was characterised by a highly charged tension that stemmed from the constant psychological battle and war of wills between the prisoners and the camp administration. The camp officials, who included KGB officers, would play on prisoners’ nerves by punishing them for made-up infractions.

The prisoners’ resistance took the form of getting information out to the west, writing official letters of complaint about camp conditions and treatment, work strikes and hunger strikes. Starting in 1974, an annual hunger strike was held on 30 October in memory of political prisoners who had died. That day, Kovalyov notified the western press corps of the widespread hunger strike in the camps by calling a press conference in the apartment of Andrei Sakharov and showing the journalists the information from the camps that had been smuggled out. In October 1991, the date was officially acknowledged as the ‘Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression’ under Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

After exile, Kovalyov finally moved back to Moscow in December 1987. Within three years he became an elected People’s Deputy of the Russian Federation and later a member of the State Duma and its Human Rights Commissioner. As President Yeltsin’s human rights advisor, he ardently opposed Russia’s war in Chechnya. In the recent election he stood as a candidate for the opposition party, Yabloko.

The ‘special regime’

The Chronicle of Current Events, which Kovalyov also edited before his imprisonment, kept track of who was searched, arrested, tried and sent to camp, and published news that would leak out from the camps. The November 1979 issue had the following news from Perm-36: ‘The manufacturing of metal covered doors and metal door bars began at the camp in the summer. The political prisoners suspect that either a prison or a special regime zone will be built next to the camp’.

The ‘special regime’ is half a kilometre up the dirt road from the larger ‘strict regime’ of Perm-36. There is no sign identifying it. The white wooden fence is festooned with barbed wire and has a large green, rusty, metal gate. Inside, a jumble of tangled barbed wire and metal and wood fencing of different types present a formidable barrier. On each corner weathered, wooden watchtowers, turned grey, stand hollow and empty. To the far left is an austere, wooden building with heavily barred windows where the prisoners were held. The atmosphere here is severe and more desolate than that of the ‘strict regime’. In fact, this ‘special regime’ was not so much a camp as a brutal, maximum security, isolation prison. It was built secretly in 1979 for ‘particularly dangerous State criminals’ – that is, dissidents who were repeat offenders of ‘crimes against the state’. They were human rights activists and nationalists from Ukraine and the Baltic states. A total of 56 dissidents were held here from 1980 to 1988. Nine died.

Balys Gajauskas

Among the 32 prisoners from Mordovia transferred to Perm-36 in April 1980 was 54-year-old Lithuanian nationalist, Balys Gajauskas. He had already served two years of a ten-year term, after which he would spend another five years in exile for ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’. This time, his crime was having a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, among other ‘anti-Soviet material’ that the KGB found during a 1977 search of his apartment. Gajauskas was tried, convicted and labelled a ‘dangerous recidivist’. He had already served — from 1948 to 1973 — a full 25 years in various Soviet labour camps for fighting in the Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance.

In the stifling, packed train car, nobody told the prisoners anything. ‘The further it is, the worse it will be, as the saying goes,’ says Gajauskas, now 85. ‘So we knew it would be bad’. Finally, the chief of their former camp said: ‘We are taking you where you can no longer write’.

The prisoners arrived in the ‘special regime’ camp of Perm-36 on 1 March 1980 and were told to strip on the spot. They were searched thoroughly to make sure ‘there was not a single piece of paper anywhere’.


Perm-36 was designed as an isolation camp for political dissidents such as Bajas Gajauskas (right), who were troublesome in publicising repression in the USSR abroad. Despite stringent checks, he and his wife managed to smuggle super-thin tracing paper into the camp and detailed reports, written in microscopic handwriting, out to be published in the west. (Photo: Susanne Sternthal, all rights reserved)

The 30 cells each had a large, heavy metal door with a round peephole that opened to another metal-barred door; they were smaller than the shizo in the ‘strict regime,’ and just as bad. The pressure and stress was greater here because of the absolute control of prisoners’ movements. Any expression of resistance was virtually impossible. Gajauskas, nonetheless, persisted. 

‘I fought them every day,’ he says. ‘I concentrated and memorised every detail; who comes, who goes, when. I knew all the guards and KGB by the sound of their footsteps and when they would look into the peephole. I saved myself this way. I was the only one who wrote.’

With the help of his wife, Irene, who would buy fine transparent paper from a pharmacy and bring it to Gajauskas on her yearly visits, he smuggled out many writings to the West. Once he managed to include a message from the famous Ukrainian nationalist poet, Vasily Stus, who was among the nominees for the 1985 Nobel Prize in literature and was his cellmate for a time. Gajauskas also wrote a long piece, ‘On the Work Conditions of the Soviet Union’, which consisted of 50 sheets of minuscule writing that wended its way to publication as a ten-page article in Switzerland in 1986. Soon after, he was confronted by two KGB officers from Lithuania with the published article. After that, Gajauskas decided he would no longer write. ‘It was too risky and I had less than a year left of my term’.

‘In the late 1980s and 1990s everyone talked about the Gulag and was horrified by it; today society has begun to justify Stalin. We’re trying to spread a different knowledge and understanding with all the means we have available.’

- Victor Shmyrov,  founding director of Perm-36 museum.

It was then that a new cellmate was put in with Gajauskas. Boris Ushakov was a criminal killer. While working together in their work cell on April 17 1986, Ushakov attacked Gajauskas, hitting him over the head with a screwdriver. Gajauskas fell, unconscious, while Ushakov stabbed him 12 times, just barely missing his heart. Gajauskas miraculously survived. His former cellmate, Stus, did not, and had died a year earlier under suspicious circumstances in the ‘special regime’s’ shizo.

Gajauskas finished his term and left Perm-36 in April 1987 for exile in Khabarovsk. A year later he was forced to emigrate and went to the United States where he lived for less than a year. The 1989 events in Eastern Europe transfixed him. ‘I always believed that this criminal empire would collapse. I was convinced,’ says Gajauskas. He returned to Lithuania in 1989 and took part in Sajudis, Lithuania’s independence movement. Two years later, he was his country’s Interior Minister.

The Museum

The Memorial Museum of Political Repression at Perm-36 has preserved a dark corner of Soviet history that is vitally important not just for Russia, Kovalyov and Gajauskas both believe, but for the world. It is on UNESCO’s shortlist for consideration as a world heritage site. ‘The museum does wonderful work’, Kovalyov says. ‘Unfortunately, it’s very remote’.

For this reason, Shmyrov believes the museum must be more than just the physical structures of the camp. ‘If in the late 1980s and 1990s everyone talked about the Gulag and was horrified by it, today society has begun to justify Stalin. We’re trying to spread a different knowledge and understanding with all the means we have available,’ he explains. This includes a number of innovative educational programmes that are held on the camp grounds for students, teachers and professionals. Thematically, the programmes are informed by the importance of history, memory and human rights.

An annual civic forum, ‘Pilorama’ (named after the power-saw bench used by prisoners) has put Perm-36 on the cultural radar screen and has become the ‘main image-building event’ for the Perm region. It started in 2005 as a celebration of the museum’s tenth anniversary: various Russian bards sang in front of some 50 people. Now it includes thematic discussions about Soviet history, theatre performances, art exhibits, and rock concerts, and attracts more than 3,000 visitors. In 2009, Pilorama premiered the Auschwitz Museum’s travelling exhibition of the history of the Nazi German concentration camp. Last July, in advance of the Pilorama forum, an innovative international staging of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio (about the rescue of a political prisoner) was staged on the grounds of Perm-36. Half of the financial support for the museum’s programs — including for Pilorama — comes from the Perm regional government. In 2009, it gave 8.9 million rubles (about $300,000), and in 2010 granted 6 million rubles (about $200,000), with a roughly equal amount donated by private sources.

Pilorama’s seventh forum, held the last three days of July 2011, was called ‘The World of No Freedom and Culture: the last 20 years’. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was invited, and had indicated he would participate, yet cancelled for health reasons. This was of particular disappointment to Ukrainian nationalist and human rights activist Vasyl Ovsienko, who had been hoping to give Gorbachev ‘a personal tour’ of the camp. Ovsienko had been a prisoner of Perm-36 from December 1981 to the day it closed on December 8, 1987. ‘That day Mikhail Gorbachev met President Ronald Reagan in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik and told him that there were no more political prisoners in Perm-36’, Ovsienko recalled. ‘And this was true: we, the 18 “especially dangerous recidivists”, on that very day were transferred to Perm-35.’

The future of Perm-36

Victor Shmyrov, meanwhile, has his sights on expansion, including a three-star hotel with 48 rooms. He has a plan to make Perm-36 a year-round destination with a programme called the ‘European Centre for Culture and Democracy’ that will include a programme for journalists and lawyers, as well as cinematographers, who will work with ‘liberally-minded specialists, fully steeped in ideas of democracy from different countries.’ Then, Shmyrov plans to buy more land, including a nearby island, for rock concerts, to house volunteers, run educational programmes, and hold a youth camp and forum whose participants will study and discuss topical subjects informed by the values of the Perm-36 museum.

It is such an educated and aware Russian youth that holds the best promise for coming to terms with a factual narrative of their country’s history – studying the period of totalitarian repression and the Gulag, and judging its past. At some point, Kovalyov believes, this judgment will take place, an important step in freeing Russians from their ‘slave mentality’ and enabling them to engage fully as citizens.

‘Despite my pessimism concerning the present government’, he says, ‘I’m very cautiously optimistic’.

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