Susanne Sternthal is a visiting fellow at King’s College London’s Russia Institute.
One more light has gone out in Russia’s besieged civil society.
The only museum of political repression set in an old Stalinist labor camp has closed, the latest casualty of the Russian government’s effort to silence independent voices. After a three-year struggle with the government of the Perm region, in the western foothills of the Ural Mountains, the nongovernmental organization that operated the museum, known officially as the Memorial Historical Center of Political Repression Perm-36, had its property confiscated. Instead of honoring the millions of political prisoners who suffered and died under Soviet repression, the site will henceforth be called “The Museum of the History of Camps and Workers of the Gulag.”
“Of course this was a political decision,” said Victor Shmyrov, the director of the Perm-36 NGO. “Now it will be a museum of the camp system, not of political prisoners. They won’t talk about the repressions or about Stalin.”
Perm-36, which had received grants both from the Perm regional government and foreign sources, was fighting a battle for the truth about the political repression of the Soviet past. It collected archival materials, conducted research and ran educational programs in which it explained why a Stalin-era labor camp that produced timber was retrofitted under Leonid Brezhnev to become one of the harshest prisons for Soviet dissidents, operating until 1988, well into the Gorbachev years. Perm-36 was grouped with two other camps, Perm-35 and Perm-37, to form the “Perm Triangle” where Natan Sharansky, Vladimir Bukovsky, Vasyl Stus, Yuri Orlov and other famed Soviet dissidents were sent.
The relationship between the directors of the Perm-36 museum and local officials grew cold after Vladimir Putin began his third presidential term in 2012. The Kremlin replaced a liberally minded governor of the Perm region, and the museum stopped receiving financial support from the regional government. Water and electricity were turned off, and the government’s involvement in promoting Perm-36 for designation as an UNESCO World Heritage Site was halted. In the summer of 2013, the regional government withheld permission for “Pilorama” — a civic forum named after the power-saw log splitter used by prisoners — to take place at the camp. Held annually since 2005, this event had drawn thousands of visitors to discussions on Soviet history and human rights, theater performances, music and art exhibits.
Sergei Kovalev, a scientist and human rights activist who was imprisoned at Perm-36 for seven years, said the government destroyed “a territory of freedom” when it closed down the museum. Within the confines of the Perm-36 camp museum, delimited by a high wooden fence crowned with barbed wire, Kovalev said, no one was afraid to “speak the truth about what was happening in Russia.”
Then the war in eastern Ukraine began, and the Russian propaganda machine started targeting Perm-36. The TV channel NTV aired a documentary featuring former camp guards. “Schoolchildren are told practically on every tour that the Nazi accomplices and terrorists were heroes in this camp,” intoned the narrator. Over footage of the fighting in Ukraine, the narrator continued: While Ukrainian forces “are bombing hospitals and shooting peaceful residents, in the Perm Region they are extolling the origins of this movement.”
Among the “Nazi sympathizers” identified by NTV was a Lithuanian nationalist, Balys Gajauskas, who was transferred to the “special regime zone” of Perm-36, a camp built especially for such dangerous so-called recidivists. Gajauskas would serve 37 years in various Soviet labor camps, plus more in exile. After his return to Lithuania in 1989, he took part in Lithuania’s independence movement. Two years later he was his country’s interior minister.
“I always believed that this criminal empire would collapse,” Gajauskas told me in 2011. But could he have envisioned that it would be so easily reconstituted?