Sunday, September 20, 2009

From a Dark Past to a Bright Future - Part One: Perm 36

Last week, we visited Perm 36, a notorious labor camp, closed only in 1987. Now a museum dedicated to the cause of human rights, it is a chilling reminder of this country's past, and the many sacrifices that were made by human rights activists.  It is also a reminder of the incredible cruelty of the Stalin regime, and the repression of the people in Soviet times.  Over 20 million people died in these camps.  The government insists it was from "natural causes", which seem in include starvation, hypothermia, and literally being starved to death.  The camps were originally built as prisons where inmates would spend their days clearing forests to supply wood for the newly industrialized republic.  Since Stalin did not have the money to support labor force he needed to fulfill his dreams of creating a modern industrialized state, a system of slave labor was developed, where millions of Russians were sent to labor camps like this one all over Russia.  You could wind up in one of these camps for any petty offense - being late for work, laughing at a joke about the government, wrapping fish in a newspaper that happened to have the name or picture of Stalin in it. People lived in constant fear of the KGB, who were in charge of enforcing these laws, and who could send anyone to the camps on whim, without a trial.  The guards were notoriously sadistic, and prisoners were given the bare minimum amount of food to survive.  Temperatures here reach 50 degrees below zero (Celsius) and there are no heaters or stoves.

The watchtower between the barracks and the work yard

The director of the museum and two lovely young women who volunteered to interpret for us
No one else spoke English so we were lucky they  happened by.

No mans land between the barracks and the yard

This small building housed 250 people

Inside the barracks - unheated and bare beds

In the second phase of the camps, it was a turn-around - after Stalin's regime was out of power, the many KGB officers whom the people saw as their tormentors were sent here as punishment for their actions under Stalin and other regimes. At that time, trees were planted, indoor toilets installed, and other accoutrements to make life less harsh for those sensitive KGB thugs.

When the KGB were imprisoned here, they planted trees to make it "nicer"

Remnants of flush toilets installed for the KGB, but then removed when dissidents came.

Artifacts of prison life in the window

A woman worker

Drawing of fellow inmates by a prisoner

What workers wore in the freezing cold - not very thick or warm

Then, in the third phase, the camps returned to their sinister purpose.  Under the Soviet regimes, writers, poets, journalists and political leaders who were critical of the government were sent here as punishment, usually for 3-5 years.  In the past, the inmates were sent to labor outside the camps in the woods and road, but for the dissidents, they were never allowed to leave the camp, and given menial, mind-numbing tasks to do all day long. The same cruel conditions returned as well, and have been documented in many accounts by inmates who survived.  One of these former inmates, Sergei Kovalev, is on the board of the Museum, and is very active in the movement to tell the stories of the people who lived and died in these camps.

The "severe punishment" part of the camp

A prisoner in solitary would never leave this room, and have to work making plates for electric irons
Notice "toilet" in corner.

The looks on out faces says it all

A guard still watches today, but for different reasons

There is now art on the walls of the camp and theater groups perform here

At least 20 million people died at Perm 36


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