Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia
By Masha Gessen
Photographs by Misha Friedman
160 pp. Columbia Global Reports. $27.99.
Human beings have long slaughtered each other with gusto, but almost always choose mass victims from a group defined as alien. The Nazis killed about six million Jews; Japanese invaders massacred millions of Chinese; European settlers in the Americas enslaved millions of Africans; the list goes on. But the striking thing about Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, as the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen observes in her new book, “Never Remember,” is that “Russians exerted the force of state terror against themselves. … The millions who died anonymously in the Gulag were not necessarily members of ethnic or religious minorities, or even homosexuals: The population of the camps largely corresponded to the population of the country.”
Although at times the dictator’s venom did target particular groups, like Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and, at the very end of his life, Jews, this is largely true. The mass deaths at Soviet execution sites or in labor camps were a self-inflicted genocide: “Russians had no other nation to blame for their nightmare.” When, as Gessen adds, “every museum, indeed every country, ultimately aims to tell a story about the goodness of its people,” how, then, do you remember a system that led to the outright execution of somewhere around a million people and the deaths by starvation or exposure in the Gulag of an unknown additional number, generally reckoned far into the millions? The answer, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is hardly at all.
This wasn’t always so. In 1991, I lived in Russia for five months, working on a book about how Soviets were coming to terms with the Stalin era. There was still some exhilaration in the air at how, under Mikhail Gorbachev, you could now discuss and explore things that had been off limits for some 70 years. I met dozens of researchers studying that dark era, including an imaginative high school history teacher who staged a mock trial of Stalin in his class and people who were digging up mass graves (at one in Siberia I could see the bullet hole in each earth-stained skull). Activists in Moscow put on an evening of poetry and music performed by, or in honor of, Gulag survivors. Museums displayed prison camp artifacts. In the Kolyma region of Russia’s far northeast I visited the most desolate place I have ever seen, Butugychag, a barren, rocky valley streaked with snow even in June, where thousands of prisoners had been worked to death mining tin and uranium, their bodies thrown down unused mine shafts. But the man with me from the Memorial Society, a human rights group, eagerly talked about how places like this could be turned into remembrance sites with lessons for today, as has happened at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.
Gessen and Misha Friedman, who took the grainy, haunting photographs for this book, also visited Butugychag, but found no memorials there. Virtually the only place in Russia where this has happened is a former labor camp outside of Perm, in the Urals, carefully restored over some years. But then something occurred that was never anticipated. Under Putin — whose motto might as well be “Make Russia Great Again” — Stalin’s rule is now remembered as a time of glory and order. Scores of new books and films portray the era in glowing colors, and vintage secret police uniforms are on sale. The husband-and-wife team who spearheaded the restoration at Perm lost their jobs, and the rebuilt camp has now become a site of pilgrimage for those who want to celebrate the old days. It is a grim reminder that once again, as in the 1930s, all over the world authoritarian strongmen are riding high.
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