Islands of an archipelago

What is the best way to deal with the memory of the Great Terror? The famous journalist Yelena Rubinova has visited two of the places where the memory of Stalin's terror is still an open wound, like in Sochi, where the Olympic Games will be held.

December 19 2013 Text: Yelena Rubinova Translation from Russian: Arch Tait

One September morning we managed, without too much difficulty, to persuade a driver, idly chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette, to take us to a place which, we discovered, was well known to local people. Twenty minutes later we had left behind the Olympic sites, visible in various stages of completion from the Adler-Sochi highway. They looked from a distance even more alien than they did near to, the gigantic domed stadiums bearing an uncanny resemblance to flying saucers which had landed on the seashore. In this city, called upon during the 2014 Olympics to project the power of modern Russia to the world, little remains of the old Sochi which in the Soviet era was the most luxurious resort on the Black Sea. What does remain is mostly but not exclusively, as we shortly found out, architectural relics of those years.

The old, battered saloon car, of which there is still no shortage in the south of Russia, took its time, crawling through forests up a winding road, braking and creaking on the bends, and finally stopping at an iron gate and building, both painted the same colour of green. Here on the outskirts of Sochi, tucked away in a grove of fir trees, was a favourite dacha, one of of Stalin’s many rural residences. At this early hour it was quiet and deserted, although the member of the museum staff who came out to greet us encouraged us to look round quickly, because by midday busloads of tourists were likely to arrive. The Leader’s old dacha is still one of the most popular excursions from Sochi, even though the present owners, who bought it when it was known as the Green Grove Sanatorium, have kept just one room as a museum. Here, at a desk with a green lamp, sits a not very lifelike waxwork of Stalin, pipe in hand, with a map on the wall of the USSR as it was when he ruled it, a country which today remains undecided about his role and legacy.

All the opinion polls of recent years show that half the population of Russia firmly believe he was a tyrant and a villain, while the other half revere him as a great statesman. Judging by the crowds of tourists attracted by this fairly unprepossessing place, which looks little better than a store room for old stage properties, the curious allure of great dictators does not just disappear.

For most of the day-trippers, especially the younger ones, this is little more than an exotic evocation of long past Soviet history, as lethargic guides talk mainly about the details of the daily routine of the Leader of the Peoples. He liked to work at night, to sleep in an ascetic, narrow bed, and to watch films from conquered territories in his private cinema (which is now the museum). Visitors are not burdened with value judgements or digressions into history, but instead can play billiards and chess where Stalin once did. The confining of the past in museums, so evident in Germany in respect of every aspect of National Socialism, has a different feel in Russia. There is, after all, no certainty which way the tide of historical discourse may turn. In today’s Russia too, greatness and villainy are not far removed from each other and, problematically, their proximity is variable.

I did not know as I left Stalin’s dacha that, having travelled 2,000 kilometers from Sochi, I would soon be passing through other green gates to another place where the past is frozen in that same era, but in a different aspect of it.

Just three weeks later I found myself at the entrance of Corrective Labour Colony No. 6, a former camp for political prisoners which is now part of the Perm 36 complex. It is a memorial to the history of political repression, and here I was met by Mikhail Nelyubin, a young historian. Perm in the Urals, the nearest city, was just two hours away, but here there was a different reality. Leaden autumn clouds seem to lie heavily on the roofs of the surviving camp huts. The coils of barbed wire on the bleached wooden perimeter fence and the watchtowers at its corners left little doubt as to the purpose of this place. The nondescript houses of Kuchino Village, where a top-secret camp for political prisoners had been located, were lost in a haze of drizzle. Here what survives is a very different memory of the decades of terror when our country was ruled over by Stalin, whose wax image inexplicably still adorns the interior of that dacha in Sochi and is such a draw for tourists, Russian and foreign alike.

Mikhail suggests I lose no time in walking round the surviving and restored buildings of this, the only surviving fragment of the Gulag in Russia today. Even at the weekend, as at the museum in Sochi, a great many visitors are expected. For almost fifteen years now, since the museum opened in 1996, Perm 36 has been an important research center for historians and human rights activists. For researchers it is an invaluable resource, but for the general public their visit is primarily an emotional experience. This is a museum where you come quite literally in contact with the past. You can sit on the bunks restored in the camp’s oldest building, a hut dating from 1949 when prisoners worked here on logging operations. The camp later became a strict regime detention center for political prisoners, and you can look into the solitary confinement punishment cells where they could be held for the least infringement of the regulations. You can handle a homemade mug and aluminum spoon left over from those times. It is not at all difficult to picture the routine of a nameless prisoner, so palpably close and graphic does the horror of the years of terror become. No words in a history book are any substitute, and that is why every day schoolchildren and students, teachers and historians, travellers and tourists come here.

Mikhail is a university graduate from Perm, and has been working at the complex for several years as a researcher and guide. He admits that not all high school students are properly prepared for what they will see and hear, despite the fact that Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago has been in the school curriculum for the past two years. Adults too can be surprisingly ill-informed. “We get all sorts among our visitors,” Mikhail continues, as we walk from the hut to what remains of the camp’s sawmill. “Some have heard vaguely about the repressions and are just about to discover that era. Others know quite a lot already and want to discover more. We also get people who disagree strongly with the characterisation of this as a period of dictatorship, but they still come here. We try to explain, to decipher for each of them the history of how this was able to happen and how it evolved.” He adds that, while people can judge our history very differently, there is no escaping the fact that what was great and good is so closely intertwined with repression that it can prove impossible to understand one aspect without the other.

In the early 1990s, when the archives were opened and a whole stratum of unknown history spilled out, it seemed that all the i’s had been dotted and the t’s crossed. Few people could have supposed that more than 20 years later there would still be a need for questions to be answered, yet today the historical legacy of Stalinism is a litmus test of our country's sense of its own identity. Progress is wholly dependent on achieving a consensus about that, and reconciliation in society.

After returning from my trip to Perm, I talked to Roman Romanov, the young director of the Gulag Museum in Moscow. I simply could not understand why islands still exist in my country of an archipelago which seems so reluctant finally to sink beneath the waves. Roman gave me his own opinion: “Every time a schoolbook is published with a picture of Stalin, or people start talking again about restoring Volgograd’s old name of Stalingrad, we see from the violent reaction which follows that we still have a pressing need to think these issues through. This is still a sore point. That trauma is still stalking and even oppressing us, and that means we cannot simply go on ignoring it.”

What form does our remembrance of Stalinism and political repression take today? It is a matter of headstones and small ginger groups; it is a matter of recovering lost names and erecting memorial signs, of annual demonstrations and lighting candles on 30 October, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression. Almost always it is a matter of remembering the victims, not the crimes, and that is why to this day there has been no reconciliation, no repentance, and there is no consensus. That is why Russia still has no National Memorial enabling us to consign to the museums the Terror and the memory of those who perpetrated it.

Now, however, there is hope of a step in the right direction, towards giving Russia its own Yad Vashem. In December, the official Council for Human Rights will adopt an already developed program of “Perpetuation of the memory of victims of the totalitarian regime and national reconciliation”. The Terror will be set in stone, and people will be given an opportunity to decide its true place in the history of our country.

We already known that the Perm 36 Museum of Political Repression is to be part of that program, and that next year it will be adopted as a federal museum. It is at least a first step on a long journey.