Perm-36 and the History of the Soviet Gulag

On June 23, 2014, the New Republic published the article “The Kremlin Is Trying To Erase Memories Of The Gulag.” It describes how Perm-36, the only surviving Stalin-era labor camp and museum about Soviet state terror in Russia, has been under increasing attack from the Kremlin because of Putin’s desire to revise Soviet history, particularly of the Stalinist period, and to eliminate political dissent. Additionally, it argues that unlike Germany or South Africa, Russia has not come to terms with its repressive past. Diane Koenker, Chair and Professor of History at Illinois, responded to the article.


The Cold War may be over, but the binary way of Cold War thinking is alive and well on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. We certainly see this in the reporting on Ukraine, on both sides of the border, where history has been mobilized as a partisan tool for each side. Museums such as Perm-36 or Moscow’s State Gulag Museum (or the Ukrainian museum in Saskatoon or the settler museum in Grahamstown, South Africa) are not “neutral” repositories of information, but careful and purposeful assemblages of argument and artifact designed to convey certain interpretations about the past and about memory.

Perm-36 (Source:

Let’s take Perm-36. I visited there on a beautiful sunny September day in 2006, with a group of British schoolteachers and Russian university students. It was a project of the Memorial Society, which began during perestroika as an indigenous Russian organization determined to fill in the “blank spots” of history and recover the voices of the victims of Stalinist repression. There were no other visitors but our group – the camp is a long bus ride from Perm, not on any regular tourist itinerary. Its staff was attentive and committed, and they gave us a very good tour of the camp buildings, camp regime, and the relationship between Perm-36 and other camps. Many of the artifacts in this museum had been collected from sites in the Far East, also by Memorial volunteers. I’ve read dozens of Gulag memoirs, and it was fascinating to see some of the material reality of their stories: plank beds, tin spoons, quilted work jackets.

Reconstruction of Prisoner Barracks in Perm-36 (Source: )

Reconstruction of prisoner barracks in Perm-36 (Source:

As a volunteer project (created by “civil society,” which we liberals celebrate), Perm-36 suffers for lack of funds to repair the buildings, to pay staff, to expand its reach. It was clear then, from the traveling Perm-36 visit that has been all over the US, and from the documentary film we were shown in Perm-36 that Memorial had decided it needed to appeal to Western philanthropy in order to preserve the camp if not expand it. It is not surprising that part of this appeal taps into long-held phobias about Russia, communism, and the Soviet Union. Perm-36’s unique status as the only museum that documents the entire evil history of the Soviet empire plays into these phobias:  a whole room was devoted in Perm-36, as I recall, to the “last political prisoner” held under Gorbachev and to the Gorbachev regime’s efforts to deny this fact. The New Republic article underplays the extent of memory work going on all over Russia. Somehow, museums that chronicle the height of the Gulag system and the Stalin purges (1930-1953) are less authentic than Perm-36, because only Perm-36, “far away from Moscow, … an island of  truth,” shows that the Gulag was an endemic part of Soviet politics up until the very end. That simplistic view – once “totalitarian,” always “totalitarian,” does not stand up to careful scrutiny about change in the Soviet Union and the ways in which Soviet and post-Soviet society attempted to come to terms with its past. (More on that below.) But it fits well with the old Cold War binary about evil empire and shining city on freedom’s hill.
Does the U.S. State Department fund Perm-36? According to a Russian museum web site, its programs and projects are supported by Charles S. Mott Foundation, the Ford Foundation (Moscow Office), the National Endowment for Democracy, The Henry M. Jackson Foundation, the American Jewish Community Development Fund, and also by Perm Regional Government. The National Endowment for Democracy, funded by the U.S. government, is a well-known agent of soft power. This kind of support is necessary for Perm-36 because the government has chosen not to fund these memory sites, but it makes Memorial vulnerable to the charge of being supported and manipulated by the West. (Just as the leaked phone conversation between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the State Department official about assigning positions in a new post-Yanukovich cabinet stoked Russian suspicions that the Maidan protest was a U.S. conspiracy.)
State Gulag Museum in Moscow, Russia (Photo Source)

State Gulag Museum in Moscow, Russia (Source:

Two years ago I visited a Gulag museum that the New Republic author dismisses because it exclusively memorializes the Stalinist terror and the Great Purges rather than demonizing the entire Soviet experience. This is the State Gulag Museum (i.e. legitimized by the government), and it’s located only a few steps away from the former Marx-Engels Institute (now the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political Documents, the archive of the Communist party), in the very center of Moscow. This museum was established in 2004 by the historian and dissident A. V. Antonov-Ovseenko, himself a victim of Stalin. Its “friends and partners” include the archive mentioned above, cultural organizations, business firms, and the Memorial Society. Its elderly guides, like the guides in Perm-36, were utterly devoted to their memory cause, to remembering the victims of Soviet political repression (from 1918 to 1953, at any rate). There is an impressive map of the USSR dotted with thousands of Gulag sites; there are the familiar artifacts from Gulag literature: cups, bowls, sewing needles, quilted jackets. (The collection of the museum is quite limited, and organizers have been appealing for more contributions of artifacts.) There was also a special exhibit of photographs based on the book by David King, The Commissar Vanishes, which documents, as the Amazon blurb says, “how one man–Joseph Stalin–manipulated the science of photography to advance his own political career and erase the memory of his victims.” Right here in a state museum in the heart of Moscow, a museum that exposes erasures, as opposed to erasing the exposé. 

Interior of State Gulag Museum

Photographs displayed in State Gulag Museum (Source:


What I found particularly interesting about the exhibit was comparing the Russian and English explanations of the photo doctoring. Invariably, the English-language version emphasized the evil intent behind the photograph manipulations. For example, there was a photograph of Stalin surrounded by workers and another with the workers airbrushed out. The Russian explanation said that this was to simplify the composition, but the English explanation added that this was also because Stalin hated workers. Was the English text so much more tendentious than the Russian one because the curators wanted to appeal to Anglo-American anti-Soviet prejudice, or because they thought Russian readers would be too sophisticated to accept this simplistic interpretation?
There is no question that anti-Western attitudes are on the rise in today’s Russia, and that interpretations of the USSR’s past are becoming more politicized as a result. And it is true that Russia never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or a Lustration process – because the old regime was not decisively toppled in the same way as in South Africa or the German Democratic Republic.
But Russians HAVE been trying to come to terms with 1937 since at least 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, and this has never been easy. (Think Secret Speech, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Soviet films sitting on the shelf.) I am reading Denis Kozlov’s fascinating new book, The Readers of Novyi Mir: Coming to Terms with the Stalinist Past (Harvard, 2013), which documents how the cultural elite and ordinary citizens alike grappled with these problems. Or as a librarian in Moscow told me in 1989, “We have stewed in the Stalinist soup too long to be able to overcome its legacy very easily.” In this sense, Russians have been consumed with collective guilt for at least 60 years, and maybe that’s why it’s been so difficult to come to terms with the past in all its paradoxical dimensions.
These are important problems and we historians need to use all of our skills, experience, and judgment to help make sense of the way history is being manipulated today. There is an old Russian anekdot: “In Russia, how can anyone predict the future when it’s so hard to predict the past?”

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