Today in Russia, media, schools, museums, and government increasingly sidestep open discussions about the Soviet Union's staggering cost to human life, and instead promote what President Vladimir Putin has termed its "heroic" past. But those who survived the Soviet labor-camp system are still alive, and remember a different past.
More than 28 million people went through this system between 1918 and 1987; around 12 million of these individuals for political reasons.
Generation Gulag, a series of 12 short films made by the independent media outlet Coda Story and broadcast on Current Time, shares the stories of these victims of the GULAG (Chief Directorate of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies) and those of their loved ones.
The subtitled series, available on Current Time.Doc’s YouTube channel, begins with the story of celebrated Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Azari Plisetsky, the younger brother of the late prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. With his mother, Plisetsky lived in the gulag as a young child.
As the Kremlin strives to repackage Russia's history, such accounts have largely disappeared from history museums. In 2018, a scandal erupted over the state-run Gulag History Museum's decision to shred the documents of former prisoners in the labor-camp system.
“They want it to become part of the tapestry of the past that has no special significance, no special meaning, and no special lessons,” commented Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Gulag: A History, to series producer Katerina Patin.
"And they certainly don’t want anyone drawing lessons from history or looking at the past and saying, ‘We don’t want to repeat that so how do we avoid it in the present?’ They don’t want people thinking like that.”
The last Soviet gulag camp, Perm-36, was closed only in 1987 on the order of then-Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. In its place, a museum was opened in 2001 – the only one in Russia set up on the site of a former prison colony.
For years, the Perm-36 museum was a memorial to the victims of repression, but in 2015 the Russian government tagged the museum as a “foreign agent.”
Local officials took over managing the museum; its independence had ended. To revamp the museum’s exhibit, workers covered the bunks in the camp’s barracks with wool blankets; they put ironed sheets in the infirmary. The exhibit now highlights the effectiveness of the Soviet prison system.
Eyewitnesses, however, remember a different history; one of “terrifying repressions” and “the genocide of our own people …” commented Plisetsky.
“[M]any people try to forget about these wounds and avoid reopening them,” he said of the gulag system. “But we must reopen them.”