It is strange to think that World War II ended in 1945 with Jewish Holocaust survivors being freed from German concentration camps. In the same year, “Perm 36” a new gulag (with many already in existence) opened in the then USSR.
During the Soviet years, dissident activists, scientists, artists, priests, petty thieves, “non-productive” citizens and people who just happened to get on the wrong side of someone with influence, were sent off to gulags or far away Siberian labour colonies. Women and children too.
In many camps, hard labour and tough (and, in winter, freezing) conditions meant that prisoners did not survive more than a year or two. Families wrote loved ones off as dead from the moment they “disappeared”.
Estimates of people who died in, or after being turfed out sick from, the camps range from 1 million to over 10 million people between 1918 and 1987 (depending on whom you ask). At their peak, as many as 5 million people may have been in gulags at one time (not including labour colonies) making the higher figure seem more likely.
As well as removing trouble makers from general circulation, gulags and colonies provided a powerful labour force for mining, construction work on power plants, canals and other infrastructure, and for the war machine. In many places whole cities grew up around the camps, built by the inmates and exiles.
From around 1953 and Stalin’s death, gulags were gradually closed and destroyed (to eliminate evidence). The last surviving Gulag prisoner was freed in 1987 (another source says 1992). Just 25 years ago.
That last prisoner was released from or near Perm-36. Although the camp was bulldozed and burnt, some parts managed to survive and now the camp has been turned into a museum with reconstructed areas showing life as it was not so long ago.
My journey here had been yellow happiness but the mood turned immediately eery as the first barbed wire topped fence came into view…
As you near the camp, the trees largely end. The surrounding land had been cleared so prisoners looking out from the slits in their cells would not know where in Russia they had been sent.
They couldn’t stop birds flying past though and one biologist inmate was able to identify the Urals from a bird that passed near his window. Hang on to hope.
Two local school groups went through when I was there. Lest we forget.
[NOTE: There is much conflicting information on the Gulags. The above serves as a general overview only. Don’t rely on it!]