Last week the Atlantic published a story about life inside Stalin’s prison camps. The story is based on a short documentary, part of a series called Generation Gulag which is being produced to allow survivors of the camps to tell their stories:
From 1918 to 1987, Soviet Russia operated a network of hundreds of prison camps that held up to 10,000 people each. When Stalin launched his infamous purges in 1936, millions of so-called political prisoners were arrested and transported to the gulags without trial. The first wave of prisoners were military and government officials; later, ordinary citizens—especially intellectuals, doctors, writers, artists, and scientists—were arrested ex nihilo. At the camps, many prisoners were executed or died from overwork and malnutrition. The death rate often hovered around 5 percent, although in years of widespread famine, the mortality rate could be as high as 25 percent. Historians estimate that as part of the gulag, Soviet authorities imprisoned or executed about 25 million people.
“That sum is unfathomable,” Katia Patin, who produced the film about Golubeva, told me. Golubeva’s story is part of a powerful oral-history series called Generation Gulag, which Coda Story created to better understand the gulag experience. “We made a point of not relying on numbers to tell the story of the gulag,” Patin said. “Instead, we focused on individual stories as a way of capturing the gulag’s massive scale, as well as the ripple effect set in motion when the Soviet machine of repression bore down on a single person.”
Coda Story, the group that is producing the series points out that much of this history is unknown to many younger Russians thanks in part to a Stalin rehabilitation effort led by Putin:
“They want it to become part of the tapestry of the past that has no special significance, no special meaning and no special lessons,” Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gulag: A History,” said to me.
“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.”
In Russia there’s strong evidence this campaign has succeeded: close to half of young Russians say they have never heard of the Stalin-era purges, known as the Great Terror. And Stalin himself has never been more popular: in 2019 70% of Russians responded that they approve of Stalin’s role in history — a record high.
One of Russia’s only museums located at a former Gulag camp — Perm-36, the last camp Gorbachev closed down in 1987 — was labeled a “foreign agent” and taken over by local government officials in 2015. The museum’s new head curated an updated exhibition focusing on the prisoners’ contribution to timber production in the WWII war effort rather than on the horrific camp conditions or absurd charges which landed people there.
The particular story the Atlantic focuses on is that of Vera Golubeva who was arrested and put in a camp when she was 8-months pregnant. She gave birth in a prison hospital but the guards immediately took her infant son away. Days later they brought him back. He had died. In all Golubeva spent six years in the camp. She was never told why.
The most recent clip in the series is the one below. Yuris Enkovick tells his story of being rounded up as a small child and sent to Siberia with several hundred other people. Many, including his father, were shot right away. He estimates another 200 died the first winter from the cold and from starvation.
It’s a shame that Soviet communism doesn’t have the same stigma attached to it that Nazism does. Repeating the death toll doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on people’s thinking. Perhaps clips like these, that allow the victims to tell their own stories to generations that have never heard them, can help rectify that. If you’re interested in watching the rest of the series you can find them here.