About 120km north-east of Perm, in a hilly landscape on a slope of the river Chisovaya, a few minutes off the northernmost tarred road crossing the Ural, lied Perm 36. This former Gulag lager got converted into a memorial for the victims of political repression. It’s the only camp I found available to visit in the region, that once hosted over a dozen lagers around Perm alone. As I could see in the Gulag museum in Moscow already, processing this chapter of Russia’s past seems a task mostly entrusted to private initiatives. Judging from the omnipresent Lenin statues and Soviet legacy it felt like the Gulag didn’t fit the narrative.
From the outside the camp seems harmless, a wooden fence hides what happens behind it. People live in direct proximity to the camp, the house across the street seemed brand new and had a very neat fence itself. Three bikes from New Zealand stood in front of the camp. I parked the Mini in front and went inside the main house to the street to get my ticket. This used to be the visitor’s entrance, and the prison atmosphere starts at the door, with bright blue grids following my path from room to room. At the cashier, I had to fill a form, and once I was all set I asked a guy there the entrance was. He saw this as an invitation to give me a tour, and started taking me through the camp. With a few words of English and plenty of Russian he explained a few things to me. The camp itself seemed abandoned for quite some time before it became a memorial, and due to lack of funding apparently the maintenance had been intermittent. There were actually two camps, a labor camp and a prison, and I started with the labor camp. This one was again divided in two parts, “living” and “working”. It operated from the 1930’s to the 1980’s and was used initially political dissidents and “traitors” of the system. Logging and preparing the tree trunks for transportation downriver on rafts was the main activity.
The camp offered some insights on its structure, the watchtowers, the many layers of fences, alarms, passages for guards and dogs. In winter this must have been a nightmare experience. Apparently guards retired with good money at 40 years of age here. The inmates served years of sentencing, sometimes for very trivial expressions of political dissent or mild critique. The camp non only extracted labor under the most brutal conditions from the inmates, it also served as a political indoctrination and brainwash camp. The Soviet propaganda, including a cinema room and endless collections of Lenin’s writings, was pretty impressive. It was hard to believe that such an out of this world ideology once was the official doctrine of big parts of our world.
A few hundred meters down the road was the second camp, the prison. Same layers of fences, at the gate was a checkpoint for incoming trucks delivering new inmates. They also showed a sample truck, nondescript from the outside, brute on the inside. Inside the barracks was an exhibition on the Soviet/Bolshevik killing machine, that after 1917 systematically exterminated aristocrats, religious people, the bourgeoisie, but also anybody deemed counterrevolutionary, and that apparently was a label that you could get tagged on without trial and too much effort. Among the victims were also many 1917 revolutionaries, that later somehow ended up on the wrong side of history.
Out of the camp, before leaving, I walked down to the river on the ramp that was used to get the processed tree trunks out of here. The river flows gently around a ridge, the panorama was very beautiful. Hard to believe that in such a lovely place so much brutality, repression indoctrination and murder were perpetrated for so many decades.