Russian gulag museum says facing closure

Max Delany
AFPJune 26, 2014
A woman walks past a house on July 12, 2008 on the Solovetsky Islands, scene of the most notorious Soviet prison camp, later described as the "mother of the Gulag" by dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn
A woman walks past a house on July 12, 2008 on the Solovetsky Islands, scene of the most notorious Soviet prison camp, later described as the "mother of the Gulag" by dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (AFP Photo/Dmitry Kostyukov)

Moscow (AFP) - The rights group running Russia's only museum in a preserved former Soviet labour camp warns that the facility is facing closure as authorities grow increasingly hostile to probing the country's totalitarian past.

The Perm-36 museum -- named after the notorious prison camp where it is housed -- has seen operations grind to a halt after local authorities cut off key funding "without explanation", the non-governmental organisation Memorial said.

"Visits are not taking place, electricity to the museum is cut and all the employees have been put on unpaid leave for an undetermined period," said Robert Latypov, head of the local branch of Memorial, one of Russia's most prominent human rights organisations.

"If the museum closes then it will be a harbinger of the arrival of an ideological dictatorship," Latypov told AFP on Tuesday.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has increasingly taken on the mantle of the Soviet Union and prides itself on its victories while downplaying the millions of deaths under Stalin's forced industrialisation, collectivisation and prison camps.

Perm-36, the penal colony located about 70 kilometres (44 miles) from the Urals city of Perm, in particular housed many political prisoners convicted for "anti-Soviet" views as recently as the 1980s.

Putin, himself a proud former agent of the dreaded KGB security services, has voiced opposition to debate on history and is overseeing the creation of a single school history textbook to be used by the education system.

- Totalitarian legacy -

The potential shuttering of the museum has sparked widespread outrage with some 40,000 people signing an online petition in support of the institution.

"Perm-36 (museum) became famous throughout the entire globe," the petition says. "Its very existence was proof that Russia is moving forward and abandoning its totalitarian legacy forever."

Surrounded by the original guard towers and barbed wire, the museum, almost alone in Russia, documents the history of Communist-era repression from the Stalinist terror through the 1970s repression of dissidents by the KGB.

Visitors to the monument -- which was established in 1992 shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union -- could tour the grim cells and dormitories that housed political prisoners for some 40 years.

First revealed to the world by authors such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet's vast network of gulags stretched across the former socialist empire and left millions dead.

The word "gulag" -- a Russian acronym for main camp and prison directorate –- has become synonymous in all languages with brutal detention camps.

Rights group Memorial, which was originally set up by dissidents to help rehabilitate former political prisoners, has faced pressure by authorities under a controversial law that forces NGOs receiving funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents".

At the beginning of June pro-Kremlin television channel NTV broadcast a report entitled "The Fifth Column" that lashed out at the Perm-36 museum as "pro-fascist" and highlighted funds it said the group had received from the US.

The aim of the museum was to "teach the youth that... Ukrainian fascists are not as bad as the history books say," NTV alleged, tying the criticism to the crisis raging in neighbouring Ukraine.

Latypov of Memorial called the film "characteristic of the trend in the policies of the authorities" now looking for internal enemies.

Even if regional authorities do not close the museum, he said, it will likely be demoted from a community-run forum for national dialogue about the Soviet legacy to a museum about the local region.