Tales From the Gulag

Upon my arrival at Perm-36, I am surprised by how familiar it all seems. Four hours’ drive on a bad road from the barren city of Perm, at the western edge of the Urals, the prison camp—a collection of low buildings made of dull brick—is enveloped in barbed wire, wooden fencing, electric fencing, and more barbed wire, beyond which watchtowers dot the landscape. Even though it is late spring, the site is blanketed in snow. As I walk around the site, I sink into deep drifts. Bits of rusting iron, scattered about, punctuate and stain the stark-white canvas. Perm-36 was constructed in 1946, at the height of the Soviet forced labor system that later came to be known as the Gulag. By that time, concentration camps had come to play a central role in the Soviet economy. They produced a third of the country’s gold, much of its coal and timber, and a great deal of almost everything else.

During Stalin’s lifetime, the Soviet secret police built several hundred camp complexes, each comprising thousands of lagpunkts, or individual camps, and each containing anything from a few hundred to many thousands of people. Prisoners worked in almost every industry imaginable—logging, mining, construction, factory work, farming, the designing of airplanes and artillery—and lived, in effect, in a country within a country, almost a separate civilization. At that time Perm-36 was not part of one of the largest or most important camp complexes. It was rather a distant lagpunkt, one of several hundred logging camps in the Perm region. From the end of the war until the late 1950s, prisoners there felled trees, floating the timber down the Chusovaya and Kama rivers to the Volga. They lived in poorly heated wooden barracks and were fed according to how much they worked. The elderly and the ill died quickly. Those who survived did so because they were younger and stronger—or because they had learned how to cheat the brigadiers and guards who measured their effort. This era marked the greatest extent of the Gulag system. At that time, more than two million people were imprisoned in the Soviet Union, most having never committed a crime. By the time of Stalin’s death, some eighteen million people had passed through the system, and a further six million had been sent into exile.

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