Survivors struggle to recall gulag nightmare

  • 2002-08-15
  • Francoise Michel, AFP, MAGADAN
Historical truth and human forgetfulness make uneasy neighbors in Magadan, the heart of the infamous gulag camps, whose heights are crowned by a monument to victims of the Stalinist terror while the downtown square still boasts the bust of the camps' first director.

This cohabitation of historical acknowledgment and reluctance to let go of a totalitarian past makes a sad topic for some 80 former political prisoners at their monthly reunion in Magadan's city library.

They are the last survivors of "Kolyma's hell," a camp system set up in 1932 to use forced labor to extract the far northern region's vast mineral riches under nightmarish conditions, with a nine-month winter at temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius or worse.

"War veterans are heroes, but we are not even truly rehabilitated, we are still considered 'enemies of the people.' I will speak about what happened until I die, but today no one cares about this," complained 74-year-old Olga Gureyeva, who was amnestied in 1956 after 11 years of forced labor.

Up to 600 former prisoners of Stalin's camps and their children live today in Magadan, which was constructed in the 1930s.

However, the idea to erect a huge Mask of Pain monument on the spot once occupied by a transit camp, voiced in 1996, sparked instant fiery controversy.

"There was a great resistance to the project. It was a war of public opinion versus bureaucracy," recalled Miron Etlis, former prisoner and now a member of the human rights group Memorial.

"Everything that was done here was not done thanks to the state but rather in spite of it," adds the former psychiatrist as he takes a tour of the Kolyma history exhibition displayed in Magadan's museum.

A wheelbarrow, a pickax, a program of a play the prisoners acted out at the city's theater - the shards of historical memory owe their continued existence to a mere handful of volunteers.

And a true history of the hellish camps, which had all but disappeared without a trace, is beginning to re-emerge from the mists of time and memory despite all opposition.

Olga still remembers how she was instructed "to tell no one what happened" at her release.

"Until the fall of the Soviet Union, there was only one way you could talk about the far north's colonization - and that was to praise the party and the (communist youth group) Komsomol," historian David Raizman recalled. "It was only after 1991 that anyone mentioned the role prisoners played in this."

According to estimates, from 1932 to 1956 at least 800,000 prisoners passed through Kolyma camps, where mortality rates were six times the norm. Of those, 10,000 people were executed.

From its shelter in a crumbling Magadan building, official archives now provide rehabilitation papers for former prisoners and their children, who may now apply for social benefits equal to those of war veterans.

"We get some 40 applications a month. If the person in question has blood on his hands or collaborated with the Nazi army, the Interior Ministry refuses the rehabilitation," the archives' official explained.

According to official figures, so far some 14,000 political prisoners have been rehabilitated, and about a thousand refused.

In Russia, which has never repudiated the Communist Party entirely, memories still concentrate on individual destinies rather than the deeper issues of who was to blame for the vast machine of terror.

"Society was not guilty. It was Stalin and (secret police chief Lavrenti) Beria and their entourage who are to blame," said former Kolyma inmate Yury Portnov, echoing popular sentiment.