Installation view at The artists Residence Herzliya 2016
Installation view at The artists Residence Herzliya 2016
Camp Perm 36 was originally known as ITK-6, which stood for “collective labour colony number 6”. It functioned as a Soviet labour camp (Gulag), constructed during Stalin’s regime in 1946. The camp is located 120 kilometres from its closest village Kuchino in the Ural district. It was closed in 1987 and reopened in the form of a museum in 1994 by Memorial Society. Today it continues to function as a museum. Camp Perm 36 can be examined as geological site – divided into 3 main layers – the 3 different periods of its existence:
1942-1953: In November 1942 a decision was made to build a camp in the area and in 1946 its actual construction began. During the first stage, 4 spaces were built: a Russian sauna (known as banya in Russian), 4 watchtowers on each side of the camp, a living area and one solitary confinement. The camp was surrounded by barbed wires. The population of the camp was diverse, while most of the prisoners were criminals, guilty of various misconducts. Only a very small percentage of prisoners were those who arrived on political grounds, trialled based on Article 58. During that time, most of the prisoners who were accused of Article 58 were sent to other camps in the Kolyma circuit. The main activity of the camp’s prisoners was wood chopping. More than 40% of the Soviet wooden industry was manufactured by the prisoners at the various labour camps. This is one of the reasons the number of arrests increased, for the camps were forced to reach the government’s requested quota. During that time, the camp’s population was estimated to approximately 1000 prisoners.
1953-1972: After Stalin died in 1953, many camps were closed. However, under Khrushchev[i]’s leadership, it was decided not to shut down camp Perm 36, due to the extensive finances and resources invested in the camp’s structure. During that time most of the camp’s prisoners were people from the Soviet prison system (former prison guards) who were accused of betrayal. The camp’s estimated population was around 800 prisoners. The prisoner’s activity changed from wood chopping into iron manufacturing. There is very little information to be found regarding the camp’s activity during this period.
1972-1987: in the late ’60s, under Brezhnev’s presidency, Andropov, Head of the KGB at the time, issued a transfer of dissident prisoners (defined as political prisoners) to the Perm Triangle (including Perm 35, 36, 37). Perm 36 was considered to be the most kept and strict asylum amongst all labour camps at that time, and therefore many of them were sent there. Subsequently, during the third period of the camp’s existence, it held approximately 500 political prisoners. Twelve of these prisoners died in the camp. In fact, during these years, the camp’s population consisted of over 40% political prisoners; among them, prisoners who were accused of collaborating with the German government during the 2nd world war; human rights activists, writers, and active dissidents – working to affirm Russian connections with the Western world and openly opposing to the Soviet regime. Approximately 20% of the prisoners were nationalist prisoners[ii] and the rest were ‘regular’ criminals. The camp’s policy was to house the political prisoners – defined as Intelligentsia – next to highly dangerous criminals, to harden their conditions. In June 1988 a final order to close the camp was issued. Following its closure, parts of the camps were turned into a psychiatric asylum.
Museum Perm 36 – the Early Years
After the closure of the camp in 1988, most political prisoners received a pardoning from the state and were no longer officially defined as ‘enemies of the state’. In December 1988 Aleksandr Kalikh, current board member of the International Memorial Society, interviewed Perm’s regional public prosecutor. The interview mainly dealt with the issue of the rehabilitation process of the Stalinist repression victims within Perm region. At the end of the interview, readers were urged to write the newspaper (Zvezda newspaper) and tell their personal stories. To his surprise, Kalikh received thousands of letters and six days later, Perm’s Memorial Society was formed.
In 1992 Memorial Society held a big convention, inviting former prisoners to take part in it. Following the convention, Memorial Society decided to conduct first excursions with some of the prisoners on the premises of camp Perm 36. During that excursion, the participants discovered that the camp was part of the Perm Triangle and that camps Perm 36 and 37 were still active, while parts of Perm 36 were transformed into a psychiatric asylum. During this trip, Victor Shmirov, who later became one of the directors of Museum Perm 36, decided to go into deep research of the camp and the area, and subsequently to establish an institution on its grounds. In parallel, a group of researchers working on behalf of the Memorial Society discovered that the camp was not only active during Brezhnev’s epoch in the ’70s, but that it also existed during the Stalinist regime. This revelation increased the camp’s significance because it meant that Perm 36 was a Gulag labour camp. It was essential for Memorial’s activity, whose primal goal was to research and document Stalinist repressions. During the time of their research concentrated data or information on this topic was not available. Memorial’s working volunteers conducted meticulous researches in numerous archives to find various fragments of information and piece them together in one puzzle. Luckily, during the ’90s and the period of Perestroika, the archives were open and accessible to the public. In 1996, after 4 years of extensive work and thorough research the camp opened its doors to the public in the form of a museum.
The Memorial’s activity during that time revolved around three aspects: reconstructing the original structure of the camp; conducting research excursions throughout the country to collect different materials, artefacts, testimonies of oppressed parties and their families concerning other gulag camps; creating a platform of discourse in the framework of an art event titled Pilorama. According to Tatyana Kursina, former director of museum Perm 36 (and current executive director of NGO Perm 36), the main idea behind the establishment of the museum was not solely to preserve the structure of the former camp and document its history, but rather to turn it into a relevant, active, think-tank. Their main goal was not to focus on a specific, local story of camp Perm 36, but rather open a contemporary, relevant centre; to connect local history with the present day from a global standpoint:
The Museum Today
In 2011 Putin was elected president of Russia and the governor of Perm region was replaced by one, whose opinions were closer to the Kremlin current regiment. In June 2012, Memorial Society was defined as an anti-Russian organization. All the organizations which received foreign financial aid were defined as ‘foreign agents’. This was a turning point in Memorial’s activity. The Perm branch was under constant surveillance, it was frequently raided and its funds were cut down. Memorial’s activity at the premises of the museum was censored; first, it was forbidden to invite foreigners (outside the Russian Federation) to participate in the Pilorama events, and gradually this annual event was completely cancelled. The Russian government viewed the examination of Soviet history as posing a threat to the current regime, due to the activists’ agenda to explore Soviet history as one which relates to current affairs:
“In principle, the state does not discourage us from engaging in history, as long as we are examining the past. ‘Please, go ahead, deal with the past as long as you want, just don’t come to us with your morals from it! – This is already politics’ “[iii].
In June 2014, the Russian television channel NTV broadcasted a film titled Fifth Column. This film showcased how the Perm 36 museum receives funding from the United States – allegedly from the same bodies that financially support the revolution in Ukraine. During the film, a guided tour was given to a journalist - not by the professional museum guides- but rather by a former guard (Ivan Kukushkin, whom I interviewed during my second visit). The ‘guide’ demonstrates how Memorial Society falsified historical events and represented the camp as a former Gulag labour camp, which was considered as ‘special strict regime’, when in fact, this was a regular prison for criminals.
In April 2013, Chief Directors - Tatyana Kursina and Victor Shmirov were fired, under the pretext that they interrupt the space’s initial designation. According to the authorities, space was supposed to become a quiet memorial site while the museum’s activity (Pilorama events, for instance) constantly interfere with its primal designation. In August 2013, the museum was announced as closed. A few months later, it reopened and Natalia Semakova was announced Chief Director of the museum, though she had no prior connection to the site or any related work experience. Following these events, Memorial Society decided to collect all exponents from the museum’s show. However, this action was not permitted by the government. Currently, they cannot even enter the camp’s premises as visitors.