Political Prisoners at Perm
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Soviet government cracked down on the dissident movement. Several camps in the Perm region were transformed into the harshest camps for political prisoners. The prisoners were repeat offenders who had continued to criticize the Soviet government even after being released from prison. During the last years of the Soviet regime, the most prominent leaders and opposition activists from all over the Soviet Union were kept in these camps. Some of them perished there.
At Perm-35, political prisoner Ivan Kovalev tried but could not fulfill his terribly demanding work quota. Camp authorities punished him even though the rules did not allow punishment if a prisoner was making his best effort. He then refused to work at all and was confined to the punishment cell continuously for 13 months on a severely reduced food ration. At the time, Soviet law dictated that prisoners could not be subjected to such conditions for more than 15 days. Because Kovalev was stubborn and because he had become an internationally recognized human rights activist, he eventually won his protest and no longer was forced to work.
Political prisoner Valerij Senderov also spent almost 13 months in the adjoining punishment cell to Ivan Kovalev for insisting on keeping his Bible. Camp authorities finally gave in to his demands as well.
History of the Gulag Museum
The Gulag Museum, whose full name is The Memorial Center for the History of Political Repressions (Perm-36), is located within the walls of the former labor camp near Perm, Russia. The camp, one of several hundred logging camps in the Perm region, was constructed in 1946 at the height of the Soviet forced labor system that came to be known as the Gulag. In 1972, during a period of renewed political repression in the USSR, Perm-36 was converted into a political prison, and for the next 15 years, the camp, along with two others nearby, held many of the Soviet Union’s most prominent dissidents. Among them were human right activists such as Vladimir Bukovsky, Sergey Kovalev, Anatoly Marchenko, Yury Orlov, as well as many Ukrainian, Baltic, Tatar and Caucasian nationalist leaders and Jewish activists, including Nathan Sharansky.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, some Russian historians, human rights activists, former Gulag prisoners, and others created civic organizations to help foster remembrance. One of the most prominent, the Memorial Society, erected small monuments throughout the country to commemorate victims of totalitarianism. In 1991, Memorial Society activists, who wanted to preserve a forced labor camp to serve as a memorial to the Gulag victims, organized to save Perm-36. By the early 1990s, Perm-36 lay in ruins. KGB officials had destroyed much of the facility after Ukrainian Television crews filmed and broadcast the facility where internationally renowned poet Vasyl Stus had died from neglect in 1985. Thanks to dedicated reconstruction efforts, the Museum was able to open in 1996, and today the former camp is the only surviving complex from the Soviet Gulag system.
Perm-36 is an active historic site that is listed on the World Monuments Watch list (2004) of the 100 Most Endangered Sites (see related article by Anne Applebaum, “Tales from the Gulag”). The Gulag Museum serves as a memorial to the millions arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, and forced to work on massive infrastructure projects throughout the former Soviet Union. But perhaps more importantly, the Museum serves as a place to ask how this brutality happened, who was responsible, and how it can be prevented in the future.