Red Ink Run: the last GULAG in Russia
I pulled the bottom of my t-shirt through the V-neck to make an ersatz crop top, extended my arm and raised a thumb. Another wave of cars rounded the corner and rocketed past us. I returned my shirt to normal. It’s strange how quickly in the full force of the Siberian summer sun, standards can degrade. Not two hours ago the thought of hitchhiking was something done by fatalists, it was the foolhardy transaction of mortgaging safety for a free ride. Yet there we had been, for over an hour on the vast steppe, being stung by squadrons of horseflies the size of 50 kopek pieces, trying in vain to hitch a ride back to Perm.
The city of Perm is the gateway to Siberia. It sits at the base of the Ural mountain range, the dividing line between Asia and Europe. We had gotten up early, caught a bus heading toward the town of Tsusovoy and after about 100 kilometres were dropped off by the side of the road. Minus a service station in the distance, there was no hint of civilisation from horizon to horizon. We had left the main highway and travelled along a dirt road for a few kilometres until we arrived at a large whitewashed building that straddled a barbed wire topped white wooden fence which enclosed an area the size of a few football fields. Popping above it like periscopes in corners were guard towers. It was clear we had arrived at Perm-36.
Perm-36 is a relic, the last camp of its kind from the Soviet GULAG system to remain anything other than rubble. Its continued existence is owed to both the failure of authorities to successfully bulldoze it in the dying days of the Soviet regime and efforts by local historians to restore it. The population remained at about 1000 prisoners from the moment they were forced to build their own walls in 1945 until its closure in 1988.
Walking in we met our guide Volodya, a tall man with the mix of European and Asiatic facial characteristics that is common to Siberia. He was an historian working for the NGO which was tasked with researching camps in the area. His speech was rapid-fire, each word said with the same triumphant intonations like an “a-ha” at finally finding something lost at the back of a chaotic drawer. He was clearly excited by the subject matter and offered us the tour entirely free which would usually have cost around $30 “because my English bad and I love it”. It wasn’t but he did.
Volodya explained that the camp had three distinct periods. The first was from 1946 to 1953 when it functioned as a labour camp for prisoners that had offended the Stalinist regime, sometimes for crimes as minor as being late to work three times. The second period was in the years of destalinisation, from 1954 to 1972. During this time the camp was home to Soviet law enforcement officers that had run afoul of the regime, often for overzealously sending people to camps in the first period — meaning the people that were responsible for imprisoning the population in the first period were inmates themselves in the second. For the final period the existing population was moved elsewhere and Perm-36 became home exclusively for political prisoners, the result of a new round of political repression that began in the 70s.
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