Back To The Gulag

Mart Niklus was a hard case. In the dark days of Soviet repression, he demanded independence for his homeland, Estonia--and for that served 16 years in labor camps known collectively as the gulag, or simply "the zone." As a prisoner, or zek, he fasted in protest and fought strip searches, earning stints in the shizo--cold punishment cells that broke many prisoners' health and spirits. When released in 1988, he smuggled out his striped uniform and wore it home. But with his battle won, he finds he can afford to be less combative now. Last week he joined other old zeks in a return to the Urals region near the town of Perm, 700 miles east of Moscow, where political prisoners languished for two decades. And when their bus passed a cluster of wooden posts and crosses in the little cemetery outside his old camp, Perm-36, he could no longer keep his emotions in check. "I know people who are buried there," he said, quickly wiping his eyes.

Former political prisoners have held other reunions since the Soviet system collapsed, but this one was special. The survivors were gathered for the formal dedication of the camp's rebuilt main barracks as a memorial to those who perished in the gulag -- somewhere between 12 million and 20 million people over 74 years. Like Buchenwald and Auschwitz before it, Perm-36 is being transformed into a place of learning and silent prayer-the first such memorial at a former prison camp in a nation still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of Stalinism. But rather than moralize about what the ceremony means at a time when conservative politicians play openly on nostalgia for the old system, the organizers, a volunteer group called Memorial, simply left the survivors and other visitors to reminisce and reflect.

Under a hot, bright sun, an Orthodox priest and three nuns consecrated a place where sadistic guards used the terrible winter cold as an instrument of torture. A local choir chanted "Lord, have mercy on us" in rising tones. Watching the priest sprinkle holy water through the barracks clearly was a surreal moment for the old zeks, who had returned to the region by train and taken a bumpy bus ride over unmarked dirt roads to the fenced cluster of run-down wooden factory buildings and barracks. Many seemed to retreat into their own private worlds during the ceremony, staring off into the distance. "I often dreamed that I was in the camp again," explained Viktor Pestov, a human-rights activist sent to Perm-36 in 1972. "Then I would wake up and think, 'Thank God I'm not there.' But when I left the camp, I thought I'd somehow return one day as a normal person." Niklus said simply: "We need this here."

Perm played a special role in the gulag. (Gulag is the Russian acronym for the formal name of Stalin's prison system.) Worried by political prisoners' ability to smuggle out their writings, Moscow officials decided to isolate them as much as possible. Three camps were scattered among the dairy farms and birch forests outside Perm to guarantee isolation and separate the "politicals" from common criminals. In-the 1970s and 1980s, most of the Soviet Union's most famous dissidents-including Anatoly Shcharansky, Vladimir Bukovsky and Yuri Orlov-served time in Perre. (The original chronicler of the gulag, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, did his time at a secret Moscow institute and a camp in Kazakhstan.) Several inmates died in Perm as late as 1985. Two Perm camps are still used for criminals, leaving Perm-36 as one of the few sites that can serve as a testimonial to the evolution of the gulag.

The visit wasn't all reflective--the old zeks showed flashes of bitterness. Niklus was stunned to learn that Ivan Kukushkin, a former guard, was working on the reconstruction project. "He beat me with his fists on my face and on my stomach," he said. "I don't want to see him." Kukushkin hovered on the edges of the ceremony, warily eying the visitors. He denied beating Niklus, but seemed to nurse his own grudges. "Niklus's mistake was that he fought not against the system but against Us," he said. "We had the Soviet state and there was the law," he added. "Now there is practically none." But the two never squared off last week--and that was typical of the mood of those at the reunion. "It didn't make sense to be confrontational," said Vasyl Ovsienko, a Ukrainian who did have a long talk with the former guard. Most of the former prisoners dismissed out of hand any talk of Nuremberg-style justice for the jailers. "There have been enough courts, enough blood," said Sergei Ponomaryov, who was in the camp in the early 1970s. "We're for repentance."

What most gripped the survivors was the memory of being hungry and cold. Their jail diet was watery soup, bread and weak tea meager at best, and often forsworn by prisoners on hunger strikes. "You felt hungry all the time," said Ovsienko. who led the choir on an impromptu tour of the camp after the dedication ceremony. There were suicides, he said, but many prisoners kept up their spirits by singing songs out loud, even when they were confined to isolation cells. Ovsienko showed the little group the exercise block for prisoners in the punishment cells-a nine-foot cube covered with wire, with a tower on top so the guard could watch. Many prisoners found using it so humiliating they didn't bother. Prisoners lived in terror of catching a cold, because they were so weak that any illness could prove fatal, he said. And guards played on that fear by often forcing prisoners to repeatedly submit to strip searches in the cold. "Sometimes five times a day," said Ovsienko. "You could go crazy from that."

The unremitting cycle of hunger strikes and punishment often was fatal. "Especially in 1984 and 1985, people began to die," Ovsienko recalled, ticking off the names of six victims. The authorities declared that hunger strikes constituted a crime. The guards responded by threatening not to force-feed any striker until he fell into a coma, the former prisoner recalled. "Everyone thought: who will be the next in line?" he said. When someone died, the zeks--determined not to compromise their principles, even under duress-would observe the Orthodox tradition of marking the 40th day after a death by fasting, which only weakened them further.

After visiting prisoners at the still operational Perm-35 camp, the zeks stopped at the cemetery where "politicals" were buried along with criminals from another nearby camp. The former prisoners were largely silent as they walked among the jumbled wooden posts. Many of the grave markers had tumbled into tall weeds. Most of the posts bore only a number, not a name-the ultimate sign, the zeks observed, of how a prisoner became anonymous, invisible. The survivors told of feeling abandoned, even' after the Soviet system began to change. "Outside there was talk of perestroika, but in our cells there was no perestroika," said Ovsienko. Prisoners were supposed to be allowed to write one letter a month, but sadistic guards sometimes snatched them away partly written, the zeks recalled.

Like many prisoners, those who survived the camps found re-entering society extremely difficult. Until the late 1980s, most prisoners were treated as dangerous criminals out on a strict form of parole. Ovsienko recalls being ordered to report to the local police every week and to stay at home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Others recall similar restrictions-and threats that they would be sent back to the camps if they were caught disobeying. They also were generally not allowed to return to their professions--and most could work only loading goods on trucks, as stokers or in other menial jobs. Niklus, dubbed an "especially dangerous recidivist," had been a teacher; Ovsienko had completed a degree in Ukrainian literature. Their eventual rehabilitations felt like a letdown. "Look at my rehabilitation document," said Oleg Vorobyov, pulling out a paper dated May 80, 1994, that formally erased a six-year sentence he served in the 1970s. "I was rehabilitated in the Dzerzhinsky district of the city of Perre, on Communist Street. That says it all." Feliks Dzerzhinsky founded the Russian secret police; Perm hasn't yet got around to changing its place names.

Most former zeks aren't looking for retribution. But they do want some wider recognition of how they were wronged. "Sixteen years in prison, and everything was canceled as if nothing had happened," complains Niklus. Still, there was some solace--and quiet pride--in the mere fact that they emerged unbroken. "I left here an honest man," Niklus declared. Just by gathering together, they felt they had made a statement. "A meeting of former zeks is always a holiday," joked Vyacheslav Dolinin, a veteran of the Perm camps in the 1980s. That human triumph is what the monument really celebrates. More than buildings, the zeks' living witness can help Russia remember.

No one knows how many people Joseph Stalin's henchmen sent to the gulag. Estimate range from 12 million to 20 million--and as many as 95 percent may have perished. That excludes the millions killed by summary execution and planned famines.

The numbers of prisoners dropped off sharply, and very few died. Under Nikita Khrushchev (1953-1964) and Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), about 10,000 people were sent to the gulag for political offenses. Thousands more went to mental hospitals.