Russia May Be Secretly Destroying Its Gulag Prisoner Records To Erase a Brutal Period In Its History

A secret Russian government order to destroy the records of prisoners of Soviet Gulag labor camps has sparked fears that the notorious episode in Soviet history is being erased from history.

The gulags, Soviet forced labor camps created under Vladimir Lenin, peaked under the rule of Joseph Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s as instruments of political repression.

The Gulag History Museum reopened in Moscow in 2015 and commemorates the victims. It has an archival centre and receives inquiries from all over the world from descendants of prisoners.

But the newspaper Kommersant reported that an order was made in 2014, signed by 11 state agencies including the intelligence agency the FSB, the General Prosecutor's Office and the Foreign Intelligence Service, to destroy the records when the prisoner reaches the age of 80.

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Visitors look at works on display at an exhibition in the state museum of Gulag history in Moscow April 2, 2012. Russian media has reported that officials are destroying the records of Gulag prisoners under a secret order passed in 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Museum director Roman Romanov told the paper that a prisoner's file would be stored indefinitely if they died, or died in the camp. If a prisoner was released, their file was destroyed, but a registration card was drawn up, with their personal details and the dates of their internment.

But when Gulag historian Sergei Prudovsky was researching a peasant who had been sentenced to five years' labor in the Russian far east region of Magadan, he discovered that this registration card had been destroyed too.

Romanov has written a letter of complaint to Russian presidential adviser Mikhail Fedotov, stating that destroying records will have a disastrous impact on the study of the history of the camps and getting information about the victims of repression.

He told the radio station Echo of Moscow that he wants to know the details of the order and why it is being carried out.

"It is terrible. We need to establish whether they are being destroyed because of administrative and financial issues. I hope there is no other reason for it.

"The destruction of registration cards simply leads to the destruction of information about people," he said.

Under President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has been accused of downplaying Stalin's crimes, focusing more on his role in the Soviet World War Two victory over Nazi Germany.

One notorious gulag, called Perm-36, was taken over by local officials in 2015 and references to Stalin's crimes were removed, the BBC reported.

Marion Smith, executive director of Washington D.C.-based group Victims of Communism told Newsweek the move suggested a push to promote a "revisionist history" of the Soviet Union.

"Without truth and memory, there can be no justice. Historical recognition is a small measure of justice—the first step in a long process. But by destroying the records of millions of Gulag survivors, the Putin regime is trying to erase their memories from the consciousness of the world."

"If the Putin regime is concerned that no one is interested in archiving and stewarding these files—files documenting of one of the most heinous totalitarian crimes of the twentieth century—well, we will gladly take them," he said in an emailed statement.

Correction: This article has been updated to make clear that Marion Smith is a man and removes a reference to the Victims of Communism as a lobby group.