At the Western edge of Ural Mountains, near Kuchino Village some two hour drive from Perm, there lays a one-time political prisoners colony Perm-36. For the past 20 years, the camp has hosted Museum of History of Soviet Political Repressions.
The museum established by those interested in history, a one of a kind in Russia, has for years been left without state help. Financing the museum got complicated in 2012 with the foreign agents law entering into force, stating that non-governmental organisations funded from abroad are foreign agents.
Last year, the authorities – citing unpaid bills and cutting the museum’s water and power – founded the state-financed society Memorial Museum of the History of Political Repression. The non-governmental Perm-36 was left with the sole role of deciding the content.
With the Russia-participated war in Ukraine, the above events were preceded by propaganda. In state TV channels, the museum has among other things been accused in supporting fascism and rewriting history. Meanwhile, alleged former prison guards claimed on TV that Perm-36 held no dissidents, just Western spies.
By all that, the organisation Perm-36 was led to its announcement on Monday that its up-to-now activities are terminated. «The organisation is under liquidation. We reached no agreement with local authorities,» the Perm-36 head Tatiana Koursina told news agency AFP. «The museum will continue to operate, but will no longer be the same,» added Ms Koursina.
The museum director Viktor Shmyrov said local officials have taken the museum under their control. «The memorial will not disappear, but the museum has been taken over by other people who have been appointed by authorities, who have totally changed its content,» explained Mr Shmyrov. «Now, it is a museum about the camps system, not the political prisoners. They are not talking about Stalin’s repressions.»
According to Arseni Roginski, head of a best-known Russian human rights organisation Memorial closely linked to the activities of the museum, the changes at the institution are sweeping. «Tragically, a museum dedicated to Soviet terror is changed into penal system museum,» Mr Roginski told AFP. He said the recently opened exhibitions omit any reference to repressions and the museum’s new management includes former camp guards.
Nominally still director of the Museum, Mr Shmyrov says the rearrangements in the museum are not as much about rehabilitation of Stalin, but rather the overall political situation in his country.
«We are already seeing the creation of a Stalinist type state – enormous power has concentrated into the hands of one man,» noted Mr Shmyrov, referring to President Vladimir Putin. «Now, there is no need for repressions – people have become docile,» he added. «The political system is returning to totalitarianism.»
Regarding the fate of the museum, Mr Shmyrov has no illusions. «It will lose its importance,» he said, underlining that the museum – which used to point to Gulag and Soviet crimes – will turn into something different under the new leadership.
Into Perm-36 camp, Soviet powers sent those who dared to publicly speak out against them. According to our knowledge, eight Estonians were sent there as convicted in anti-Soviet propaganda or treason and terrorism: including Mart Niklus, Enn Tarto, Tiit Madisson and Kalju Mätik.
«I’m very sorry that Russian authorities are doing this,» Mr Tarto, who was held in the camp’s harshest special regime section in the 1980ies, told Postimees. «For Russia, this is yet another step in a bad direction. I fear that they will gradually liquidate it altogether,» said Mr Tarto, asked about the fate of Perm-36.
Mr Niklus, also one jailed at the camp in the 1980ies, was indignant as well, noting that for years the museum was a pain in the neck for Putin’s regime. «This is the advance of Putinism, the rebirth of Stalinism,» Mr Niklus told Postimees to describe what is happening in Russia. «As the regime finds a museum and research centre like this is no longer needed, then it is closed down and, probably, also justified.»
According to the former Riigikogu member, Estonian authorities ought to show support to the museum. Also, he would expect more attention paid to former inmates of Gulag. «Gulag inmates aren’t noticed at all, as if they never existed,» said Mr Niklus.
What was Perm-36?
• The political prisoners forced labour camp in Perm Krai, Tshusovoi Region, part of the Soviet Union’s forced labour camps system, was established in 1946 and closed down in 1988.
• Since mid-1970ies, considered one of the harshest camps for political prisoners. The special regime section also holding Mart Niklus and Enn Tarto was called death camp.
• Perm-36 was part of the so-called Perm Triangle. Currently, Perm-35 and Perm-37 operate as prisons.
• Since 1995, the former camp featured a museum unique for Russia.