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Russian Government Takes Over Gulag Museum, Sparking Fears It Will Whitewash History

A group Russian Communist Party supporters carry a poster of Joseph Stalin ahead of a march honoring him in Dec. 2014. CREDIT: AP
A group Russian Communist Party supporters carry a poster of Joseph Stalin ahead of a march honoring him in Dec. 2014. CREDIT: AP

Local officials in a town 800 miles from Moscow have taken over a museum in a former prison camp in order to strip it of references to the brutal repression carried out by former Soviet leaders, according to its former director.

“Now it’s a museum about the camp system, but not about political prisoners,” Viktor Shmyrov told the BBC. “Of course it’s a political move.”

Last year, he was fired from his post along with some of his colleagues who operated the museum through the nonprofit organization, Memorial. Shmyrov was replaced by a local political official who had no previous connection to the museum. According to the head of Memorial, the new management of the Perm-36 museum will include former camp guards.

That’s a major blow to organizations like Memorial which aim to remind people of the atrocities of Soviet rule.

Shmyrov said that when the museum re-opens under its new leadership, it will no longer address state-backed repressions or the mass detentions ordered by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

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Joseph Stalin greatly expanded the gulag prison camp system during his thirty-year tenure as the head of the Soviet Union, with purges of military officials and provincial elites as well as a quota-driven purge of ordinary citizens. Under his watch, millions of people were sent to gulags to carry out hard labor including ethnic groups suspected of disloyalty, political dissidents, actual criminals as well as innocent people. Faced with long working hours, extreme climate, inadequate food, and mass executions, up to 30 million people died during the nearly 40 years when the gulags were operational.

Now, many believe the only former gulag that memorializes this dark history is being whitewashed in an effort to rewrite Russian history in rosier tones.

“Today, during Putin’s aggressive Ukraine campaign, a museum documenting the Kremlin’s attack on dissent sits uncomfortably with the authorities — who threaten to shut the museum’s doors to the public,” Ola Chichowlas wrote in an article for The New Republic.

“Far away from Moscow, Perm-36 is an island of truth in a Russia that increasingly distorts and belittles the Kremlin’s cruel past,” the former museum employee said.

Russian state television even aired a documentary that undermined and falsified the museum’s mission after temporarily shuttering the historic site last summer, she noted.

Such efforts seem to be working.

More than half of the Russians polled last November said they had a positive view of the Soviet-era dictator Joseph Stalin.

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And that’s not based on selective memory alone as evidenced by the fact that more than two-thirds of respondents agreed that “Stalin was a cruel, inhuman tyrant, responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people.”

The apparent double-think is part of a deliberate political ploy, according to Lev Gudkow, who heads Levada Center, the independent organization that carried out the poll. He attributes a 25 percent spike in positive views towards Stalin to the launch of what he called a “comprehensive program to ideologically reeducate society” by current Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2000.

“Putin’s spin doctors did not deny that Stalin’s regime had conducted mass arrests and executions but tried to minimize the importance of these events. They did so while emphasizing as far as possible the merits of Stalin as a military commander and statesman who had modernized the country and turned it into one of the world’s two superpowers,” Gudkov wrote in a report for the Carnegie Endowment.

By whitewashing Stalin’s human rights record and championing his military successes, Putin appears to be trying to draw a connection to his Soviet-era predecessor: one that may allow him to maintain a tight grip on power at home, while engaging in military campaign abroad. This may have helped him annex Crimea rather painlessly, and help with backing a separatist insurgency in Ukraine.

While Putin may be drawing pages from the annals of Stalin, former Perm-36 museum director Viktor Shmyrov says things are different now in a major way.

“We are already seeing the creation of a Stalinist-type state — enormous power is concentrated in the hands of one man,” he said. “[But] there is no need now for repressions [under Putin] — the people have become obedient.”

According to Shmyrov, “The political system is returning to totalitarianism.”