Can you imagine going to Auschwitz and not finding a single reference to Hitler or the Nazi party? In the latest sign of the Russian government’s historical revisionism, every reference to Stalin’s crimes have been removed from a Soviet Gulag prison museum located near the city of Perm, in Russia’s Ural mountains. One of the most prominent camps for political prisoners in the USSR from 1972 until its closure in 1988, Perm-36 was built in 1943 during Stalin’s rule.
Previously run by the foundation Memorial, municipal officials are now taking charge of the administration of the camp-museum, their prize for winning a long-term campaign of intimidation and legal wrangling. In fact, in 2014 local authorities resolved to cut off the museum’s water and electricity. (This coercive tactic is similar to Vladimir Putin’s method of putting pressure on Europe, and especially on Ukraine, by raising the price of or threatening to cut countries off from gas and fuel.)
The takeover will dramatically change the meaning of the institution, which now will only depict life in the camp without mentioning Soviet political repression or the reasons why prisoners were sent there in the first place. Any reference to Stalin or Brezhnev has been removed. To make things worse, Perm-36 is the only intact surviving Gulag camp, as all the others were dismantled in the final days of the Soviet Union. Historical facts are literally being erased from memory.
Like the Nazis retreating from Eastern Europe and scuttling their death camps, the Gorbachev administration, so commonly portrayed as benign and dovish, did its utmost to erase any trace of past wrongdoing. Luckily, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is out of the reach of the Russian President, and has a webpage exclusively devoted to depicting life in the Gulag, as well as explaining why these forced labor camps existed at all.
Today’s whitewashing of history will certainly help Vladimir Putin. The Russian President is currently having a hard time distancing himself from Boris Nemtsov’s murder. There are also countless other crimes associated with him, like the assassinations of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. By separating mass murderers like Stalin from the rotten fruits of their wrongdoing, perhaps Putin is hinting at the distance he would like future Russian presidents to take when depicting his own role in suspected crimes.
A recent piece in the Washington Post illustrates how the current Russian leader is singing directly out of Marshal Stalin’s songbook, even to the point of taking direct control of the investigation into his rival’s murder, as Stalin did when Sergei Kirov was killed in 1934. Russia expert Karen Dawisha explains: “Much of the Putin era has been absorbed with the suppression of opposition political movements.” Obviously those groups which try to accurately record the crimes of Soviet communism are considered part of the political opposition and must also be silenced or eliminated.
Putin wants to wipe out evidence of Stalin’s and Brezhnev’s atrocities. With his control of Russian media and influence over educational institutions, his propaganda can effectively brainwash future Russian generations—a full and accurate memory of Soviet crimes may effectively be lost forever.