(Washington, DC--October 9, 2003) Human rights activists from the Perm Region of Russia said that the legacy of the Soviet-era "gulag" system will only be overcome by educating the people of Russia about the reality of political labor camps. The activists made the comments at a recent briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office.
Oleg Trushnikov, Chief Designer at the Perm-36 Gulag Museum, said that he tried to create an experience that would help visitors "start an inner dialogue" and allow them to understand and accept their past. While transforming the camp into a museum to memorialize the millions who suffered and died in the Gulag, Trushnikov focused not only on providing general information about the gulag system and the Perm-36 camp, but also on the stories of specific individuals who served time at the camp, such as human rights activist Sergei Kovalev, Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus and Lithuanian activist Balys Gajauskas.
Museum Director Victor Shmyrov said that, because the camp is located in the midst of the Russian steppe, some 18 miles from the nearest town, museum staff had also developed traveling exhibits addressing various aspects of the gulag experience. These exhibits have been displayed throughout the Perm region and beyond -- including at the U.S. Senate and, soon, the Russian State Duma. The need for such educational programs, Shmyrov said, is shown by statistics that indicate that less than 30 percent of Russians have a negative view today of Stalin's activities. Ten years ago, more than 90 percent of those surveyed said they held a negative opinion of Stalin and his actions.
Shmyrov noted that the facility is the last of what once were thousands of labor camps built during the Stalinist era to remain in existence. According to Shmyrov, a variety of organizations, such as the Russian Ministry of Culture, the human rights organization "Memorial" and western NGO's such as the National Endowment for Democracy, had provided funds to repair camp structures.
Tatiana Margolina, Vice Governor of the Perm Region, described Perm-36 as "a place where you might never see daylight … The only person you could contact was your god." Margolina noted that the goal of the museum is to allow visitors to get a glimpse of what the prisoners experienced. Margolina emphasized the value of helping youth learn about the gulag, by placing students in volunteer and research positions at the museum. She gets excited, she said, hearing the voices of students in the museum and of young volunteers engaged in research, because they represent a hope for the future.
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