Today the Russian government is rewriting some of the darkest chapters of its Soviet past.
The eyewitnesses of Soviet authoritarianism have a different story for us and a message for our era.
It was our first interview shoot for Coda Story’s Generation Gulag series and we were running late. Irina Verblovskaya, 86, was expecting us but our film crew couldn’t find her tiny green cottage hidden in a forest about half an hour outside St. Petersburg. Our minivan cruised down narrow roads until we got out and walked through the birch forest, stopping at almost identical cottage homes to ask for directions. When we finally pulled up to the right one, Irina made it clear how very late we were: “Why are you here?” she asked, raising her hands up and she walked towards us across the lawn. “What are you doing here now? Where were you 10 years ago?”
Were we too late? This was our first question at Coda when we began thinking about tracking down the remaining Gulag survivors. Why were we doing this now?
From the very beginning our goal was not to create another oral history project about the Gulag. A library of documentary and nonfiction work on the Gulag already exists, though by no means extensive enough weighted against the scale of Soviet repressions. I was interested in a story happening now, in this era: I wanted to hear from the eyewitnesses of Soviet authoritarianism on what it is like to see their past being rewritten today. No one has ever been held accountable for running the Gulag, a system of forced labor camps integral to Soviet economic planning that imprisoned or exiled over 28 million people from 1918 to 1987. Instead, the Russian government is now airbrushing and glorifying its Soviet past.
This is a time of democratic backsliding around the world. A new generation of authoritarian leaders are interested in re-defining national identity and making sure history books serve their new political narratives. In China, the government campaigns to erase Uyghur people and their culture. In India, a punitive populist movement recasts India as a Hindu, rather than a secular, nation. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan eulogizes the country’s Ottoman history as he deploys troops to former Ottoman provinces like Libya and northern Syria.
In fact, no country is immune to instrumentalizing its history. In the UK, the legacy of the British empire is linked with Brexit politics. In the U.S., the violent attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia stoked fears that old Confederate monuments could become new flashpoints for violence, with some removing statues in the dead of night under emergency orders.
As a newsroom we’ve tracking rewriting history stories around the world to better understand how distorting the past is serving regimes today as part of our disinformation coverage.
That’s what brought us to Irina Verblovskaya’s living room. As we set up the lights and cameras, Irina told us what Gulag survivors would repeat to our team during shoots across Russia and Crimea, Belarus, and Latvia. They described the intense interest in their Gulag stories in the eighties and early nineties when the Soviet Union fell. Many documents from the defunct KGB were made available to the public almost overnight. Publishers were printing camp manuscripts and new textbooks were selling out.
But then state police forces began reassembling into a new agency, the FSB, in the mid-nineties. As its influence grew, archives closed and interest waned. Vladimir Putin, elected in 2000 after heading the FSB, brought along a cadre of security officials propelled into senior cabinet positions. Today, many are still in government or have transitioned to powerful positions in finance and industry.
Putin’s government wasn’t interested in reckoning with Soviet-era crimes or setting up Nuremberg-style courts.
“They want it to become part of the tapestry of the past that has no special significance, no special meaning and no special lessons,” Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gulag: A History,” said to me.
“And they certainly don’t want anyone drawing lessons from history or looking at the past and saying, ‘We don’t want to repeat that so how do we avoid it in the present?’ They don’t want people thinking like that.”
In Russia there’s strong evidence this campaign has succeeded: close to half of young Russians say they have never heard of the Stalin-era purges, known as the Great Terror. And Stalin himself has never been more popular: in 2019 70% of Russians responded that they approve of Stalin’s role in history — a record high.
One of Russia’s only museums located at a former Gulag camp — Perm-36, the last camp Gorbachev closed down in 1987 — was labeled a “foreign agent” and taken over by local government officials in 2015. The museum’s new head curated an updated exhibition focusing on the prisoners’ contribution to timber production in the WWII war effort rather than on the horrific camp conditions or absurd charges which landed people there.
The process of rewriting Gulag history most often takes the form of emphasizing the horrors of Soviet authoritarianism, and deflecting with patriotic WWII stories. It’s happening at the highest levels of the Russian government: such as Putin’s complaint of “excessive demonization” of Stalin as “an attack on the Soviet Union and Russia.”
It’s also happening on the local level, such as the bizarre case of police officers dressing up in KGB uniforms for a photoshoot in southern Russia last year celebrating local “heroes.” There are more sinister incidents, such as Gulag historian Yuri Dmitriev, aged 63, held in police custody for over three years on what human rights activists say are trumped up charges of child abuse being used to terminate his tireless work uncovering mass grave sites.
Applebaum, who met with Dmitriev while researching her book, called his arrest “appalling” and a “profound reversal” in attitudes towards Gulag history. “This is somebody who should be a local community hero,” she told me.
The silencing of voices who call for a closer examination of the Soviet past is happening in parallel with a broad crackdown on pro-democracy movements in Russia. As our team filmed and edited the episodes in Generation Gulag, Coda was also covering stories of journalists, activists and peaceful protestors arrested in Russia last year. Moscow saw some of the largest protests in a decade against fraudulent local elections and the mass arrests of protestors. These were the events forming the context of this series for our Moscow-based production team. They intentionally chose a different series name for our Russian-language audiences, which translates to “The Repressions Don’t End.”
Oksana Baulina, Coda’s journalist who interviewed the majority of the survivors for the series, told me that she directly links the “unraveling of democracy and return to authoritarianism in Russia” to the lack of “national realization and repentance” for Soviet crimes.
Irina was only kidding about our tardiness. As we set up the equipment she quietly chuckled to herself at her own joke, adding how she would have been far more attractive on camera ten years ago. But she understood very well why we were there, speaking to her now:
“Human individuality isn’t valued here. Human life isn’t valued here. We’re counted in numbers and in masses and not as individuals.”
During our interview for the episode “Love at first sight,” survivor Galina Nelidova was emotional when describing her disgust at watching the legacy of the Soviet Union rehabilitated today on Russian state television: “I find it shameful that people still don’t know the whole truth,” she told us. “Even when I hear [a Russian politician] saying, ‘What can you do, a few thousand people were arrested back then.’ But we know that it was millions.”
She also specifically referenced one of Moscow’s most notorious prisons called Butyrka which is still in use and holds a number of political prisoners arrested during the 2019 protests. “To this day in Butyrka there are unmarked mass graves of people killed by firing squads,” she reminds viewers.
Another survivor, Olga Shirokaya from “An officer’s daughter,” spoke to Coda’s Oksana about the challenges of holding people accountable decades later for crimes committed under Soviet rule. How does a nation organize trials if there were also “millions of interrogators, millions of informants, millions of prison guards,” asked Shirokaya. “These millions were also our people.”
Latvia is a perfect example of what that process could look like, though on a smaller scale. Last year the government suddenly declassified KGB documents listing 4,141 people as Cold War-era informants. This sent shock waves across the country of just under two million as prominent figures and relatives were publicly outed. A number denied their involvement on social media, others threatened to file defamation suits, some accepted that this was simply a time when people faced terrible choices.
From my childhood memories visiting relatives in St. Petersburg, there were always stories. I remember the gossip about a neighbor who was a former camp guard, stories told about a family friend who worked as a conductor on a train which offloaded prisoners in Siberia at a stop simply named “Winter.”
But even after months of work on this series, I still struggle to wrap my head around the sheer magnitude of the Gulag experience. While researching and traveling in the region for Generation Gulag I was struck again and again by how many lives were touched by the system.
In one way or another, “we all have the Gulag in our homes” my colleague Semen Kvasha would tell me. It’s not uncommon for families to be split between relatives who did time in the Gulag and those who helped administer the massive camps. Over seven decades of communist rule the perpetrators also became the victims and vice versa.
Gulag survivor Azari Plisetsky, featured in the episode “The Dancer,” spoke directly to this: “Everyone must know the truth about these terrifying repressions, about the genocide of our own people which happened during our lifetime, especially the younger generation.”
Over the course of several months, our team interviewed more than twenty survivors. We felt a sense of urgency to find people and speak to them before their stories slipped away. Sometimes, we didn’t make it in time: two of our interview subjects, Vladimir Rodionov and Petr Meshkov, passed away just days before we were scheduled to film with them. “When I was searching for people to interview, I constantly felt that we were running behind,” our reporter Oksana Baulina said. “I feel guilty about the two of them: that their stories remain untold; that we were too late.”
The survivors we managed to interview for Generation Gulag — Irina, Galina, Azari, Olga, all of them — understand why especially now their stories matter.
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