THAW UNCOVERS GULAG'S BONES
"The people who wouldn't like to remember this past
are still alive and still in power."
Comes the Thaw, the Gulag's Bones Tell Their Dark Tale
by Steven Myers, New York Times, Feb 24, 2004
ORILSK, Russia — The bones appear each June, when the hard Arctic winter breaks at last and the melting snows wash them from the site of what some people here — but certainly not many — call this city's Golgotha. The bones are the remains of thousands of prisoners sent to the camps in this frozen island of the Gulag Archipelago. To this day, no one knows exactly how many labored here in penal servitude. To this day, no one knows exactly how many died.
The bones are an uncomfortable reminder of a dark past that most would rather forget.
"Here it is generally thought that the history of the camps is an awful secret in the family," said Vladislav A. Tolstov, a journalist and historian who has lived in Norilsk all his life. "We all know about it, but we try not to think about it." Norilsk is inseparable from its grim history, but people here remain deeply ambivalent about that. It has no monument to the victims, even though the gulag's survivors have waged a frustrated campaign to build one.
Norilsk Nickel, the private mining and metallurgical company that emerged from the vast state enterprise that has always dominated the city, has erected placards extolling the history of its factories, without noting that the builders shown in black-and-white photographs were slaves. Even Mr. Tolstov's new book, "Chronicles of Norilsk," deals only glancingly with the fact that the city, as he put it in an interview, "turned out to be built on the bones of innocent victims."
Norilsk is far from unique. More than 12 years after entropy tore apart the Soviet Union, Russia remains reluctant to delve deeply into the grimmest facts of its the Soviet legacy. Memory is selective, and history is, as it was, highly political. "Russia, the country which has inherited the Soviet Union's diplomatic and foreign policies, its embassies and its debts and its seat at the United Nations, continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union's history," Anne Applebaum wrote in "Gulag," a new history of the camps.
In Norilsk, more than most places, that history lies buried only as deep as the bones. From 1935 to 1956 tens of thousands of prisoners, political enemies of a paranoid state, labored here. They extracted the precious metal ores beneath the harsh tundra and built their own prison camps and eventually the city itself.
Vasily F. Romashkin arrived in 1939 aboard a prison barge on the Yenisei River, two years after being arrested for belonging to a subversive organization that as far as he knows never existed. When he was arrested he had been married for seven days. He recalled having to dig trenches in permafrost, 6 feet by 6 feet, for the foundations of Norilsk's metal plants. For much of the year prisoners worked in unbearable cold, dressed in padded cotton uniforms, their hands and feet wrapped in rags. On the coldest days they received 3.5 ounces of pure alcohol and a piece of ham. "You were fed just enough so that you could stay alive and work," said Mr. Romashkin, now 89.
But when the city unveiled a monument to "the builders of Norilsk" two years ago, the bas-relief bronze sculpture depicted a strapping, shirtless man wielding a trowel in the finest tradition of Socialist Realism. In Soviet times, of course, the subject of the camps was taboo. Many, like Mr. Tolstov, grew up here without even knowing about it. Through the ideological scrim of the Soviet state, the city was a heroic accomplishment: "volunteers" poured into the city in the 1950's and built an industrial giant.
That changed with the heady days of glasnost in the late 1980's, but evidently only briefly. In 1990 the first memorial appeared on the scarred, wind-swept hillside where the prisoners had been buried in mass anonymity. It was a small chapel, financed with private money. Later a small cross was raised above a marble slab inscribed in honor of those who died. For many here, that is recognition enough. "Maybe old people associate it with the gulag," said Yuri M. Filatov, the director of Norilsk Nickel's copper factory, when asked about the prisoners who built it. "Not the young people, of course."
The hillside's most prominent memorials were built not by Russians, but by countries now free of the Soviet bloc whose citizens died in the Soviet gulag: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. Few people visit the site, on the edge of the city behind a worn factory. Power lines cross over it. A pond of industrial runoff is nearby.
"Are people ashamed?" asked Lilya G. Luganskaya, the deputy director of the city's museum and one of those who struggles to depict the gulag's history in exhibitions and lectures in schools. "Probably people do not care." An organization representing the survivors here — there are only 36 now, along with 40 children born to prisoners — continues to campaign for an official monument to the victims, only to meet official indifference. Olga I. Yaskina, sent to the camps as a girl of 16 in 1952, has her own vision of the monument she would build: "a woman who represents the Motherland, on her knees, crying over a grave because so many of her children died."
In 2002, President Vladimir V. Putin visited the memorial site, laying a wreath to the camps' victims. But his visit was unannounced, and the authorities did not invite any of the organization's members to meet him. He met instead with the chairwoman of a war veterans' committee.
Yelizaveta I. Obst, whose father, an ethnic German, was sent to the gulag in 1943, said history in Russia remained ambivalent because so many were implicated in it. "The memories of the past are restored only with great difficulty," she said. "The people who wouldn't like to remember this past are still alive and still in power."
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