History of the Gulag Museum

The Gulag Museum, whose full name is The Memorial Center for the History of Political Repressions (Perm-36), is located within the walls of the former labor camp near Perm, Russia. The camp, one of several hundred logging camps in the Perm region, was constructed in 1946 at the height of the Soviet forced labor system that came to be known as the Gulag. In 1972, during a period of renewed political repression in the USSR, Perm-36 was converted into a political prison, and for the next 15 years, the camp, along with two others nearby, held many of the Soviet Union’s most prominent dissidents. Among them were human right activists such as Vladimir Bukovsky, Sergey Kovalev, Anatoly Marchenko, Yury Orlov, as well as many Ukrainian, Baltic, Tatar and Caucasian nationalist leaders and Jewish activists, including Nathan Sharansky.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, some Russian historians, human rights activists, former Gulag prisoners, and others created civic organizations to help foster remembrance. One of the most prominent, the Memorial Society, erected small monuments throughout the country to commemorate victims of totalitarianism. In 1991, Memorial Society activists, who wanted to preserve a forced labor camp to serve as a memorial to the Gulag victims, organized to save Perm-36. By the early 1990s, Perm-36 lay in ruins. KGB officials had destroyed much of the facility after Ukrainian Television crews filmed and broadcast the facility where internationally renowned poet Vasyl Stus had died from neglect in 1985. Thanks to dedicated reconstruction efforts, the Museum was able to open in 1996, and today the former camp is the only surviving complex from the Soviet Gulag system.

Perm-36 is an active historic site that is listed on the World Monuments Watch list (2004) of the 100 Most Endangered Sites (see related article by Anne Applebaum, “Tales from the Gulag”). The Gulag Museum serves as a memorial to the millions arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, and forced to work on massive infrastructure projects throughout the former Soviet Union. But perhaps more importantly, the Museum serves as a place to ask how this brutality happened, who was responsible, and how it can be prevented in the future.