‘We want to create a large exhibition and call it “Do the Counting Yourself”. So it’s clear where the margin of error of several millions dead and repressed comes from’ – Roman Romanov, director of the GULAG History Museum [an interview with Republic]
Photo: Press service of the GULAG History Museum
Roman Romanov. Source: Wikipedia

14 April 2021

Roman Romanov, director of the Museum of the History of the GULAG, on why the Stalinist executioners did not repent, and those who left the camps were silent and what to do now so that Russia can cope with this historic trauma, speaking in an interview with Maria Ganiants of Republic online journal.

Source: Republic

The average age of the staff at the Museum of the History of the GULAG is 30. They missed out on the perestroika-era explosion of publications about the Stalinist repression. But, according to the director of the museum, Roman Romanov, today it is actually the millennials and younger generations are driving a calm and natural request for a proper understanding of this period of Soviet history. In an interview with Republic, Roman talks about a new collection of graphic novels ‘SURVIVORS. The Great Terror’, which the museum exhibited at the recent book fair Non/Fiction, and also explains why it is so difficult to collect accurate data on the victims of the Stalinist terror in Russia.

Attempts to work through a traumatic experience in the form of comics are not uncommon, suffice to mention Art Spiegelman’s famous ‘Maus’, about Auschwitz. ‘SURVIVORS. The Great Terror’ is the second part of your publishing project, which recounts the history of Stalin’s victims in the form of graphic novels. How did the GULAG museum hit upon this idea?

The museum’s exhibition, titled ‘The GULAG in the fates of the people and the country’s history’, contains sixteen stories of people, told with the help of documents, relatives’ memories, and personal items. The idea for the exhibition was to present the lives of the victims as a part of the shared history of the country, and almost immediately an idea arose to do this in the form of graphic novels. But things only came together in 2019, when the creative agency BBDO joined the project: they raised 250,000 roubles on the Planeta.ru crowdfunding platform, found professional artists and published the first collection of ‘SURVIVORS’, which included the stories of four people whose childhood and youth were harmed by repression. For example, the fate of Yulia Pashayeva, whose parents were shot and was sent to an orphanage.

This year the publishers Samokat brought out the second volume of the comic, which added another six stories to our exhibition, and the graphics were done by students from the School of Design at the Higher School of Economics. It was one of their course projects. And we’re planning to publish another six stories.

Does the museum have other plans for publishing?

We have a large publishing programme. For example, we’re in the process of producing a five volume-work written by physicist and student of the famous Lev Landau, Georgy Demidov. Georgy was held in a prison camp for nearly 20 years in Kolyma before he was sent into exile. He also struck up a friendship with Varlam Shalamov, who went on to dedicate two of his stories to Georgy. 

Demidov left extremely interesting memoirs that can lay claim to be great works of literature. How he managed to write those and keep them safely hidden is like something from a detective novel. There were five copies of a text Demidov had written on his typewriter which he subsequently hid with some of his friends in various cities across the USSR. He was adamant that he wouldn’t send his work to be published abroad. In 1980 the KGB confiscated all five copies simultaneously. He was never to recover from the shock of losing his life’s work. Then in 1988, a year after Demidov’s death, the manuscript was returned to his daughter. One part of the manuscript came from evidence storage in Tbilisi, while the other part came from evidence storage in Kiev. 

The “Vozvraschenie” [Return] society then privately published the manuscript after two decades had passed. Our publication will have the text in full as best we can, and feature correspondence, documents from the Magadan archive, and photographs from the period. 

Many Russian writers, such as Ulistkaya, Vodolazkin, Yakhina and Kibirov, deal with the history of the 20th Century and reconstructing tragic fates with documentary precision. It is almost as if they are trying to close the blind-spots in the history of the Soviet period. Something similar is happening in the worlds of dramatic theatre and music… 

I think this is only natural. In the 1990s information flowed freely, but a lot of that information was tainted by ideology or political necessity. The many narratives that had been gathering in desk drawers began to spill out, and the mainstream media, theatre and cinema began to capitalise on that. This explosion of information was both emotional and indicative of the perestroika age, but wholly passed by people born after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, that same generation and the generations that came after have demanded, in a peaceful manner but in no uncertain terms, that they be allowed to satisfy their desire to understand who they are and where they came from. It’s painful that we can only uncover the past thread by thread, but it’s a process that we need to go through. This trauma is reflected in us today; many families have photo albums where the people have had their faces cut out or smeared over. So until there is calm and thoughtful analysis of our past, we will continue to live with this trauma and almost genetically-transferred fear.

How many people suffered from the repressions in the USSR?

17 to 20 million people were sent to camps and colonies between1929 and 1956. Recidivist criminals were only about 3-5% of the total number of prisoners, while political prisoners made up 25%. The camps also held ordinary people who were convicted under the Decree on Three Ears of Corn and other decrees to long terms of imprisonment, many of them were subsequently rehabilitated. The exact number of victims is still difficult to calculate, since there were no uniform statistics on sentences to imprisonment in camps and colonies, sentences were passed by both judicial and extrajudicial bodies – like the NKVD troikas.

We want to create a large exhibition – to show the methodology for calculating the number of the victims of repression and the dead, and call it ‘Do the Counting Yourself’. So that it will be plain where these 20 million come from and why a margin of error of several million people is allowed. People, after all, were not counted, a person was viewed as a means to an end and even the language used about them shows this – cogs, chips that fly when the forest is felled.

One thing is clear: the Stalinist repressions were indeed massive. In 1937-1938, the whole country was divided according to the administrative-territorial principle, an order for special operations was issued to each – how many people to bury, how many people to shoot. This was the case in the gulag camps too – how many prisoners were to be shot. And when these special operations began, encrypted messages were sent to Stalin, where they, from the localities, asked for the limits to be increased. Stalin almost always approved this. Vast quantities of data have only just been declassified. For example, in New Moscow there is a former special facility of the NKVD ‘Kommunarka’, here at the end of the 1930s there was a shooting range, about 6,600 people are buried there: the political elite, scientists, writers, and NKVD officers. We are now setting up an information centre there. But until recently, no one knew anything, people were walking over the burial ground, picking mushrooms and berries.

Is all the information about the Stalinist repressions available today? Are there any obstacles from the authorities?

Some archives appeal to the law on personal data and only allow relatives to access documents, there is also a restriction on access to archival documents for a period of 75 years from the date of their creation. For example, museum staff were able to obtain documents on Demidov only because his daughter gave us power of attorney. The museum has a documentation centre that helps relatives look for information. But this is not always easy to do. 

Now the investigative files are part of the Archival Fund of the Russian Federation, but the prisoners’ registration cards were not included. During the mass purges and the special operations of imprisonments and shootings, the families of the executed were told they had been sentenced to ’10 years without the right to correspondence’, so as to conceal the true scale. There was some logic in this: if the large number of relatives who had appealed to authorities in 1937 and 1938 had been told that their son, husband or son had been shot, this could have led to destabilisation, but this strategy left the dim hope that after 10 years, their loved one might be released. This also made it possible to keep society in fear. But after these 10 years had passed, relatives started writing to the authorities again. Then a new routine emerged – authorities started writing false certificates with made-up dates, as if the person had died in the camp from some disease. Then 1956, the 20th Congress and the ‘Khrushchev thaw’ came, and many people started writing to the authorities yet again, hoping to find out more details of their relatives’ deaths. They were given new death certificates – but these second documents were also false, displaying a new cause of death and a new camp. Now people had two death certificates, both of them false, and it was only in the 1990s, when they received a certificate of rehabilitation, that they were able to find out the truth. We have items such as this in our museum archive. 

Why did almost all of those released from the camps remain silent, even after the 20th Congress? Out of fear?

This fear was well-founded, people really had something to fear. Not everything ended after Stalin’s death, and the false death certificates after the 20th Congress are proof of this. The same Demidov was searched again in 1980. He and Shalamov were followed by KGB agents. In addition, many prisoners signed non-disclosure agreements following their release from the camps.

Were there genuine members of terrorist organisations among the political prisoners?

All the terrorist organisations were invented. There was no real opposition to the regime, only statements or rallies, philosophical groups. There were some oppositionists on some party line or other, such as Bukharin or Ryutin, who spoke out against collectivisation but not against Stalin or the Soviet government. It was only after the war that partisan detachments emerged in the Baltic and western Ukraine.

Which was the worst of the Gulag camps?

Chukotka – the uranium mines. It had a lunar landscape, no vegetation, and the radiation was off the scale. Everything, both the extraction and the production, was classified, although there were indications that there were investigations into the effects of radiation on the human body; even the guards were not aware. During transportation, the guards would sit on barrels of uranium concentrate, or sleep on the train with a bag of precious ore under their heads.

Statistics on the convict-labourers’ life expectancy are still classified as ‘secret’, and some of the camp archives have been lost.

What helped people to survive in the Soviet camps?

Although conditions in the camps varied, including the weather (Kolyma is one thing, Kazakhstan is something else), they had one thing in common. The ones who survived were those who somehow managed to avoid general work, the mines, logging and pits, which after two or three months, as a rule, would leave you a goner – a person would be so weakened that they were beyond recovery. The general work often ended in death. 

How did former prisoners get along with those who were torturers or executioners in prisons or camps after their release?

In the North or Chukotka, in small cities and villages, after the camps were disbanded, former convicts and guards would see each other daily, live together and work together. I heard that sometimes the prisoners, having had too much to drink and with the past in mind, would assault their captors, but upon sobering up everything would go back to normal. I have also heard that children of convicts have started families with the children of guards. Everything has become somewhat interwoven and worked itself out.

Have you ever come across any documented evidence of Chekists repenting of their actions?

I have not. 

In the museum there is an interview with a man who worked in the secret police for many years. In this interview he talks about a colleague of his, who took part in the executions and said that it was just as in wartime: they were told that this was the enemy, which meant that they had to be shot. At one point it seems as though the man is talking about himself: his face starts to screw up and tears roll down his cheeks. Although I personally think that the main incentive for some of those working for the security services was not just the fight against the enemy (although there were also zealous sorts), but that many had a vested interest. They were rewarded well for their service; the homes of political prisoners were often handed over to them. There were cases in which a Chekist would move into one room of a communal flat, following which the neighbouring residents would gradually disappear from their homes. The apartment would then go to the Chekist as well as the furniture and possessions of those convicted, which were then given away or sold off by special vendors.

Researchers who looked into what became of the executioners say that the majority either took to drink or went mad, some committing suicide. Others, however, made it into retirement in a state dacha and with access to Kremlin health facilities. 

How do the descendants react when they find out that their often beloved grandfather or great-grandfather was an NKVD spook, who poured boiling water on Meyerhold and broke babies’ fingers?

In the 2000s, Vladimir Yakovlev, the founder of Kommersant, wrote in an online article, ‘My granddad was a murderer, a blood-drenched executioner, a Chekist…’ and goes on to talk about his grandfather. He says that we are all the descendants either of victims or of executioners, and I can’t imagine that this was an easy thing for him to do. 

An NKVD officer whom we interviewed talked about his son, and how his son stopped talking to him after discovering the truth. 

However some of the children and grandchildren say ‘that’s how the times were.’ As though to say, granddad was simply an employee following orders. 

In any case, the spirit of present society is one of trying to figure out one’s family history, it is a healthy development. It hurts and it’s grim but untangling this knot of barbed wire is the only way forward for society. Only there should be no accusations or calls for mass repentance. Nowadays forcing things on people would be destructive. 

Trauma becomes experience when spoken aloud and things are talked about as they really were.

Translated by Mercedes Malcomson, Fergus Wright, James Lofthouse , Elizabeth Rushton and Friedrich Berg.

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