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The Truth About Stalin’s Prison Camps

Mar 05, 2020 | 831 videos
Video by Coda Story: Generation Gulag

Vera Golubeva spent more than six years in one of Joseph Stalin’s gulag camps. Her crime? “To this day, I still don’t know,” she says.

In a new documentary from Coda Story, Golubeva remembers the excruciating details of her imprisonment. When she was arrested, along with her father, mother, and sister, Golubeva was taken to KGB headquarters and tortured. She was eight months pregnant. “I felt as if they were burying me alive,” she says in the film. Shortly before being transferred to a labor camp, Golubeva gave birth to a baby boy, who died just days later while in the care of KGB agents. “It was the worst cruelty,” she says.

From 1918 to 1987, Soviet Russia operated a network of hundreds of prison camps that held up to 10,000 people each. When Stalin launched his infamous purges in 1936, millions of so-called political prisoners were arrested and transported to the gulags without trial. The first wave of prisoners were military and government officials; later, ordinary citizens—especially intellectuals, doctors, writers, artists, and scientists—were arrested ex nihilo. At the camps, many prisoners were executed or died from overwork and malnutrition. The death rate often hovered around 5 percent, although in years of widespread famine, the mortality rate could be as high as 25 percent. Historians estimate that as part of the gulag, Soviet authorities imprisoned or executed about 25 million people.

“That sum is unfathomable,” Katia Patin, who produced the film about Golubeva, told me. Golubeva’s story is part of a powerful oral-history series called Generation Gulag, which Coda Story created to better understand the gulag experience. “We made a point of not relying on numbers to tell the story of the gulag,” Patin said. “Instead, we focused on individual stories as a way of capturing the gulag’s massive scale, as well as the ripple effect set in motion when the Soviet machine of repression bore down on a single person.”

Now is a more important time than ever to examine this dark period of Russia’s history. In a poll conducted in 2019, 70 percent of Russians said they approved of Stalin’s role in history—a record high. And nearly half of young Russians said they had never heard of the Stalin-era purges, known as the Great Terror. In Russian school textbooks, the gulag is either glossed over or mentioned as a footnote.

“Russia has misrepresented its crimes against humanity by refusing to address them,” Patin said. “It’s incredible to think that not a single person was ever held responsible for running the gulag.”

In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Stalin has been rehabilitated as a figure credited with the U.S.S.R.’s victory in World War II—a narrative that leaves little room for examining his role in the gulag, Patin said. The Kremlin has warned that “excessive demonization” of Stalin is, in fact, an “attack on the Soviet Union and Russia,” and Putin has even gone so far as to praise Stalin as an “effective manager.” In 2015, Putin forced museums to remove evidence of Stalin’s crimes. (This state-sanctioned historical negationism has also included the myth that the gulag created industrial success in Russia. In fact, it was an economic disaster, as output almost never compensated for the cost of running the camp system.)

On March 5, the anniversary of Stalin’s death, people across Russia gather to commemorate the millions of people who suffered under his rule. “You can say that gulag survivors have successfully reclaimed the anniversary,” Patin said, “but each year, a crowd also gathers outside the Kremlin walls, where Stalin used to be buried, with flowers and portraits of the leader.” Statues celebrating Stalin have recently been erected in Russian cities. On March 5, people leave flowers by them too.

“There are two types of history in Russia: the history that belongs to the state, and history that belongs to families,” Patin said.

Putin may promulgate a glorified version of Stalin to promote patriotism, but ultimately, Golubeva gets the last word.

“The KGB was committing open crimes against humanity,” she says in the film. “It’s my firm belief that only people with a traitor’s heart went to work for the KGB.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.