At the end of World War II, the allied powers forced Germany to confront its past. History was not erased but forced out into the open. Documentation of Nazi horrors, from gold stars to concentration camps, was plentiful and permanent. It is precisely this evidence that allows sane people to ignore the nonsense fabricated by Holocaust deniers. Much more profoundly, physical evidence and historical documentation give the descendants of those who perished some small measure of closure. The Nazis did everything they could to erase the people they committed to mass slaughter. History, mercifully, had other plans.
Russia, in contrast, has not been so lucky when it comes to the mass murder committed under Stalin. As far as the state is concerned, the Gulag might well have never existed. Putin’s regime has benefited from the fact that the slave-labor camps that composed the Gulag were mostly temporary and portable: prisoners were moved from one construction project to another as needed. One of the camps that does still exist in physical form was turned into a museum by private citizens, who saw their preservation efforts perverted when the state took over the museum and converted its message, almost unbelievably, into something akin to an advertisement for Stalinist greatness.
The author Masha Gessen and the photographer Misha Friedman have done what they could in Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia to combat the erasure of memory regarding the Gulag. They have accomplished this in two distinct but complementary ways—Gessen by interviewing descendants of those imprisoned as well as other private citizens who have in various ways done what they could to document and preserve the record of mass incarceration and state-murder, and Friedman by photographing the ghostly—and certainly haunting—remains of the camps. The book that resulted will trouble your sleep for a long time.
Gessen and Friedman visit three sites of Gulag camps. They travel to Sandormokh, north of St. Petersburg, where 1,111 people were shot execution style in November 1937. Then, they proceeded to Perm, east of Moscow, where they meet a former inmate who offers memories of experiences in the camp. Their last visit takes place in Butugychag, in Siberia, home of the deadliest camp, where prisoners were starved and forced mine uranium and tin.
Of late, the Putin regime has disguised the horror of the camps behind the fabricated belief that Stalin was an exceptional leader responsible for the success and power Russia has as a country today. Gessen and Friedman depict the truth behind the walls of these camps through a collection of documents and photographs that taken together offer a searing rebuttal to Russian revisionism.
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