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Ukrainian Jew heads gulag museum

The Perm-36 Museum of Political Repression and Totalitarianism, in Perm, Russia. (Ezra Nathan)

The Perm-36 Museum of Political Repression and Totalitarianism, in Perm, Russia. (Ezra Nathan)

PERM-36, Russia (JTA) — On a February afternoon at Russia’s only Soviet-era gulag museum, it’s nearly zero degrees outside. Some of the barracks are hidden under mounds of stacked snow. There are few roads or walkways, mostly just vague paths of whiteness accompanied by blasting snowdrifts. One would never know Siberia is still days away by train. Sixteen years ago, however, the bitter climate was hardly the sole source of suffering at Perm-36. This was a notoriously ruthless, maximum-security gulag work camp buried deep in Russia’s Ural Mountains — even during the Gorbachev years — and the site of misery for the most prominent political prisoners, including Natan Sharansky, today a top Israeli minister. This intimidating memorial, the Perm-36 Museum of Political Repression and Totalitarianism, is the work of Alex Kahikh, 61, a highly principled Russian Jew who has spent his entire adult life trying to grasp “the false nature” of his Soviet life. While world Jewry has spent millions of dollars preserving Nazi camps across Eastern Europe, Kahikh has embarked on a grassroots journey to memorialize the crimes of Lenin and Stalin that, according to Russia’s Justice Ministry, affected virtually every family in Russia. Born in Odessa, Ukraine, Kahikh recalls the time when, as a child, Soviet officials arrested a group of nine doctors, including seven prominent Jews, on false charges of plotting to kill Soviet authorities. That episode, the infamous Doctors Case of 1952, left his father, like many Jews, unemployed for a year and a half. “We lived in complete poverty,” he said. “Our society was living two lives: the open life that everyone saw and the secret, terrible life that happened to our family.” Kahikh fell victim to university quotas for Jews in Ukraine. So he accepted an offer to study journalism in the remote Urals to “find witnesses to terrible crimes, evidence and documents. That’s my rule of life.” “I couldn’t fulfill my rights due to an openly anti-Semitic policy that really struck me,” he says by telephone from the hospital where he is being treated for the flu. “I knew I’d never be a newspaper editor. That always hurt me like a thorn in the back.” After a career in journalism, Kahikh founded the Perm branch of the international Non-Governmental Organization Memorial, dedicated to the memory of Soviet crimes, in 1988. In the early 1990s, his son discovered the abandoned remains of Perm-36 while hiking. “It was a life dream to make something telling about the atrocities of previous regimes,” he says. “I feel so much pity for those who suffered, especially Jews. I felt urgency so this wouldn’t be forgotten.” The museum opened in 1996 — nine years after the last prisoners were released — with Kahikh as director. Several of his original colleagues, who couldn’t tolerate being constantly followed and questioned by Russia’s FSB secret service, quit along the way. But Kahikh persisted and today he leads the Perm branch of the memorial, overseeing charity and research. He says there are few books on Soviet political repression — an incentive for the museum to continue its current excavations and studies. “If not for us there would be ruins here,” says Victor Shmyroff, one of the museum’s directors. “Our society wants to forget Gulag horrors. We don’t have a renaissance of Communist ideology, but there’s a decline of liberal values and open society. There’s a dangerous growth of totalitarian tendencies.” Because of the secret nature of Gulag camps — many locals never even knew of their existence — much of the history of Perm-36 and its adjacent camps, Perm-35 and Perm-37, will never be known. Built in 1946, the three camps housed roughly 1,000 prisoners at a time — mostly Russians, Ukrainians and then Jews. About 200 prisoners slept shoulder to shoulder in barracks no larger than a two-car garage. The camp’s only toilets were outdoors, available only at designated times. The only food was a bowl of broth — every other day. Intensive labor consisted of sawing, tree chopping and producing a minimum of 522 irons per eight-hour shift. Obedient workers were awarded the opportunity to pace for 30 minutes around a roofless enclosed area about the size of two bathtubs. Rebellious prisoners, meanwhile, found themselves isolated in tiny cells of frozen concrete. For them, suicide was more common than murder. “For the state, the more deaths the better. This way fresh bodies could replace the weak,” Shmyroff says. Most Stalinist labor camps were hurriedly built with rotten wood and were destroyed several years after prisoners completed a specific task, such as erecting a canal or a bridge. But Perm-36 — made of brick, cement and durable wood — was designed for the long term because of its proximity to a timber warehouse and a river that facilitated exports. Prisoners were released the day after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953. They were replaced with judges and officers found guilty of the Stalin regime’s crimes. The Communist Party couldn’t be blamed for such embarrassment, so these officials served as scapegoats. In 1972, Perm-36 took on a new face that forever made it famous. All Soviet political prisoners — most were leaders of ethnic nationalist movements — were kept in Moldova, where they were organizing rebellious activity like transmitting news updates to Western European radio outlets. The Soviets exiled all of them to the remote Urals and Siberia. Perm-36 housed nearly 300 of them, the highest concentration of “dangerous” political voices in the Soviet Union. With an influx of such dissidents, the Soviets renovated the camp and increased security — yet another reason that it has survived until today. Among the more famous survivors of the camp is Sharansky, who was a prisoner here from 1979 to 1986. He contacted the camp regarding a visit, but Russian law prevents diplomats from entering the country on private matters. Perm-36 also held four Jews convicted in the famous Airplane Trial, when a group of Jews who were refused foreign passports attempted to hijack a plane and escape to Finland. Then there were those like psychiatrist Simon Gluzman, who was sent to Perm-36 when he refused to comply with state demands to diagnose several political prisoners as insane. About 400,000 citizens of the Perm region were sent to prison camps, of whom 20 percent were Jews — a significant figure considering that Jews made up only 1 percent of the region’s population. Many prisoner profiles and day-to-day details are on display at the 37-acre museum, which is buried in a thick birch forest where tourists can roam among the 24 original buildings and several prison cells. They are encircled by seven separate layers of fencing — the highest is about 12 feet tall — and numerous guard towers. No public transportation comes close to the camp. Museum leaders plan to offer a shuttle next year so visitors won’t have to endure the five-hour car ride that, because of the harsh travel conditions, hardly guarantees a safe arrival. Despite such conditions, more than 4,000 visitors made the trek in 2002. In the fall of 2003, the museum will launch a traveling exhibit titled “History of a Camp,” which will enable people deterred by the remoteness of the camp to learn about it. It will pass through the U.S. Congress and Ellis Island. The museum also is planning an exhibit on the Soviet Union’s anti-Semitic policy for the Jewish Museum of New York. The museum’s first donor was the New York-based Jewish Fund for Development, which still pumps $15,000 into the museum’s annual budget of $220,000. Other financiers include the Perm government, the Ford Foundation, the Michigan-based Charles Mott Fund and the National Endowment for Democracy.

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