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Perm's Big Chill

  • Tom Balmforth

PERM, Russia -- There's one place in the world where can you see the original, preserved barracks of Josef Stalin's gulag. It's the Perm-36 camp in the Urals.

The camp was abandoned in 1988 and restored by local historians as a unique memorial museum to Soviet repression.

But nowadays it's something else that strikes you as you arrive and flick through the museum's pamphlet: The words "Stalin," "dissident," or "gulag" are nowhere to be seen.

"We don't want to take sides," says Yelena Mamayeva, who recently took the helm as the museum's new head of exhibits. "We're trying to talk more about the architectural complex, and not to get involved in assessing specific people who served sentences there, and assessing Stalin and so on. Because right now this is not quite politically correct."

This is the new direction of the Perm-36 museum, Russia's only preserved Stalin-era prison camp, and it has sparked outrage in liberal circles. The changes came after the historians who ran the site for over 20 years were pushed out, smeared on television, and replaced by a state-run organization that promises a more "objective" version of history.

It comes as the Kremlin's confrontation with the West over Ukraine has sparked fervent patriotism across the country and driven President Vladimir Putin's -- and Stalin's -- approval ratings in polls to record highs.

And yet the battle for control of Perm-36 predates the Ukraine crisis and exemplifies a chill that has gripped this once liberal region since Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012.

"They want to turn Perm into a normal Russian province," says Viktor Shmyrov, whose Perm-36 organization used to run the museum.

A Provincial Liberal Bastion

And Perm is anything but a normal Russian province.

The city of Perm was informally dubbed the "capital of Russian civil society" in the 1990s. The Urals region has a strong current of liberalism. Before it disintegrated, for example, the Union of Rightist Forces, slain opposition figure Boris Nemtsov's old political party, tended to perform roughly three times better in Perm than nationwide.

Civil society worked in close tandem with local government. Shmyrov's Perm-36 received funding from the territory's first four governors. Funds were even issued for Pilorama, a civil-society forum founded in 2005 that was attended by opposition thinkers and rock stars like DDT front man Yury Shevchuk. The forum, held on the grounds of Perm-36, had the atmosphere of an opposition festival.

Quirky cultural projects also thrived. Perm became known for hip street art.

Under the aegis of Oleg Chirkunov, a former governor who resigned in 2012 in the twilight of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, celebrity art curator Marat Guelman oversaw a raft of contemporary art events and festivals that he branded a "cultural revolution" in the provinces.

Fast forward less than three years and many of these projects have fallen on hard times following the appointment of Viktor Basargin as governor in 2012.

The Pilorama forum has been shuttered since that summer, after the local authorities severed funding. The Perm-based Grani Center for Civic Analysis and Independent Research, an independent think tank, was branded a "foreign agent" and says it will dissolve if it cannot appeal the decision.

Last year, Guelman was fired as director of the Perm Museum for Contemporary Art after he organized an exhibition satirizing the Sochi Olympics. And as budget funds have become scarcer amid the economic crisis, financing has dried up for Guelman's festivals.

In the last year, Perm's regional media -- which are being hammered by the economic crisis as advertising earnings fall -- have been forced to show increasing loyalty to the local government to secure state financial support.

'Our Urals Workers Revere Stalin!'

But the most telling example of this chill is the takeover of Perm-36.

"There are very powerful forces at work in this confrontation," says Shmyrov, adding that he believes his opponents are backed by a powerful conservative clan in Moscow, beyond the reaches of Perm. "The Kremlin has many towers."

It began in 2013 when the Kremlin unveiled plans to designate and finance three federal centers to commemorate the gulag: in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Perm, at the site of the museum.

The local Perm authorities then created a state organization to manage the museum and 600 million rubles ($10 million) in program funds. Shmyrov's organization was to remain in charge of running the museum, while Tatyana Kursina, a historian and Shmyrov's wife, was appointed head of the state organization.

But in May, Kursina was fired without explanation. Shmyrov's organization was then informed it owed over 500,000 rubles to the authorities, allegations that Shmyrov claims are contestable.

The museum was then hit with regular state inspections and harassment of its visitors. In July 2014, for example, police carried out random document checks on a delegation of Germans who were visiting the museum.

That month, with mounting outcry among rights activists, word reached Putin, who stepped in and appeared to finally settle the dispute, ordering the museum site be preserved.

And yet six months later, the local authorities and Shmyrov were still at loggerheads. Saddled with debt and seeing no breakthrough, Shmyrov announced the liquidation of his organization on March 2.

"We cannot do anything anymore," he said then. "It's enough that they've seized the museum, seized the property. We don't even have a kopek in our account. They've weighed us down with a bunch of debts, which would be entirely debatable in civilized courts. That's the situation. We just can't go on anymore."

On March 11, in a tentative sign of reconciliation, Dozhd TV reported that the Ministry of Culture may forgive the debts it has demanded from the museum. But then, less than a week later, the local Justice Ministry announced it was carrying out an investigation to determine whether Shmyrov's organization should be branded a "foreign agent."

In the meantime, the new management has planned a number of incongruous events to be held on Perm-36's territory. They include a World War II memorial event titled No To Fascism and an event dedicated to the Year Of Literature. Another will commemorate 100 years since the birth of Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a gulag survivor whose nationalist views are in fashion in the Kremlin.

The projects Shmyrov's team was working on, commemorating the victims of Stalin's terror, have been scrapped.

However, not all references to Stalin been removed. The museum still features a powerful exhibit on the Soviet camps that was installed under Shmyrov and which includes a large portrait of Stalin and harrowing information on the death toll.

"We've ended up between the hammer and the anvil," argues Mamayeva, the new head of exhibits. "We want to be a buffer, we want objectivity, we want the point of view of the old [prison] personnel to be heard -- the viewpoint of the state, put crudely -- and we want the viewpoint of the prisoners to be heard."

But where exactly this "objectivity" lies is unclear. Perm's culture minister declined to be interviewed by RFE/RL. So did Natalya Semakova, the state-appointed director of the museum, saying she was just a "pawn" in the conflict.

Polls by the Levada Center show Stalin today enjoys more popularity than at any time recorded, with more than half of Russians now saying he played a "positive role" in Russian history.

Roadside Communist Party billboards in Perm currently display a portrait of Josef Stalin with a rhyming couplet that translates: "The winds of history have picked up speed. Our Urals workers revere Stalin!"

And yet Shmyrov, who has been undergoing heart surgery, expressed a dark hope that his museum would one day return. "In the next 20 years, I think a lot will change in this country. I think sooner or later, the museum of the history of political repressions will return," he said. "But by that time probably we will no longer be here."

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