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The Russian YouTuber Who Tours The Legacy Of Stalin

Russian YouTuber Yury Dud
Russian YouTuber Yury Dud

Through his incisive interviews with some of Russia's best-known public figures, 32-year-old Yury Dud has become a YouTube sensation with over 5 million subscribers.

The lanky, tattooed Dud sits before his guests in sneakers and fashionably ripped jeans, scrolling through questions saved on his iPhone between commercial breaks where he plugs anything from luxury cars to smartphone apps.

So it might have come as a surprise to his legion of fans when, earlier this week, Dud released what could be the sometime sports editor's most ambitious and controversial project yet: an extended documentary about the legacy of Stalinist repressions in Russia, told through the stories of people living among the ruins of gulag forced-labor camps in one of the most inhospitable regions in the world.

In Kolyma -- The Home Of Our Fear, Dud travels 2,000 kilometers along the snow-strewn Kolyma Highway from Magadan to Yakutsk, profiling people whose parents and grandparents were persecuted under the late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's Great Terror. Along the way he also talks to local activists and inhabitants of disappearing towns and villages scattered along the route, who detail the conditions in which they live, their desire to leave for warmer climes, and in some cases their determination to stay and make life better for those left behind.

"The program you're about to see has two goals," Dud, a graduate of Moscow State University's faculty of journalism who edits one of Russia's most popular sports sites, says as the film begins. "The first is to explain to some, and remind others, what horrors our country lived through. The second is to show that there are places on our planet that seem uninhabitable, but where a person can nevertheless adapt, live, and be happy."

It's the first aim of Dud's film that, perhaps unsurprisingly, has garnered nearly all the attention. In October, an opinion survey by state-funded pollster VTsIOM found that 47 percent of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 had never heard of Stalinist repressions. Dud says that motivated him to set the record straight.

"This put us in a stupor," he says in the video.

So the characters he interviews in his documentary -- a prominent Russian actor born in Magadan to a Jewish father exiled there after a stint in forced labor, an amateur gulag archivist who defends parts of Stalin's legacy, a woman who oversees the gulag museum in a small town near the Butugychag camp -- are people steeped in memories of Russia's harrowing past and hardened to the denials and obfuscations that seem to accompany many discussions of it in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Messy And Cathartic

If slave labor wasn't deployed to speed industrialisation, "we'd be under American control long ago," one man tells Dud in the town of Yagodnoye, eight hours' drive from regional capital Magadan. "And we wouldn't have won the war."

The documentary is instantly recognizable as a Dud project: the whoosh heard as frames switch, the text quotes that flash up on screen during interviews, the hip-hop jingle that plays between scenes.

But some commentators have raised doubts that the documentary, at over two hours in length, will reach enough of the audience it is intended to influence most: the generation of Russians who grew up long after the messy but cathartic historical discussions of the 1990s appeared to give way to a backlash against digging up details of Soviet-era crimes.

Nevertheless, the film has received widespread praise as a sobering reminder of those crimes at a time when that backlash is gathering pace and, some fear, a collective amnesia is setting in.

"I'm not a fan of Dud, but this is great work," wrote historian Dmitry Sokolov. "This is powerful material, especially in light of unhealthy recent trends."

"The film is pretty long at over two hours, and in places repeats well-known and easily accessible, almost trivial facts," wrote journalist Sergey Parkhomenko, who in 2014 launched Last Address, a project that commemorates victims of repression.

"But this is brilliant work, confident and insistent, unbelievably important for the country and terribly important for all of us who were born in Russia and plan to die here."

At a time when Russian polls show Stalin's approval ratings are on the rise, some view Dud's film as an attempt to blacken the legacy of a Soviet dictator who historians believe oversaw the murder of at least 2 million of his fellow citizens.

"Read some history textbooks," wrote one user in comments to Dud's Instagram post promoting the film. "Maybe then you'll begin to understand how important the figure of Stalin is. Everything you see around you is thanks to him."

"20 million sentenced, 2 million dead. Yury, stop spreading those liberal lies about trillions of deaths caused by the 'tyrant' Stalin!" wrote another.

The film has not been covered or promoted on Russian mainstream media, which is dominated by the state and generally advances a more ambivalent view of Russia's Stalinist past.

Dud declined to be interviewed for this piece, telling RFE/RL in a text message: "Alas, we never comment on the material we release. This happens for several reasons, but the main one is that we don't get distracted by past projects but work on new things."

But in his documentary, he reveals a personal aspect to his latest project, which has now racked up almost 8 million views on YouTube -- not inconsistent with the viewing figures for some of his more popular video uploads.

"My whole life I've been told by my parents: Be careful, don't attract attention, don't stick your neck out," he says in the film. "I love them like crazy, but they've said this for decades -- even when things go against all reason, when injustice happens and when we surely are right."

"I've always thought: Where does the older generation gets its fear?" he adds. "My hypothesis: This fear was born last century and reached us through the generations. One of the places where it emerged is Kolyma."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.