“What about this?”

I pulled the bottom of my t-shirt through the V-neck to make an ersatz crop top, extended my arm and raised a thumb. Another wave of cars rounded the corner and rocketed past us. I returned my shirt to normal. It’s strange how quickly in the full force of the Siberian summer sun, standards can degrade. Not two hours ago the thought of hitchhiking was something done by fatalists, it was the foolhardy transaction of mortgaging safety for a free ride. Yet there we had been, for over an hour on the vast steppe, being stung by squadrons of horseflies the size of 50 kopek pieces, trying in vain to hitch a ride back to Perm.

The city of Perm is the gateway to Siberia. It sits at the base of the Ural mountain range, the dividing line between Asia and Europe. We had gotten up early, caught a bus heading toward the town of Tsusovoy and after about 100 kilometres were dropped off by the side of the road. Minus a service station in the distance, there was no hint of civilisation from horizon to horizon. We had left the main highway and travelled along a dirt road for a few kilometres until we arrived at a large whitewashed building that straddled a barbed wire topped white wooden fence which enclosed an area the size of a few football fields. Popping above it like periscopes in corners were guard towers. It was clear we had arrived at Perm-36.

Perm-36 is a relic, the last camp of its kind from the Soviet GULAG system to remain anything other than rubble. Its continued existence is owed to both the failure of authorities to successfully bulldoze it in the dying days of the Soviet regime and efforts by local historians to restore it. The population remained at about 1000 prisoners from the moment they were forced to build their own walls in 1945 until its closure in 1988.

Walking in we met our guide Volodya, a tall man with the mix of European and Asiatic facial characteristics that is common to Siberia. He was an historian working for the NGO which was tasked with researching camps in the area. His speech was rapid-fire, each word said with the same triumphant intonations like an “a-ha” at finally finding something lost at the back of a chaotic drawer. He was clearly excited by the subject matter and offered us the tour entirely free which would usually have cost around $30 “because my English bad and I love it”. It wasn’t but he did.

Volodya explained that the camp had three distinct periods. The first was from 1946 to 1953 when it functioned as a labour camp for prisoners that had offended the Stalinist regime, sometimes for crimes as minor as being late to work three times. The second period was in the years of destalinisation, from 1954 to 1972. During this time the camp was home to Soviet law enforcement officers that had run afoul of the regime, often for overzealously sending people to camps in the first period — meaning the people that were responsible for imprisoning the population in the first period were inmates themselves in the second. For the final period the existing population was moved elsewhere and Perm-36 became home exclusively for political prisoners, the result of a new round of political repression that began in the 70s.

We went out the other side of building and into the interior of the camp. Standing in the main yard in high summer was actually very pleasant. The grass is long and butterflies flutter from spot to spot. You can hear the communication of crickets like telegraph transmissions for the smaller ones and like mail sorting machines for the larger ones. It’s possible to read in this the banality of evil but also a more discerning eye will realise that these camps were more than just tools of repression, in fact they were the homes as well, for stretches sometimes as long as 25 years. Anyone that has read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich will understand that the picture painted of everyday life in the camp, while heavily emphasising the darker tones, is far from monochromatic. Shukov, the protagonist, ends his particular day “almost happy”, despite the back breaking work, brutal repression and oppressive conditions.

Volodya explained how the fences had evolved over time from a single one in the first period to a total of seven in the final period. A segment of these barriers had been preserved in their entirety and as we stood looking down along them, Volodya explained each layer: The outermost fence, the whitewashed wooden fence we had seen from the outside, prevented anyone looking in. The next one was a short fence used to guide guards on their patrols and to stop them from accidently wandering into the next one which was a very short barbed wire trap which served to trip escaping prisoners. Fence 4 was short and made an alley for guard dogs to walk. Fence 5 was another high wooden fence, topped with barbed wire which was barely attached, so that if a prisoner attempted to use it to hoist themselves over, it would break off and they would fall. The sixth, and most highly engineered fence, was electrified. It also contained sensors that would detect if anyone touched it and ran deep underground to prevent tunnelling out. The final fence would stop prisoners for accidently walking into the sixth.

“There were no successful escapes in the third period of the camp,” Volodya said, almost superfluously.

Volodya showed us around the buildings. One building was a machine shop, now empty but for a single workbench in the middle, which had an ancient looking drill on it. Someone had placed a red carnation alongside it.

He showed us the barracks where the prisoners slept on bare wooden benches. “Not like the German camps. We have Germans come in and ask ‘why do you have windows? Our camps didn’t have windows.’ I tell them ‘So the light comes in.’ But in first period there was no glass. The Germans always ask if it was cold for the prisoners. We tell them ‘[the attitude was] well fuck the prisoners'”.

It is worth noting the extreme range of conditions under which this camp operated. Here in summer, tapping his finger on the thermometer, Marty read out 28 degrees. This was in the shade. Back in the city, I read 35 degrees in the sun. Then there were those horseflies and mosquitoes and everyone was packed in so tight (250 inmates to a single building) disease would spread like wildfire. In winter however temperatures could get to as low as -40°C. In these conditions, with no glass, no one wants the window seat.

Adjoining the barracks was a museum containing various articles used to illustrate exactly what everyday life was like in the camp. The most interesting of these were the items that they had found in hiding places which had remained undiscovered until they began restoration. There was a sketched map of the camp, an escape plan that was never realised. The prisoners were not given cups, so they would steal metal sheets from the roof and fashion them into mugs and some of these were on display too.

Volodya then took us to the punishment area. It was separated into two identical cells: in the first prisoners could be sentenced to stay for a maximum of two weeks but were not allowed to leave during the day to work; the second they could be there for a maximum of six months but would have to work. Both cells were dingy and the bright light from outside was filtered by the glass in the window and looked watery as it came in through a grate. The setup inside seemed more bizarre than insidious, with four stools made of sections of timber, facing a wooden table like a setting for an eternal crooked card game. “The prisoners were not allowed to stand up,” said Volodya.

It seemed as if whoever had designed the prison had heard Sartre’s famous misquote “hell is eternity spent in a room with your friends” and decided to implement the idea as camp policy.

Almost in an offhand manner, Volodya asked if we would like to see the Special Section of the camp. Of course we would. This section of the camp, about 500 meters down the road from the main camp, was for “especially dangerous repeat offenders”. The doctrine of this special section was to isolate the prisoners by keeping them locked up for nearly 24 hours a day. In the cells were lavatories and central heating, not for comfort but to minimize contact between prisoners.

“I tell you a story,” Volodya offered. “Come.”

We went to the exercise “yards” which were small plots enclosed by tall wooden walls to make a cell large enough for a single person. There was a walkway above these cells for the guards to observe the prisoners while they were pacing around. Volodya told us about Vasyl Stus, a Ukrainian poet had served in this special section. He had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature but never knew about it, because he was said to have hung himself in the camp before he could be told. Volodya seems sceptical that it was suicide, telling us when his son came to exhume the body, to return it to the Ukraine, he found a wound on his temple. Also suspicious is that after hearing of the poet’s death the camp’s commandant committed suicide himself. It’s worth noting that this all happened in 1985 so close to the end of the Soviet regime.

On the way back to the main section of the camp, Volodya told us about the museum’s work. They run programs for teachers to stay at the camp, to gain an understanding of exactly what life was like there. When the camp is not operating as a museum, Volodya comes himself to helps out with the restoration. It is clearly viewed as absolutely necessary to maintain evidence of this chapter of Russian history lest the mistakes of the past are repeated.

Standing in front of the main building you can see that the crawl and grab of grasses and bracken as they slowly work up the bases of walls. From this vantage point it was easy to understand that a living museum such as this requires not just work to restore but constant vigilance to maintain. Volodya told us about how the special section was burnt down by someone, after they had worked hard to restore it. Within this act is the nexus of Russia’s relationship with its Soviet history. It seems that so many people want to forget the past and pretend it never happened, whether to mitigate the painful memory involved or to whitewash over responsibility and guilt. It’s reassuring to know that there is a group committed to retaining the memory, even if it means literally rebuilding it from the ashes.

K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run. Photographs by Marty Cullity.