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October 23, 2019

My last stop in Europe was Perm.  A city of about 1.2 million.  It is believed that Perm was the town that Boris Pasternak sent his Dr. Zhivago to and was also the inspiration that Chekhov used for the town his Three Sisters were so desperate to leave.

About an hour and a half east is Perm 36 a former gulag that is now a museum.  Officially known as the Memorial Complex of Political Repressions.  It is run by  the international human rights organization, Memorial, founded by dissident Andrei Sakharov.

The picture above shows the five levels of security between the prisoners and the outside world.  The second fence is electrified.  It wasn’t enough to kill a prisoner but it certainly gave them a jolt.

I had arranged a tour with an agency to pick me up at the train station and take me to the prison and return me to the train station.  My guide, Alexander, spoke excellent English.

Alexander explained that the term, gulag, was often misunderstood to mean torture camp where the real definition of gulag was what the Russians referred to all of their prison labor camps.  Gulags began about 1918 under Lenin.  Perm 36 was in existence from 1946 to 1988.  It has been turned into a museum because it is the only one where many of the building are still standing.


In the years from 1946-1952, it was primarily a prison for common criminals. From 1952-1972, it had those prisoners plus a roundup of generals, judges, and public officials.  Beginning in 1972 until it closed, more “dissidents”.  Writers, artists, political activities, nationalists, etc. were sent here.  Most prisoners worked.  Gulags were labor camps and high daily quotas were set.  If you didn’t make your quota, you would be put into isolation for days or weeks and you food rations would be reduced.   As Alexander explained it, prisoners in the early days worked in the logging industry cutting trees and making lumber.


Beginning in the 40’s, when Russia was becoming involved in World War II and the country was switching from an agriculture country to a more industrial one, prisoners built factories, power plants, etc.  These prisons were not like German concentration camps where people were herded into showers and killed.  One source says that 90% of those who died in Perm 36, an others like it, was from exhaustion and malnutrition or if caught trying to escape.  If you didn’t make your impossible quote every day you’d get put into a punishment cell and your daily food ration would be cut.

Prisoners were allowed to write two letters a month to relatives and receive one.  Some were allowed visitors that could stay for several days in some instances, according to Alexander.  There was a library and movies.  I would suspect that after working long, hard days there wasn’t a lot of time left for reading and movies.