Accessibility links

Breaking News

An Unlikely Tourist Site: A Soviet-Era Gulag - 2002-05-01

Shortly after the founding of the Soviet Union, its leaders began building the Gulag, a network of concentration camps for those considered enemies of the state. At their height in the 1930s, these camps contained as much as 10 percent of the Soviet population. So brutal were conditions there, that it is estimated that half of the tens of millions of people sent to the Gulag died in the Gulag; many didn't even survive a winter.

For many years, discussion of the system was off limits in the Soviet Union, but that all changed after the collapse of communism. Now, at least one of the former camps is open to the public.

It is spring in the Solovetsky Islands but the snow is still deep. The only way to travel is by trudging through the knee-deep snow or by using cross-country skis.

The islands are considered to be among the most beautiful places in Russia. They are covered with green pine trees and fields that are filled with flowers and wild berries in the summer. In the winter, they become a frozen wonderland, unmarred by the pollution that is so common is other parts of Russia.

But these beautiful islands, known in Russia as Solovki, have a brutal history. They were home to one of the first Gulags in the Soviet Union.

Oleg Volkov, the deputy director of the local museum, tells a visitor that the Soviet authorities converted a Russian Orthodox monastery that had been built centuries before into the Solovki Gulag.

"There were beds here, wooden beds, in which the prisoners, slept. There was so-called parasha, it means toilet. It stood on the altar part, the most sacred part of the church," Mr. Volkov said.

Conditions in Solovki were harsh. Prisoners were forced to do hard labor but were given little food, usually only a few slices of bread a day. In the summer, prisoners who were believed to merit special punishment were chained to a stake in the ground, where they were easy prey for Solovki's mosquitoes. In the winter, prisoners were doused with water and forced to stand outside.

Given Solovki's location, 150 kilometers below the Arctic Circle, that meant the soaking wet prisoners were forced to stand outside in temperatures that were many degrees below freezing. Death came quickly.

From its opening in 1923 to the time it closed in 1939 - in an economy measure - about 100,000 people were sent to the Solovki Gulag. Almost half of them died here.

Mr. Volkov points to dozens of names etched in a wooden staircase. He believes the prisoners wrote their names to leave something of themselves before they disappeared.

"I think it was necessary for them to leave memory, for other people. I think that these prisoners knew that they could die here in this place and it is very important to them to [leave] those inscriptions for those people who would later see their names," he said.

After the Solovki Gulag was closed in 1939, visitors were eventually allowed to return to the islands.

Antonina Shopkina moved to islands in 1969 to work at the local museum, which at that time, before the Communist collapse, focused solely on local history and culture prior to the Communist revolution. She said Soviet authorities forbade any discussion of the Solovki Gulag.

"People often asked about the history of the Gulag. The guides were only allowed to say that at one time it had been a labor camp but the rest of the history was not known," she said.

But she said some visitors knew the history very well. She recalls that one day a man came into her office and started looking around. When Ms. Shopkina asked if he needed help, he replied that he simply wanted to see the room where he lived as a prisoner.

But not until the end of the Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, could the Gulag be discussed. In 1988, the first Gulag exhibit in the Soviet Union was opened on Solovki.

At first, tourism was slow - only about 2,000 people a year visited in the mid-1990s - but the numbers are increasing. Last year, there were 12,000 visitors.

Mikhail Lopatkin is the director of the museum. He thinks it serves a two-fold purpose. It gives Russians and foreigners a chance to learn about the Gulag and it also provides something that is not widely available on Solovki, an opportunity for the people who live here to earn a living.

"There is no alternative here. And why? It's an energy and ecology saving resource. If we do everything wisely, it's endless. It will feed a lot of generations," Mr. Lopatkin said.

But not all the islanders welcome Solovki's growing popularity. They fear their isolation on the beautiful islands is coming to an end.

Pyotr Leoniv came here from Moscow eleven years ago with his wife, who leads the church choir. He said many island residents are becoming obsessed with the money coming in from tourists. "As soon as the tourists started coming, people started changing. All this business, money, unfortunately this process is noticeable in Solovki," Mr. Leoniv said.

This January a Moscow-based company offered the first winter tour of the island, and about 16,000 visitors are expected this summer, and the numbers are likely to keep increasing.

Though the Gulags have been closed for many years, it has been said that every Russian family has in some way been touched by its horrors. That gives every family a connection to the long-dead prisoners on Solovki who etched their names in a staircase.