Russia 2007: We're Off to See the Gulag
In the past decade, Westerners have finally been permitted to see the vast network of camps stretching from the Arctic Circle to Sakha and Magadan where millions of Soviet dissidents, poets, scientists, soldiers, and other enemies of the state perished. Sixteen years on, the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies—better known by its Russian acronym, Gulag—is a growing tourist attraction.
In eastern Siberia's "cold pole," people can visit the Road of Bones, which was paved with slave labor. In Krasnoyarsk they can catch a riverboat called the Anton Chekhov to the far north and walk through a dilapidated camp. In Vorkuta, not far from the Arctic Ocean, there are plans afoot to give Gulag tourists a chance to relive the horrors of the Stalinist purges. If the mayor has his way, visitors will spend three days sleeping on blanketless bunk beds, slurping gruel, and listening to barking dogs.
While human rights activists have rebuked some local officials for trying to turn prison camps and killing fields into theme parks, these officials insist they have a legitimate reason for the conversions—they need the money. Aside from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a handful of other cities, much of post-Soviet Russia is economically depressed.
Yuri Samodurov, director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center in Moscow, says that those who want to know more about Stalin-era crimes should visit his museum or Perm-36, in the Ural Mountains, where they can learn about the secret police, purges, show trials, and cattle cars. "To see some small piece or part of the camps doesn't mean much," Samodurov says. "The camps are mostly falling apart anyway."
Meanwhile, writers such as Martin Amis have spotlighted the bottomless greed of certain entrepreneurs who have sought to profit by exploiting the suffering of millions. In today's Russia, as Amis makes clear in his most recent novel, House of Meetings, everything is for sale. The book opens with a scene of travelers heading up the Yenisey River to an old camp. If only it were just fiction: A trip on the Anton Chekhov on the same river costs about $800, depending on the size of the group.