Robert Skidelsky takes part in an unusual academic conference on the edge of Siberia. He visits Stalin's last gulag and hears Shirley Williams singby Robert Skidelsky / June 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Friday 27th March
Edward (my son) and I board the flight to Moscow at Terminal 4, Heathrow. I am to take part in a conference at Perm, organised by the Moscow School of Political Studies. Perm is on the edge of Siberia; a city of more than 1m people with a cultural past (Diaghilev was born there) and a depressed industrial present. “Experts” are being assembled to advise regional officials and politicians on how to make the most of self-government-an important topic in view of the paralysis of the centre. My most prized possession is a bath plug. I remember from past excursions that outside the western circuit bath plugs are unobtainable.
Sheremetevo airport in Moscow is much more traveller-friendly than it used to be. We get through immigration and customs very quickly. We are met by Misha, a political science student who works part-time for the school. He is a romantic royalist. There is a growing cult of the last tsar. Misha tells us that many believe that Lenin had the tsar’s head cut off and kept in a jar in his study. He tells us that an advance party of experts, which includes Shirley Williams, has already left Moscow for Perm by train.
We are driven to the Ukraine Hotel, one of Stalin’s seven monsters. The signs of Europeanisation in the lobby-boutiques, a bar with English-speaking bartenders-have not reached the rooms. Mine is heavy with the odour of generations of Intourist groups; and the tiny bathroom works according to the rules of old Soviet plumbing. Like all public buildings of the Soviet era, the Ukraine combines bombastic public spaces with cramped private quarters.
At drinks before dinner Misha, Edward and I swap New Russian jokes. The surgeon who says to a New Russian businessman: “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to cut you open again.” “Why?” “I left my rubber gloves in your stomach.” “Will $100 cover them?” asks the businessman. Or the New Russian mother who wants her daughter to study a foreign language. “What shall I teach her?” asks the tutor. “The most foreign” replies the New Russian mum. The second joke is more to the point.
Saturday 28th March
It’s a 6:30am start and I come down to the lobby for a coffee. A tall Russian who is amiably drunk insists on buying me a large brandy. I gulp down his toast. He seems to be ordering another. Fortunately we are summoned to the car. The Aeroflot flight is just under two hours and we land in Perm in a frozen landscape, having left the Urals behind. We race through the deserted roads at great speed with a police escort. Policemen on the roadside salute as we roar past. The state is dead, but its limbs continue to twitch.
We are staying in the sanatorium Uralski, a few miles outside Perm in the town of Oostkotchka. A portrait of Lenin on a marble slab dominates the lobby. It will probably go when the lobby is renovated. At lunch I ask Igor, who also works for the school, why we are in a sanatorium. The word summons up a vanished world of spas and health resorts for people who are not exactly ill, but not well either-probably the state of much of the Russian population. Igor explains that trade union sanatoria were built all over the Soviet Union as cheap holiday camps-this one, built in 1959, is dominated by a huge building in the classic Soviet style. The facilities are elementary, but adequate for a conference. Sasha Sogomolov, who helps to run the school, has christened our complex Gulag Baden-Baden.
Lunch is familiar: salmon and brown bread, borscht, grilled fish with potatoes, Nescafe. I think the meals in all the hotels were centrally planned. I ask Igor what he thinks of Andrei Sinyavsky. He replies that he is not really interested in emigre writers. Most Russians do not read any more-except books on how to become rich.
Edward and I take a walk around Gulag Baden-Baden. The temperature is about 10 degrees below zero. The river is frozen-two people have made little holes and sit on stools on the ice hoping to catch a fish. We spot a much more modern hotel called “Evropeiskii” or “The European,” which was renovated a year and a half ago. European is synonymous with modern. There is a craze in Moscow for redecorating your flat in “European,” usually Scandinavian, style. The Uralski has been partly Europeanised. Each room boasts a modern television, telephone and fridge-although the latter is empty. My bath plug is not going to be as useful as I thought because there is no bath. There are other traces of Soviet design. A hot water pipe occupies the place where my head should be when I sit on the loo. The basin wobbles, but it has not yet fallen down.
Edward asks if the Russians should confront their history. Few of the western classics on the Soviet Union have been translated. He thinks they should, but it’s too soon. It strikes me that few countries (perhaps only western Europe and its offshoots, including the US) have a serviceable past-one that can be represented as leading “naturally” to a desirable present. For most of the world the present is an alien import, the product of economic or cultural imperialism. How do societies deal with such a radical rupture between their past and their present? Soviet communism can be seen as a deviation-but a deviation from what? Was there an alternative future germinating in 1914? Russian rule was always despotic, even when it was self-consciously westernising. Peter the Great also wanted to produce “New Russians.” Edward tells me that he made the boyars, or nobles, attend literary salons and forbade marriages to those who couldn’t pass a test in mathematics.
Shirley Williams has arrived by train from Moscow. Anne Applebaum has also flown in; her husband is now deputy foreign minister in the Polish government. At dinner, Elena Nemiroskaya, the school’s founder and queen regnant, sweeps into sight, a monument to greenness-green hair, green cheeks, green tinted glasses, green jumper and skirt. Her red shoes make a startling contrast. She too is in the business of creating New Russians-liberal, democratic in outlook-using the “experts” as sources of authority. A curious mixture runs through all these westernising efforts: an almost unlimited optimism about the potential for change coupled with considerable pessimism about the real capacity of Russians.
Sunday 29th March
I am writing this through the opening speeches. They are not quite so interminable as usual. We learn that Perm is one of the most advanced democratic oblasts in Russia, a rare region in which Russia’s Choice (Yegor Gaidar’s party) has a following. The 60 “students,” mainly local officials, listen attentively. The conference proper starts with a lecture from the Spanish ambassador on Spanish regionalism. Shirley and I are granted an interview with the regional governor, Gennady Igumnov, a former coalminer. He says that the local Duma will pass a law on land privatisation in the autumn. When asked why there has been so much delay, he says that although there were only three communists in the Duma, public opinion was not yet ready. He seems a decent soul, rather worn out.
I drop in on some of the sessions. Gunnar Wetterberg is interesting on the Swedish welfare state. He sees it as the outgrowth of a long historical development, based on the often tense relationship between a centralising monarchy and a free peasantry. Swedish reformers today look to revived local self-government as the way out of the statist trap. This emerges as the main theme of the conference. I see many advantages in regionalism. It allows for a variety of social and economic systems. But it is difficult to reconcile genuine regional autonomy with the redistributive functions of the central state. The state’s revenue base would have to be limited by constitutional agreement. Such an agreement is nowhere in sight.
Brian Rothwell, a British businessman, talks about leadership and how to create “win-win” situations. It’s interesting that businessmen never talk about profits. This is the John Kay view of capitalism. I am not sure that this is the best way to sell capitalism to the Russians, or even to give them a good understanding of it.
Monday 30th March
At 7:30am, Shirley, Edward, Dmitri, a Russian businessman and myself, set off for a visit to Perm 36, the only one of Stalin’s labour camps which has been preserved. We are accompanied by Yana Zykova and Maya Viktorovna who have been involved in restoring it as a Gulag museum. It is about 200km away and we are told the trip will take four hours. Our two cars set off with a police escort, lights flashing and sirens screeching whenever we go through towns. Lorries and cars are forced into ditches. It speeds our journey, but Shirley is embarrassed by such privileges. Despite a scattering of log cabins, the countryside has been desecrated by forced industrialisation. Even the snow is grey and the birch forests which line our route struggle against the pollution of the giant factories. In Russia, everything was left too late and done too quickly.
We stop outside the barbed wire perimeter of Perm 36, the camp’s maximum security wing. The camp was built in 1946 as a “regular” labour camp. In 1972, it was converted into a concentration camp for political prisoners. This was the period when Yuri Andropov was head of the KGB and some of the most prominent dissidents were incarcerated here: Leonid Borodin, Vladimir Bukovsky, Sergei Kovalev, Anatoly Marshchenko, Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Sharansky, Vasyl Stus and Gleb Yakunin. In 1986 Gorbachev said at Helsinki that there were no political prisoners in the USSR. This was not true. The last prisoners were released from Perm 36 in December 1987-nearly three years into Gorbachev’s rule.
The maximum security wing consisted of a one-storey barracks, a guard house surrounded by watch towers, a shooting range for the guards and seven rows of barbed wire and wooden fences. After a Ukrainian television crew filmed it in 1989, part of the site was deliberately destroyed. Maya and Yana show us around the partially reconstructed prisoners’ quarters. The maximum security zone housed “particularly dangerous recidivists,” prisoners convicted at least twice for anti-Soviet propaganda, who received ten year sentences, with five more years of internal exile. Before arriving in Perm 36, most of them had already spent years in other prisons and gulags.
The prisoners were subjected to psychological torture and extreme physical hardship. They were isolated from each other, their only human contacts being their cellmates and guards. Maya explains that the authorities liked to put together prisoners who got on each other’s nerves. Food was brought to their cells. During the day they were encamped across the corridor to identical cells, in which they uselessly worked making iron implements. For an hour each day they were allowed into an “exercise block”-a nine-foot, tin-lined cube, roofed with barbed wire and a guard post on top. The only other “recreation” was a weekly film show of Soviet propaganda films.
The cells are cramped and freezing. Each one has a tiny radiator, which could hardly have dented the cold. This is a region covered with snow from October until April. Although I am warmly dressed, I have never felt so cold in my life. The prisoners slept on wooden planks or iron bunks. Their clothes and bedcovers were made of cotton, not wool. Rations were minimal and an open hole served as the cell’s lavatory. Of the 56 prisoners held in Perm 36 in the 1980s, seven died. One was the Ukrainian poet and nationalist, Vasyl Stus. The authorities said it was a suicide, but survivors say the guards unscrewed one of the wooden planks from the wall and dropped it on Stus’s head as he lay sleeping underneath.
Solzhenitsyn described all this in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but you have to see it with your own eyes to feel it, however dimly, and believe that it happened. I notice that our drivers and police escort follow the guides’ exposition with concentration. What are they thinking? What did the locals know about this grim concentration camp in their midst?
I ask for a lavatory. The “integral sanitation” having been blocked up, I am directed to a broken-down wooden hut. Frozen shit is heaped up everywhere. I retreat, but not before grabbing a souvenir. It is a 1985 reprint of Lenin’s essay “How can the Bolsheviks Hold on to Power?” Was this the only reading matter allowed? Had it lain there, in this shit hole, for the ten years since the camp was closed?
Tuesday 31st March
I give my talk on bankruptcy in the morning. There is a round of applause when Lena-today dressed in blue-announces that I still have relatives living in Ekaterinburg. In the afternoon Shirley talks about the European Union. She holds the audience by a mixture of what she calls the “Harvard method” (asking them questions) and straightforward political skill. She uses an ingenious image to harmonise widening and deepening: a boat with a lot of sails keels over unless its hull is sufficiently deep. Afterwards, I collect some papers from her room. I notice with only a tinge of envy that she has palatial quarters on the eighth floor of our sanatorium, renovated in “European” style, although she claims that both her bath taps belch forth boiling water.
Anne Applebaum has been to Perm 36 today. We discuss the question of how much ordinary Russians knew or cared. In a way this is the wrong question, because ordinary Russians were equally trapped in the gulag-at least in Stalin’s time. A member of the Russian Memorial Committee tells us that her grandfather disappeared in 1936. Only in the 1970s did she receive official confirmation that he had died in one of Stalin’s labour camps. There had been some trumped-up charge, but in reality he was just part of a village quota assigned to work on a forced industrialisation project in Siberia. After Stalin, terror was directed at dissidents and “bandits,” but these terms were so widely interpreted that the Soviet population was kept in a state of fear almost until the end of the regime.
Communism was not the only system which murdered large numbers of people, but it was the only one which systematically murdered large numbers of its own people. This was true not just in Russia, but in China and Cambodia as well. I suggest that the racial ideology of the Nazis at least protected members of “superior races” from Hitler’s murderous proclivities, but that class ideology was too elastic to protect Russians from Lenin and Stalin; anyone could be declared a kulak or class enemy. Edward says that such comparisons of wickedness are otiose.
The conference closes with a grand “banquet” in the renovated “European.” As the vodka flows the music starts. A Georgian lady sings and plays the harp. The mayor of Oostkotchka sings traditional folk songs in a beautiful bass voice. Shirley wants to join in with English songs. I tell her that this would be ill advised, but I am wrong. Her renditions of Greensleeves and Scarborough Fair are a great success. Two students from Perm university are at our table. They say that they are fed up with these “old” songs. They long to escape to the “western” disco on the floor above. But they stay to listen. Soon they are humming, and in the end join in as lustily as the oldies.
Wednesday 1st April
A broken-down ex-foreign ministry bus meets us on our return to Moscow, to take us back to the Ukraine Hotel, our base for the rest of the day. En route it fills with noxious fumes before juddering to a halt. We abandon it by the roadside and hail a passing van. Shirley and I wander around the “renovated” Manezh Square with its giant underground shopping mall for the New Russians. We are back on the “European” circuit. I feel sure that Russia will “Europeanise” in the end. Where else is there for it to go?