Perm-36 is allegedly the only Gulag camp that has been turned into a museum. While this is not strictly true (there are other former camps that have been partly preserved) and Perm-36 is heavily reconstructed, the museum has conserved an important part of the Soviet camp system, especially from its latter era after the death of Stalin. Perm-36 camp operated from the 1940s until the last days of the Soviet Union, and it was meant mainly for the political prisoners and dissidents. Among the dense forests of Russia near the Ural mountains stands a solitary watchtower of the former camp. Behind it, inside the zona, one finds relics of the barracks, but somehow the tower itself, a symbol as poignant as barbed wire, communicates the utter isolation of Gulag victims.
Arctic city of Vorkuta was born as a Gulag camp. Around the town center there were many lagpunkts, whose inmates worked in the coal mines, mostly at 1940s & 1950s. Later these areas were converted to “normal” microrayons for free workers. Only thing that reminds of the camp past in one of the suburbs is this graveyard, where mainly Hungarian victims of Gulag were buried. The graves still stand out as small mounds, and very simple crosses, made out of metal pipes, have been stuck to the ground. Small plaques attached to the crosses have names of the dead welded to them, or just numbers if the name is not known. Because of the decomposed bodies, the ground of the cemetery is thicker with earth that other parts of Vorkuta’s permafrost, and that’s why there are taller plants growing in the area.
Levashovo cemetery at the small village some twenty kilometres from St. Petersburg was one of the places where people shot during the Great Terror were buried secretly at the end of the 1930s. Many similar mass graves existed around Leningrad during the Gulag times, especially when the purges were most active, but Levashovo is the only one that has become official memorial cemetery. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, relatives of the people who disappeared and were killed began to attach photographs of the victims to the trees around the graves, and soon Levashovo had many unofficial and official memorials. Most touching of them are very simple plaques nailed straight to the trunks, just listing names, and dates of birth & death. As lonely mementos amidst vast, forgotten forests, these small, white plates with resin of pine tree frozen on them like blood, seem to embody how political repression of Soviet Union is remembered – and forgotten.
St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was called at the Soviet times, was not itself an important location of Gulag camps, but there was a transit prison in the city. Moreover, around St. Petersburg there were few execution grounds, like Levashovo some twenty kilometres from the center, where victims of the Great Purges were taken to be shot and buried at the end of the 1930s. The two sphinxes located at the embankment of Neva river are memorials to them and tens of thousands of others who were transfered from Leningrad to the camps all around the Soviet Union. The formidable statues are kind of half-dead companions to the more famous sphinxes of St. Petersburg, located at the Unversitetskaya Naberezhnaya.