By Ilya Naymushin
TUGACH, Russia (Reuters) – More than half a century after Josef Stalin’s prison camps closed, descendants of inmates and guards of one have found peace with each other by confronting their village’s dark past.
Founded as a labour camp in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Terror, in which hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were executed and many more locked up, the village of Tugach is home to the descendents of those forced to toil there and those who ran the facility.
Undernourished prisoners, frostbitten in winter and feasted on by flies in summer as they felled wood, died at a rate of up to 8 percent at camps in the area from disease, dysentery and other problems stemming from their bad conditions.
Tugach, a logging camp and part of the Soviet Union’s sprawling Gulag prison labour system, was closed in 1957 after Stalin’s death, but some people saw no choice but to remain as they had little money, had lost contact with family and friends, and bore the stigma of being a former inmate.
In the decades after its closure, unmarked graves where prisoners had been buried at night were left untouched.
Relations were tense between the descendants of the prisoners, who saw the camp as a place of horrific political retribution, and those of the jailers who viewed it as a legitimate facility that administered genuine justice.
The situation began to change a decade ago when some of Tugach’s 600 residents set about creating a museum to chronicle its past, a cathartic process that sparked discussion and transformed the mood.
“I personally feel a great moral weight has been lifted,” said Lidia Slepets, 66, whose father, Gerasim Bersenyov, was exiled from Kazakhstan. Exonerated after Stalin’s death and freed, he married the widow of a prison guard killed in World War Two.
Slepets’ father wept whenever the camps came up in conversation, his daughter said.
The museum, set up in a wooden barracks where prisoners were once held, includes camp artefacts and a viewing point at an old river jetty.
“The work on the museum reconciled and united almost everyone,” Slepets said.
Historians say the grassroots initiative to memorialise the victims of Stalin’s repressions is rare for Russia where the authorities emphasise the Soviet leader’s role in the country’s World War Two victory.
“The situation in Tugach is so unusual that I can’t remember a single other situation or similar project where the people themselves, without an outside initiative, undertook the commemoration of those illegally repressed,” Alexei Babiy, local chairman of the Memorial history and civil rights group, said.
(Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Robin Pomeroy)