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Revisited

Gulag still casts shadow over Russian town

By: Armen GEORGIAN Follow | Ksenia BOLCHAKOVA
2 min

Millions of people were condemned to years of misery, or to a slow death, in the forced labour camps of the Soviet Union - known as the Gulag. FRANCE’s 24’s Ksenia Bolchakova and Armen Georgian visited Magadan, a town that remains a symbol of that brutality.

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From the 1930s to the 1950s, under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, convicts, petty criminals, Nazi collaborators, and many totally innocent citizens were forced to work for the state. Some 18 million people are estimated to have passed through the prisons and camps of the Gulag, two million of whom died.

Sixty years after the camps closed, we tracked down survivors who still live in Magadan, the gateway to what was once the notorious penal colony of Kolyma. These men and women in their late eighties were not allowed to leave the region after they were freed.

Hearing their stories, it was chilling to then listen to a historian and guide at the local museum downplay the horrors of the Gulag. It was as if the camps’ economic rationale justified their human cost.

Relics of the dark past are easy to find in Magadan: cemeteries, former prisons, old metal barracks at the seafront. Some locals try to keep these memories alive, but many simply want to secure a viable future in one of the remotest and most inhospitable spots on the planet. Dwelling on the Gulag, of course, does not serve that end. Nor will doing so reverse the region’s population decline.

On our journey we met gold miners, a successful entrepreneur in the fishing industry, and former residents of a famous ghost city. Their resilience and optimism are a testament to the spirit of Russia’s far north.

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