Horrors of Perm 36 — The Last Standing Soviet Gulag.
How many American POWs disappeared behind walls like these?
This article is the third in a series about missing American servicemen at the hands of North Korea, China and the Soviet Union/Russia. This series looks at the ugly reality of governments secreting away POWs; of the U.S. government abandoning its fighting men; and the determination of anguished families to get answers. ��]�].
In this article, I go behind the wire of Perm 36 (also known as ITK-6 Camp), the last standing Soviet Gulag, which housed its final prisoners in 1987. My son and I visited Perm 36 in the winter of 2014. Standing in its yard, surrounded by walls, guard towers and barbed wire, I felt the ghosts of those who’d suffered at the hands of a brutal regime, and tried to disregard unnerving thoughts that my father might’ve been among them.
Perm 36 was built in 1946 as a logging camp in the Ural Mountain region near the Siberian border. By most accounts, it was one of approximately 475 forced labor camps within the Soviets’ so-called Gulag system.
Its prisoners included artists and intelligentsia who dared to challenge the Soviet regime’s prescribed parameters for expression. Also among the known population were political dissidents and those deemed to be dangerous to the State. It’s safe to say American POWs who’d been secreted out of the theater of combat for exploitation would pose a significant threat to the Kremlin’s world standing. Until the Russian government decides to open classified files from the Soviet Union’s notorious past, the mystery of which, if any, Americans found themselves in gulags could well remain unsolved.
Number 36, an informal reference to this camp, housed 1,000 prisoners in four barracks. Most of the prisoners spent their days in the forest logging trees, despite sub-zero winter temperatures, a paucity of nourishment and harsh treatment from guards. Frostbite and amputations were not uncommon. Neither was death.
We hired a translator and made our way out of the City of Perm, through vast forested lands that boasted nothing of civilization and, as we were told, sheltered wolves, bears and “big cats.” We emerged from the wooded wilderness and looked down upon Perm 36 — a camp surrounded by wetlands, grasslands, mountains, and a river that flowed in and around it all. To say the area was remote amounts to a laughable understatement. The camp’s location provided complete isolation from the outside world and rendered escape virtually impossible.
We entered the grounds through a 15-foot wooden gate, topped with wire whose shadows clawed at the yard as though to dig up tortured souls and have at them again.
I could almost feel the desperation rooted within the walls of this place that had stolen lives and crushed human spirit as its very purpose. Soviet citizens had reason to fear being swallowed up by a void like Perm 36; American servicemen did not, or so one would have thought. But our missing men went somewhere and there are footprints that lead to the Soviet Union. What torment did they endure — if not at Number 36, then where? Looking around me at what was surely a place of misery, I slipped into the chilling realization that wherever our men had gone, they met with fates more dreadful than words might convey.
It was 35 degrees below zero the day we were at Number 36. I wore long underwear, a sweater, a down vest and two parkas…not to mention a hat, scarf, neck warmer and gloves the size of Texas. I could barely move for the bulk…and I was still freezing. We used our noses to snap pictures because we couldn’t take off our gloves, and we quickly learned we’d have about ten seconds before our phones would die. Prisoners — the ones who spent twelve hours a day cutting trees in the forest — wore cotton padded pants and jackets.
Imagine an American pilot from New England or an enlisted man from Nebraska suddenly forced into such an environment, one in which prisoners — zeks in Russian — were gathered to watch the beheading of any of their own who had died, to make sure each man was in fact dead before they took him outside the gate and buried him. A place where prisoners would be beaten and thrown into the ‘Punishment Cell’ for the slightest infraction of arbitrary rules enforced by complacent guards who enjoyed their work. Punishment sentences typically ran up to 15 days. The cell was dark, wet and cold.
An offending prisoner was made to sit in his underwear and bare feet all day in the cell. For six hours of the night, he got his clothes and a wood shield. His daily rations consisted of bread and water, except that, on the third, sixth and ninth days, he also got a bowl of broth with some fish in it.
As we made our way through those remnants of hell, we came to one of the barracks. The “beds” were a set of bunk boards: no bedding — just wood planks.
Each man had about 3 to 5 square feet of space to himself. Three iron barrels sat about the room: one for heat; one with water and one that served as a toilet.
Imagine brave American servicemen, serving their country in battle one day and, the next, being discarded into darkness: a place like Perm 36, encircled by multiple zones of barbed wire fence and vicious dogs.
A man born into freedom cannot fathom himself in these circumstances. If they are thrust upon him, he is made to give himself up to emptiness and the loss of hope. Some are able; some are not.
Families of missing servicemen don’t know where their guy went; what torment overtook him; or how he managed to cope. All of this is a dark abyss into which thousands of Americans have been forfeited.
Perm 36 had to close its doors as a museum in April of 2014, amid reports that the Kremlin, led by Vladimir Putin — a KGB officer during Number 36’s reign of terror — didn’t like exposing his country’s dark history to scrutiny. Consistent reports state that the Russian government pressured and threatened and finagled until the museum’s funding disappeared. Finally, its electricity and water were cut off and the museum ceased to be.
If the Kremlin doesn’t want the world reminded of days when its Soviet predecessor buried millions of people in a brutal system of gulag camps, what are the chances the current Russian government will allow the world to confirm that American servicemen were held back, exploited and disposed of in one horrendous way or another?
What, if anything, will be the impetus to do so? Perhaps it will lie in diplomatic pressure from the U.S., economic sanctions or relevant national policies. One thing should now be clear. The current Russian president is a cunning ruler who leans toward authoritarianism. He is clever enough to play other leaders as the fool. The question becomes, who will be clever enough to outmaneuver him?
Thank you for reading my articles on this important issue.
My first two articles in this series can be found here: What Too Many People Don’t Know about the Korean War, [https://medium.com/@donnadknox/what-too-many-people-dont-know-about-the-korean-war-e7157a16f698]; and Russia’s Clandestine Aggression: Nothing New [https://medium.com/@donnadknox/russias-clandestine-aggression-nothing-new-fd98cc572ab4]