THE POWER OF MEMORY: A COUNTRY THAT WOULD RATHER FORGET: remember v. intr. To recapture the past To keep alive a memory To return to an original shape or form

A museum fights to keep the memory of Stalin's victims alive, while both church and Vladimir Putin's state prefer amnesia. Jane Armstrong reports from the Solovetsky Islands

SOLOVETSKY ISLANDS, RUSSIA -- Remembrance Day, lest we forget, is for those who gave up their lives defending their country against outsiders. But what of the many who suffered at the hands of their own governments? Today's truth and reconciliation movement argues that, without the power of memory, a nation scarred by injustice cannot heal. Three reports on older crimes - murder in Franco's Spain, the Soviet gulags and violence in Nazi Germany - show how stubborn, and problematic, the quest for truth can be

Each year, thousands of Russian Orthodox pilgrims trek to these windswept islands near the Arctic Circle to pray at the onion-domed churches of a gloomy monastery that dates from the 15th century. The pristine lakes and forests also lure adventure travellers who fish and hike and sail their yachts in the choppy White Sea waters.

Less than 70 years ago, however, the Solovetsky Islands - known locally as Solovki - were the grim endpoint for the first political prisoners of the Soviet Union. Some of the country's top scientists, artists, clergymen and scholars - all branded enemies of the people by the zealous Bolshevik state - were dispatched here in overcrowded boats and thousands were worked to death.

The prison served as a blueprint for the vast network of slave-labour camps - "the gulag archipelago," as the late Nobel-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn named it - that spread across the Soviet Union and killed millions. The word gulag (an acronym from the Russian for "main camp administration") became synonymous around the world with forced labour and state repression in general.

Today at Solovki, the barbed wire and metal bars are gone and towering crucifixes again sit atop the church and cathedral steeples. Orthodox services are held twice a day and millions of dollars of state funds have poured into restoring the 600-year-old fortress, which gleams like a white beacon against the grey sky.

But still there is no peace.

An unholy feud has erupted between the monastery, which is home to about 40 Russian Orthodox monks, and a small museum that runs tours and mounts exhibits about the area's storied past. The church wants to evict the museum not just from the walled monastery complex but off the islands altogether. It argues that the land was stolen by the Soviets in 1920 and should be returned to the church. The museum replies that the gulag is a vital part of Russian history and its victims must be commemorated.

So far, the church appears to be winning this rancorous dispute. A group of well-connected Russian politicians and academics has taken the church's side and appealed to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to support the monastery's bid to control the islands and halt all tourism development, which underscores this country's current reluctance to confront the full horrors of the Soviet regime.

In the days after perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union, the story of the imprisonment of millions of dissidents, peasants and members of ethnic minorities was at the top of the national discussion. In today's resurgent Russia, the image of the labour camps has undergone a gradual but unmistakable makeover.

School textbooks now describe Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's terror of the 1930s to the 1950s as a regrettable but necessary "instrument of development" that helped the young communist state industrialize quickly and assume its status as a world superpower.

While Mr. Putin has never gone so far as to praise the prison camps, the fiery former president and still-dominant force in Russian politics has played down Stalin's crimes by suggesting, for example, that the history of the United States includes just as many dark moments, including the Second World War bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"We should never allow others to make us feel guilty," he has said.

Many human-rights activists fear that Russia - with the tacit blessing of its political and religious leaders - is erasing one of the darkest periods of its past.


According to Solovki tour guide and resident Anna Yakovleva, this is what awaited political prisoners who arrived on the island in the early 1930s: After a choppy three-hour boat trip, they were herded inside the cavernous Trinity Cathedral, which was transformed into a sinister triage station, where the fates of inmates were decided by a stroke of the pen.

Guards hived the men and women into categories: The strongest would be fed the most, but forced to work the hardest. Many would die within months. The weak, sick or old would be given just 400 grams of bread a day and they would quickly perish from hunger.

The Solovki prisoners' roll reads like a who's who of Russia's elite. In the first years after the Revolution, in the early 1920s, some of the country's most accomplished scientists, writers and artists were incarcerated here. At first, conditions for political prisoners were tolerable. They were separated from the general prison population and weren't forced to work. Writers published monthly magazines, actors performed plays and scientists conducted experiments on Arctic plants in the prison's botanical garden.

After Stalin's rise to power in 1924, prison life grew grimmer. The camps were ordered to become self-sustaining and prisoners were sent to work logging, mining and building state infrastructure such as the White Sea Canal. Some inmates who did not fulfill their work quotas were left outside in the bitter cold overnight or forced to wade into the freezing sea as punishment. One out of every four prisoners died from exhaustion, accidents or cold. Some amputated their own hands to gain exemption from the punishing schedules.

Solovki became infamous as one of the most sadistic of all the camps - the "mosquito treatment," in which prisoners were tied to trees and left for hours in bug-infested woods, was legendary. It was the place where bureaucrats fine-tuned humiliating torture techniques and studied how much to feed a prisoner to yield the maximum hours of labour.

"All the methods that were used in the later prisons were started here," Ms. Yakovleva said. "How to feed [the prisoners], how to shoot them, how to organize a profitable camp, how deep to dig the mass graves."

Some of the methods were later adapted by the Nazis in their death camps.

In comparison to other camps, however, this prison had a short lifespan. It closed on the eve of the Second World War, its land and buildings needed for a Soviet naval-cadet school.

The museum here first opened in 1967, in a second-floor room of the monastery fortress, but staff was forbidden to mention either the gulag or the monastery's religious history, Ms. Yakovleva said. They were permitted to talk of its pre-revolutionary past when the monastery also doubled as a military fortress, considered one of the most secure in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, she said, some visitors would arrange to meet with sympathetic guides on the sly to learn the real truth of its gulag years.

Today, lined with barbed wire and iron bars to simulate a prison cell, the gulag exhibit pays tribute to the victims. In response to the church's pressure, the museum has agreed to move it to a former prisoners' barrack in the nearby village. Still, relations between the church and the museum are so tense that the heads of both organizations no longer speak even though they pass one another in the sprawling grounds many times a day.


"We think there must be a place to remember the prisoners who were killed," said Sergei Krivenko of Memorial, a human-rights group established in the 1980s by victims of Soviet repression. "The monks aren't interested in [commemorating] the prisoners," he added. "The monks are interested in what happened to the monks."

The monastery would counter that it existed for 650 years before the Soviets seized it. Solovetsky was a prison for just 16 years. "How would you like it if you lived with your family in a flat for years and one day, someone takes this flat that always belonged to you?" asked Father Gerasim, a spokesman for the monastery.

"And then, how would you feel if you were forced to live with the people who took your home?"

Mr. Krivenko, whose organization would like to see the former Solovetsky prison turned into a solemn memorial site, said the church's hostility is emblematic of a national reluctance to confront Stalin's legacy.

For example, the human-rights organization was aghast to learn last summer that the federal Emergency Services Ministry planned an employee sporting event on a hillside near the prison's former punishment cells. The hill in question is dotted with graves of prisoners.

"This land is soaked with blood and tears," Mr. Krivenko said. "Can you imagine if someone wanted to hold a sporting event at Auschwitz?"

Today, a visitor must look hard to find traces of Solovetsky's prison past. At the tiny airport, tourists are greeted by hotel operators driving pricey jeeps. Visitors are encouraged to hike the trails in the birch and pine forests and swim and fish in the hundreds of lakes. During a day-long religious tour of two Solovki islands, the priest leading the group spoke at length about the monks killed when the Soviets seized the monastery, but did not once mention the political prisoners killed here later.


Unlike modern Germany, which has taken pains to atone for its Nazi-era crimes, Russia's relationship to its Soviet past is more complicated. Many Russians wistfully remember the epoch when their country was a feared and respected superpower. Few young Russians have read the works of Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who died in August; his chronicles of the gulag are not taught in schools.

"During Soviet times, a lot of people were afraid of the regime, but people were proud to live in this big empire. If they couldn't be free, they could at least be proud," Mr. Krivenko said. "There are a lot of people who think the gulag was terrible but good at the same time, because they think it helped build the country."

Alexander Menshikov, a squatter in the Solovki woods, drives home the point. At 54, he lives alone in a shack about five kilometres from the monastery, on a diet of fish caught from a nearby lake and mushrooms and berries he picks in the forest. He moved here for the serenity of nature and to feel "closer to God." He earns a small salary guarding a lakeside hotel under construction.

With his soft voice and wire-rim glasses, he has the air of a professor. When asked how he feels living on a island that was once a cruel prison, he replied evenly: "The prisons were necessary to make Russia great. The people who were sent there were without discipline. The country needed prisoners to do work."

The museum director, Sergei Lapatkin, is a burly man with a booming voice and a resigned air of defeat. He has spent years trying to raise the museum's profile and attract more visitors, but admitted that it is no match for the powerful Orthodox Church, which he said has the ear of the government.

From his desk overlooking the monastery grounds, monks in billowing black gowns can be seen rushing around the yard. Though he said he was a religious man himself, he had no time for these churchmen. His voice rising in contempt, Mr. Lapatkin said the monks remind him of members of the now-defunct Soviet youth group Komsomol.

"They have a Soviet mentality," he said, staring out the window. "They respond to power."

Mr. Lapatkin said the Solovetsky Islands have cultural significance for all Russians, not just religious pilgrims. If the islands must be returned to the church, he added, should Russia also return all the factories and homes the state seized from private hands after the Revolution?

"The church says this would be a historical justice, but we can't return to the past."

Jane Armstrong is a Globe and Mail reporter.