The Trans Siberia crosses the river Kama in Perm. This huge river grants the region access to the Baltic, the Black and the Caspian Sea. Combined with the iron and copper ore that is found in the Ural mountains it’s not surprising that Perm has always been important as an industrial centre. Weapons, tanks, ships, aeroplanes, cruise missiles and lots of other stuff that you need steel for. Around one million people live in Perm. It is a big city.

The first trip I made September 2010. The second one must have been Easter 2011. I was invited by the Governor, so I was welcomed by the minister of infrastructure. He told me that there was a car waiting and a translator. I could ask the driver to bring me everywhere and the translator would join me to find my way around. That was that.

As is more or less usual on trips like this, there is not so much for me that I have to do. Just be there. Someday at some moment I have to give my lecture, this time in a TEDX meeting. The rest of the time there is a conference going on but most of the meetings are not even translated. So what else can you do then see the city? Try to meet some people. Wander around. Lucky enough there was my translator, Maria, but she wanted to meet her friends who were busy translating. I didn’t see much of her the first day.

I remembered a year ago we were talking about a Gulag camp somewhere near Perm. That came back into my mind. This camp, Perm-36 today is the only surviving complex from the Soviet Gulag system. The camp should hosts a Gulag museum. I started to ask around. Would it be possible to go to that place? Can I find it? Who can take me there? How far is it? Most people had no clue. Then I met Aljona who ran a tourist office in Perm. She knew: “You will have to go there on your own, it’s about 100 kilometres to the Northeast along the river. If you decide to go, I will call them and let them know you’re coming, so they will be there to open for you.” 


I discussed my plan with Maria. She was young, in her early twenties, but she liked the idea. Her parents were living in St Petersburg, her father Jewish, her mother Russian, she knew about the Gulag and had read Solshenetzin. BUt the driver, no, he didn’t like the idea at all. Although I had been promised that he was going to bring me everywhere this did not include the country side. He didn’t know how to get there. And what was this all about? A former prison. But if I was willing to pay him something extra, like 50 euros, he might think about it. So I said to Maria, my translator: “For me as well as for you this might be the only chance you have to ever see a Gulag camp. There have been ten-thousands of these in Russia and this is the only one that is left there to see”.

We decided to go. The next day we left early. The driver first stopped at a supermarket to buy drinks and food as if we were going on a dangerous trip. We drove for two hours had a coffee on our way up and reached a dirt road. Up there somewhere the sign said the camp had to be situated. We arrived there, and yes, the people inside they knew we were coming. The driver decided to stay inside the car.

The Gulag camps our guide explained have been used as a prison system in Russia for a very long time. They were always temporarily. To cut the wood, to build a railway line temporary structures were needed. When the work was done they replaced it. The Gulag was not destryed to erase the mamory, no, simply because it was normal. Every camp had a comparable layout. The Gulag was not a concentration camp. The camps were not there to kill people, they were there to make the prisoners work. Even though, many of them died. But also many people survived.

We walked some hours through the museum of the Gulag. The site had been used for a special performance of Fidelio some months ago. Some of the props were still standing around. Suddenly half way the walk we heard someone walking and found out that we were joined by the driver. They asked him inside for a cup of tea and finally he decided to join us.

They showed us the sleeping barracks, the isolation cells and told us about the daily life in a Gulag camp. Between 1972 and 1988 the camp had been a special regime facility, the harshest political camp of the country, especially for political prisoners. The normal sentence for them was ten years. This camp was one of the last to be closed only in 1988. And I can’t help but thinking that the present prison camps in Russia will not have much better conditions. More than 25% of the population of the Sovjet Union spent time in the Gulag between 1920 and 1985. How is it possible that there is such a small number of people that even remember these camps existed?

We went to the car to drive back to the city of Perm.  We were all silent, having our thoughts on what we saw. Near Perm the driver told Maria to thank me that I had insisted to go there. He didn’t know these things even existed. He was very happy to have seen it.

Perm 36 is in the list of 100 protected monuments of world culture. Ealier this month there was an article in the Guardian which said that the authorities in Sakha (extremely far away in Siberia) are considering to rebuild two Gulag camps for eco tourism. To put them back on the map.

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