The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Perm-36 Gulag Museum

Perm-36 is the last surviving Gulag camp, now the “Museum of the History of Political Repression“, about 90km East of Perm.

It was abandoned in 1988, became extremely dilapidated, then was reclaimed as a Museum in 1994 and partially restored. So what is visible today is a mix of original buildings and reconstructions. It is all post WWII however, so there is nothing from the Gulag heyday of the 30s or the Great Terror itself.

Perm-36 went through three phases:

  • 1946-53: A conventional Gulag camp, mostly housing criminals and workers convicted of anti-social crimes such as chronic absenteeism, etc. Perm-36 was a relatively mild labor camp, not an intensive punishment camp.
  • 1953-72: A special prison for servants of the Stalinist regime who had fallen out of favor with the new regime. This included NKVD officers, politicians, etc. These prisoners were relatively privileged.
  •  1972-88: A special prison for dissident and anti-Soviet elements. There prisoners were typically well educated and their treatment relatively mild.

The most interesting surviving buildings are:

  • The entrance/administrative building. This includes the visitor rooms. The later, more privileged prisoners were allowed to either have face-to-face visitor meetings with a guard present or in especially privileged cases to have two or three day shared room stays with spouses or other family members.
  • One barracks building, which had housed 50-60 people in each of four barrack rooms. Back in the day, they would have triplex bunks, and two small stoves in opposite corners, which would be less than adequate for the colder nights.
  • A punishment block. This included some short stay cells for a first offense, and a long stay unit for 4+ weeks for repeat offenders. Guards might decided to target specific prisoners as “offenders” based on order from higher up. The main punishment was reduced rations. Long term prisoners had to work at simple factory tasks.

The main task of the Gulag camps in this area was logging, to help provide wood for rebuilding efforts after WWII. Perm-36 was originally part of that, although I got the impression that part had probably faded away in its later years with more privileged prisoners.

Before 1953 security was light as prisoners had nowhere to flee. After 1953, the camp had five levels of fencing. A reconstruction is on display. Two of the fences were wooden walls, intended to mask visibility in and out. One fence was electrified, not to kill but to stun and sound an alarm. The Museum plays recordings of angry barking dogs to add authenticity!

Since this is the only surviving Gulag camp, I’m glad I visited. But at another level, it was only mildly interesting. Both my guide and the Museum signage tended to convey an impression that it was “not that bad” and merely a labor camp. Now of course this is all post WWII, when things were probably much better that during the horrors of the 1930s. Even so, my impression is that the Museum is also sanitizing the 1940s experience – it would be easy to leave with the impression it was “just” a labor camp, and I think the reality was much harsher than that implies.  This is after all the period described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  It would have been interesting to have death rate data for example.

The city of Perm itself also offers one surprise, a gigantic bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet security police. A man who made Stalin look warm and cuddly and is still fondly remembered, by some at least.

Gdansk: Neptune

As a loyal follower of Neptune, as soon as I arrived in Gdansk (née Danzig) I made a beeline to the bronze Fountain of Neptune, a stylish affair dating from 1615.

When I got there I was surprised to find Neptune sporting a stylish tee shirt.  He looks good in it, but say what?

The tee shirt bears the letters KONSTYTUCJA, which turns out to be Polish for “Constitution”.  Apparently the Lord of the Oceans has come out in support of the Polish Constitution against government numbskullery.  Reuters has an article all about it “Neptune statue gets T-shirt

Apparently no smiting has yet occurred. The tee-shirt appeared on August 10th and the local authorities seem to have been content to leave it in place. I offered up a slice of Starbucks carrot cake to Neptune, to show my support.

Gdansk/Danzig has a very scenic old town center.  It has the benefit of being mostly a post-WWII rebuild, where they wisely omitted the boring 19th c bits and rebuilt the city center as the great Hanseatic merchant city ought to have looked in 1800.  They did a nice job!  Yes it’s a romanticized rebuild, but it is actually quite charming with lots of tall gabled buildings and giant redbrick churches.

P.S. The authorities modified the Neptune statue in 1988 to add a bronze seahorse tail reaching awkwardly up to cover Neptune’s groin.  That seems a bit retrograde, given his accoutrements had been exposed for all to see for three centuries.  And people wonder why the Baltic herring fisheries are in such decline!

Hawaii: Lava 2018



Fissure 8, from 3000ft
I’m out in Hawaii to see the current lava flows.

I started at 4:00am with a bouncy boat ride with Lava Ocean Tours. I had sacrificed a delicious lemon muffin to Poseidon, so the sea was reasonably smooth and we got a good view of where the lava river is hitting the ocean. There’s a lot of steam, so we were mostly seeing glows rather than actual lava, but we got a reasonable view of the intense glow where the main lava stream seemed to be entering. Sadly, Sane Captain Rick was observing the new 300 meter limit, so we only got fairly distant views, unlike my 2016 trip where Mad Captain Shane was taking us in really really close.

Then I took a couple of helicopter tours, one of them a “doors off” tour.  The helicopters are required to stay up at 3000ft, so we got good, but rather distant views of the current live flow from Fissure 8 and of the grayed-over lava river flowing down to the ocean.

The current eruption is the most intense for many years, so if you want to see some good red lava, then right now is a great opportunity.  It may continue for years, or it may stop next month, so seize the moment!

Cyprus: Gothic Mosques

In North Nicosia, I visited that rare architectural oddity, the Gothic Mosque. The Selimiye Mosque was originally a 13th c French Gothic Cathedral and after the 16th c Ottoman conquest was turned into a Mosque. It comes complete with flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings, an arc of tiny carved bishops over the entrance arch, and two minarets.

The converters had a bit of a problem with the interior, as the building has a West-East axis, but Mecca is roughly SE from here. So they’ve created lots of visual cues, including a particularly colorful Mihrab, SE aligned wooden platforms, carpets, etc, to try to keep the faithful pointed in the right direction, at an awkward 45 degrees across the main axis of the building.Two days later in Famagusta, I found another example. This was the 14th c St Nicholas, converted to a mosque by the Ottomans and now called Lala Mustafa Pasha Camisi. The tower tops are ruined, but the roof is intact and the façade and interior are fine. In this case the church axis ran WSW to ENE, and the Ottomans were willing to treat the SSE wall as sufficiently aligned towards Mecca. It was a very grand Gothic Church and it’s an impressively strange Mosque!

Tirana: Familiar Faces

I was striding past Albania’s National Art Gallery when I suddenly spotted a familiar face lurking at the back. Wait, it can’t be? Can it? Yes, it is! Stalin himself, larger than life, glaring disdainfully at the passers by!

It turns out that an area behind the Gallery has a small selection of communist-era statues. There are not one, but two Stalins, and a damaged but still cheerful Lenin.

I had forgotten that Albania had been not only Communist but actually Stalinist, all the way up until 1991. So unlike most of Eastern Europe there were still Stalin statues, as well as Lenins, to be torn down and banished to museum back yards.


Stalin #1

Lenin, maimed but resolute.

Stalin #2

A rather befuddled tour group.

Japan: Samurai Castles

Matsumoto-jo

Inuyama-jo

I’ve been visiting Samurai castles in Japan.

A fair number survive, in some form or other, but authenticity varies wildly.  Some keeps, such as Osaka-jo, are imaginative rebuilds, with concrete cores and even elevators.  But there are a handful of authentic survivors and I focused on the five that are ranked as “National Treasures”, at Matsumoto, Hikone, Himeji, Inuyama and Matsue.  Even these have seen extensive renovations.

These mostly follow fairly similar patterns, with complex moat systems and walls protecting the route to the inner keep.  Inuyama-jo is a striking exception, using a natural hill and river instead of moats.

There are many repeated design tricks, such as double gates at right angles, with a weak outer gate allowing entry to a small courtyard and then a very strong inner gate making sure you stayed there, as convenient target practice for the defenders.

Hikone-jo

Himeji-jo