“I hope that Dud’s film is the beginning for television to seriously develop the topic of camps”
Yury Dud’s documentary Kolyma – Birthplace of Our Fear has been one of the most discussed themes in the last days. Realnoe Vremya talked with Doctor of Historical Sciences, author of a number of research on the Stalinist period Veniamin Zima about the film and the complaints expressed about the film’s historical content.
Mr Zima, will you be strict about Yury Dud’s film or praise it as a historian despite some historical numbers and facts that are debatable for people?
I like Dud’s film because it’s comfortable for the spectator – it has both science-related things and what is interesting for everyone. I’ve personally never seen a film about places of the country where the described events took place until recently – particularly the exile of people to Kolyma and their stay there, the events linked with settling in such places. In this respect, the film was made very well. It gave me to understand once again that the ways of settling on the territories in the 30s still have been doing much harm to the country – economically, culturally and geographically. This, as you see, affects the youth that want to move out. In addition, the film gives memories of those people who were involved in the tragic events very well – it is about the fates of Sergey Korolyov and Yefim Shifrin’s families. The film is also interesting thanks to the information about camp history museums that opened in those places.
Many people were in Kolyma. But at the same time we should start to understand through Dud’s film that there were other places too where people experienced the same hard “treatment” and died – in the north, in Kazakhstan, Vyatlag, Far Eastern camps. And I want to hope that it’s the beginning of journalists’ serious job about this sad page of our history.
What are the causes, roots of our fear found? Because Dud didn’t say the causes of the repressions, the causes of the Big Terror. And this, in fact, the main drawback of the film.
Causes arise when something fails. In this case, they arose when the industrialisation began in the USSR – if it failed somewhere, a search for enemies began, at the top first, then across the country. Then the scale was so large that it was very hard to stop it. You all perfectly know about denunciations.
“I’ve personally never seen a film about places of the country where the described events took place until recently – particularly the exile of people to Kolyma and their stay there, the events linked with settling in such places.” Video’s screenshot
Of course, he should have said the causes of the repressions in the film. But it’s such a topic that here the authors would have had to do scientific research, while it’s not that easy – the topic of repressions hasn’t been fully studied anyway. When archives were opened, one had to think about this topic, understand from all perspectives, while this processing wasn’t done. Then people began to feel satiation of information flow about history. Moreover, many people had to admit mistakes of the past and refuse some views, while it’s not easy for human conscience to do that.
If you were talking with Dud, would you start with the industrialisation as the cause of the repressions? Some of your colleagues say that the mass repressions in the 1937-1939s are a result of the Civil War in Spain.
Everything began with the political fight after Lenin’s death – this tough opposition for power ended with Mr Stalin’s win. But the consolidation of his power didn’t stop here. The fight for this consolidation rose, repressions augmented, while Stalin and his circle wanted to raise the economy with them – to create a base by exploring new territories and extracting minerals (particularly gold), which could be profitably sold abroad. What’s more, minerals were strategic feedstock.
The Civil War in Spain, first of all, was a test of armed forces of the Soviet Union – Stalin needed to know the level we were at, he didn’t want to fall behind in his foreign politics. For many, it became a shock that the USSR began to fight in Spain, which then in 1939 made Hitler agree with Stalin. Secondly, of course, the tough international state of affairs couldn’t help but affect the domestic situation in the USSR, as socialist movements also participated in the war in Spain. In 1936, Stalin blamed the same Trotskyists for betraying the republican government of Spain, which was supported by the Soviet Union. There was concluded that the Trotskyists could also be in the USSR, and they began to be looked for among those Soviet militaries who were fighting in Spain, including in our country. You know, if there is a serious failure, a search for the guilty begins. Moreover, we should admit that the war was nearing, which means Stalin had to immediately get rid of the enemy, what Stalin constantly did – both through Yezhov and Beriya.
Doesn’t it seem strange to you that talking about the repressions Dud points out Yezhov but doesn’t talk much of Stalin as the initiator?
It was clear that Yezhov only took orders. Stalin said: “We will hand the case over to the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs!” (NKVD), and Yezhov took the salute – developments, developments, developments, this is how they covered the whole nation. It became clear only in late 1938 that this had to stop – Beriya put the Constitution on the table in front of NKVD employees and began to talk about human rights and so on, though both Yezhov and people who worked with him headed to the place where hundreds of thousands of victims had gone at their hands.
“It was clear that Yezhov only took orders. Stalin said: “We will hand the case over to the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs!” (NKVD), and Yezhov took the salute – developments, developments, developments, this is how they covered the whole nation. It became clear only in late 1938 that this had to stop.” Photo: wikipedia.org
How do you assess the data given in the film that 20 million people were in Gulag from 1921 to 1953?
20 million is too much. But if we remember what a person could face for coming to work late to kolkhoz or factory before and after the war, what a person could get for not complying with the norm or working days, we will see that people got a prison term, though not big. And they also were included in the number of the repressed – this number probably wasn’t 20 million, but it was 10 for sure. But it’s also much.
The number of people who were shot dead in the 1937-1939 in the film was correct, 680,000. Are they political victims?
There can be found several thousands of the executed, give or take. According to the known number, I suppose that more than half was political sentences.
Dud says that Gulag prisoners built the same Komsomolsk-on-Amur and some other cities. Is it true?
New documents come up from time to time, and the picture is clarified. But the prisoners and dekulakised were first to get to Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Gulag inmates only couldn’t have participated in its construction, of course. But they were the strike force in all the mentioned cities, not to mention White Sea–Baltic Canal, the canal named after Moscow.
Scientists didn’t participate in the film. Is it a significant drawback of the film?
You know, Dud made a sci-fi film, anyway, and it’s his advantage – this is the genre that makes the strongest impression. Of course, the absence of scientists affects the film, enough to remember the words about the 20 million people who in Gulag. But at the same time, he talked about the museums where people work and actively collect materials on this topic. There is a big number of such museums in the country, and this is very important – it’s the film’s advantage that museums’ work was shown.
“The wave of this topic’s activity is gone, of course. But the theme isn’t forgotten in historical science. I don’t think in general that attention to this topic will lessen because new archive documents will appear, which means new works will appear eventually too.” Photo: inosmi.ru
Who of those currently working scientists can be called Gulag experts?
Galina Ivanova from the Institute for Russian History, foreign historian Anne Applebaum studied the Gulag theme well. My colleague Khlusov actively worked on Gulag’s economy. The wave of this topic’s activity is gone, of course. But the theme isn’t forgotten in historical science. I don’t think in general that attention to this topic will lessen because new archive documents will appear, which means new works will appear eventually too.
Why did that gold-rich region become depressive?
We were a poor country then and later to create infrastructure there. The country didn’t have money in the 30s, this is why they had to carry out collectivisation with huge sales of grains to Europe, and gold was produced by inmates. Grains were sold by ships! Yes, not so much money was earned, but it was a currency to purchase technologies and equipment in the 30s. And the hunger broke out in the country in the 1932-1933s. And, as I said, if something failed here, a search of enemies kicked off right away. Somebody was doing harm – the Shakhty Trial, Labour Party – and the people were going to extract gold towards the same Kolyma. Something was done, of course – houses on stilts, the road, but it wasn’t enough to develop the krai.
Will there be a reply to the film Kolyma – Birthplace of Our Fear from federal channels or is this theme uninteresting for them?
Of course, television must do real scientific research films. And they, undoubtedly, must be based on more serious documents and facts. I think that Dud’s film is the beginning for television to develop this topic, about Vorkuta, Norilsk camps, it’s time to produce serious works about them. Of course, each of them needs money, and the production of Dud’s film is about it – the trip was serious. And, sure, authors must be enthusiastic, have a desire to study this topic to understand that the repressive politics didn’t justify itself.
Should the government in the person of its officials do something in the next years in memory of people innocently sentenced and dead in Gulag?
State officials have a lot to do, they have their own problems, while the past is the job of historians anyway. Gulag museums were created in the country, thank God. But if museums and TV channels are given some money, it will be very good. Yevtushenko said that we shouldn’t forget not only a war against the enemy but also the war against our own people – we lost 20 million at war against the enemy and lost a million at war against the people.