Uncovering the truth of Gulags

Documentary includes interviews with guards, survivors of Stalin's forced-labor camps

Most of us know that millions disappeared into the vast frozen Siberian wilderness during Joseph Stalin's reign of terror in the Soviet Union. But the vast physical evidence of the atrocity has yet to be revealed to the same degree as that of the Holocaust.

The multi-award-winning documentary Gulag (TLC, May 9, 9-11 p.m.), charges into the story of the labor camps, where 20 million are believed to have perished.

Along with providing rare footage of Norilsk, a huge city built by slave labor on the Siberian tundra, filmmakers interviewed survivors and former guards, KGB operatives, and camp commandants, now well-advanced in years, who recount what they saw and experienced.

Archival footage and contemporary interviews are artfully intercut with Russian propaganda films of the 1930s. There are even interviews with a few who escaped Russia and fled to Britain.

It is a brave testament – fine, even-handed filmmaking that seems to push the envelope of historical knowledge as it drives toward the truth.

The program can be difficult to watch at times, as weeping victims describe their suffering. One might suppose the victims' stories would be the most wrenching. But just as ghastly is the cold, unrepentant witness of the guards who say they were "just doing their jobs." A commandant tells his story as if it were the good old days.

One man describes driving a truck in which political prisoners were suffocated and then buried in the woods. He laughs a little nervously as he describes the grisly scene.

Another brags about his pension – so much better than ordinary people receive. These men still dismiss the humanity of their victims easily, saying "after all, they were prisoners."

One of the most frightening aspects of the system, as the film explains it, was its arbitrariness.

Anyone could be arrested and charged with "anti-Soviet" actions, their children torn from them, and their lives turned into a nightmare. Workers were needed, and neighbors turned on neighbors, denouncing others for favors.

Forced labor built canals, factories, mines – even entire cities. Millions were needed for this work. And, like the Nazi concentration camps, the conditions included starvation rations, filth, gang rape, torture, and random executions.

But then, the tables could turn quickly, too. After the Moscow-Volga River Canal was completed in 1937, Stalin had the labor bosses executed so there would be no witnesses to the criminal treatment of the workers.

BBC filmmaker Angus Macqueen has spent 20 years in Eastern Europe, going and coming among the Russian people.

He chose to interview people who had never appeared on television before, making his film a unique document. Many he approached refused to talk to him.

Others, he was astonished to find, defended the system. Alexie Logonov, who was the commander of the Norilsk region, still says he believes that the gulag was right and the whole system justified. He even tells the interviewer that things weren't so bad in the camps.

"I was always struck by the silences of people – what they were afraid to talk about," says Mr. Macqueen, reached by phone in Buenos Aires, where he is researching another film.

"I became interested in the process by which people remembered things and the effect memory had on their present lives.... Everybody in Russia was seemingly afraid in the '70s and '80s. But, in truth, very few people were being arrested [by then]. Perhaps 10 [dissidents] a year. That was all the regime needed to keep people in line. I was fascinated by how that fear was almost part of the genetic makeup of that society."

As Macqueen talked with more and more people, it became clear to him that the memory of the gulag was as much a metaphor as a reality.

"I felt it was a film that needed to be made before everybody died, before they got too old," he says. "So I felt there was an element of record in it, of recording a deep conflict of memory between the guards and the victims...."

Macqueen points out that in the historical account of the Holocaust, we are morally clear about what happened: The Nazis were wrong, they did evil, and history has judged them. "There are Holocaust museums in London, Washington, and Berlin," he says. "In Russia there is nothing. It is a society that has yet to come to terms with itself ... and that, for me, is a huge distinction."

Facing the wrongs of the past can eventually lead to healing. That is one implication of "Gulag."

Also this week, a thoughtful family drama concerns three people who must sort out their shared history of suffering in order to find peace.

Little John (CBS, May 5, 9-11 p.m.) may at first seem sweetly predictable, but the story manages to turn down some unexpected paths to reach its expected end. And the acting, the universal meaning of the story, and the accomplished writing make it a pleasant device to engage issues of forgiveness and recompense in families.

In the story, Natalie (Gloria Reuben) gives up her baby for adoption and leaves the family farm without looking back. Her father, John (Ving Rhames), adopts the baby without her knowledge and brings him up as Little John.

Only when the older man has a health crisis does Little John find his mother – a family court judge who routinely decides the fate of children.

The story unburdens itself of its emotional weight carefully, making us question the way in which forgiveness may be reached.

It is not as simply won as many a sentimental drama implies.

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