In 1978, Bohdan Klymchak walked out of the Soviet Union and asked for political asylum in Iran. Klymchak was Ukrainian, born near Lviv. In 1949, his family had been deported to Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East, after the arrest of his brother as a “Ukrainian nationalist.” In 1957, Klymchak himself was arrested for “anti-Soviet agitation”; even after his release, he remained under constant surveillance. After he escaped across the border, and after the Iranians sent him back, Klymchak wound up in a camp called Perm-36, one of the last large political prisons in the Soviet Union. He remained there until 1990, as one of the last Soviet political prisoners.
In the three decades since Klymchak was freed, a lot has happened. Perm-36 became a thriving museum and site of remembrance, receiving tens of thousands of visitors, including groups of schoolchildren, every year. Then, in 2014, it was shut down again. Russian ex-prisoners and historians published memoirs and histories of the Gulag, held conferences, created exhibitions, made documentaries. Then, over the past several years, their organizations were banned, and their leaders were exiled or ignored.
Today, a new version of that same Gulag system is being reconstructed, especially for Ukrainians. Journalists, war-crimes investigators, and specialized groups such as the Reckoning Project have already documented arrests, murders, prisons, and torture chambers in Ukrainian territories under Russian occupation. Slowly, it is becoming clear that these are not just ad hoc responses to Ukrainian resistance. They are part of a long-term plan: the construction of a sprawling system of camps and punishment colonies—a new Gulag. The Associated Press reported yesterday that it has evidence of at least 40 prison camps in Russia and Belarus, as well as 63 formal and informal prisons in occupied Ukraine, containing perhaps 10,000 Ukrainians. A few are prisoners of war: Gulagu.net, a Russian prison-monitoring group, has evidence of Ukrainian soldiers in Russian prisons who arrive without proper papers or POW status. But most of the Ukrainian prisoners are civilians who have been arrested or abducted in occupied territory.
As in the Gulag during its heyday, slave labor is one purpose of these camps. Some Ukrainians in captivity are being forced to dig trenches and build fortifications for Russian soldiers, and to dig mass graves. The Gulag was also designed to instill terror in the broader population, and the new camp system works that way too. Civilians are imprisoned and tortured for minor offenses—AP cites, as one example, the tying of a ribbon with Ukrainian colors to a bicycle—or sometimes for no reason at all. The Reckoning Project has collected many examples of Russian soldiers becoming paranoid and interrogating ordinary people, many of them volunteers for civic organizations, about their connections to the Ukrainian security services, the CIA, or even George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The AP describes one civilian captive from Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region who was pulled from her cell, driven around town, and told to identify people with pro-Ukrainian sympathies. In 1937–38, during the era of the Great Purges, Soviet secret police were equally paranoid and equally terrified, not only of ordinary people but also of one another. Recent infighting suggests that Russian military forces may reach that stage in occupied Ukraine too.
Like the Soviet Gulag, the new Russian camp network is not temporary, and unless the Ukrainians can take back their territory, it will expand. AP has obtained a Russian document, dated this past January, that describes plans to build 25 new prison colonies and six detention centers in occupied Ukrainian territory by 2026. Like the Soviet Gulag, this system is chaotic and lawless. People have been condemned without trial. Their documents have been lost. Sometimes they are kept for no reason, or released for no reason. Their relatives receive no information about them and cannot find or contact them. Eventually, they may also be forced to the front lines. That is certainly the fate of Russian prisoners in Russia, many of whom are now told to sign mobilization papers, and beaten and tortured if they refuse. As in the old days, it seems as if Russian prison directors have been given quotas, numbers of prisoners they need to supply in order to fulfill some central plan.
The historical echoes can’t be an accident. The KGB once taught new recruits to study the institution’s history, and the Russian security services clearly do the same: They are carrying out repressive policies that “worked” in the Soviet days, that kept people like Bohdan Klymchak and his brother behind bars. But that history also explains Ukraine’s response. Anyone who wonders why the Ukrainians keep fighting, why they keep asking for more weapons, why they become frustrated by slow-moving transatlantic diplomacy, why they seem angry or “unreasonable,” should remember this: The Gulag was supposed to belong to the past. Now it belongs to the present. If Ukrainians don’t want it to be part of their future, they will have to physically remove these camps—and the people who run them—from Ukrainian land. Until they have succeeded, no help will ever be enough.