Television: The truth hurts

Russia has yet to come to terms with the gulags, where up to 50 million "enemies of the people" were killed
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What's your idea of the perfect relaxing Saturday night at home? A takeaway curry, bottle of wine and George Clooney video? Or an unremitting three-hour documentary about the full horror of Stalin's gulags?

Don't dash out to the video-shop just yet. While nobody's idea of a feel- good night in, Gulag is a television event, the kind of highly serious history documentary that perhaps only the BBC would produce.

Angus Macqueen, the producer/director who made his name with such award- winning documentaries as The Second Russian Revolution, The Death of Yugoslavia and Dancing for Dollars, would be the first to admit that Gulag may initially seem like a turn-off. "I can't pretend it is what it isn't," he says. "It's a grim and difficult subject, and the film demands commitment from the viewer. But I believe it needed to be made. It's about a whole society. It's not just a series of victims screaming at you."

The victims featured, however, are deeply moving. Between the October Revolution of 1917 and the death of Stalin in March 1953, up to 50 million Russians were killed. Many of these were so-called "enemies of the people" who perished in his obscenely harsh prison camps. You could be sent to the gulag for telling a joke about Stalin, while stealing an ear of corn carried a seven-year sentence.

Conditions were dreadful. When a dam burst on one gulag project, the foreman simply pushed prisoners into the flood, hoping their corpses would stem the tide. One old man says the experience still haunts him: "Last night I dreamt of the camps. I woke up screaming. Fifty years as `an enemy of the people' and I still feel like one."

According to Macqueen, understanding the gulags is key to understanding Stalin. "Stalin's state had at its heart the gulags. People used to say the experience of living in the Soviet Union was a question of how many lines of barbed wire you had around you. The room for individual freedom - both physical and verbal - was circumscribed. The gulag was the concentration of that concept. But it was a disastrous system, based on fear and force."

Despite this, Russia has yet officially to come to terms with the gulags. At the end of the film, a woman who served 15 years for a trumped-up charge asks: "Will anyone be held responsible for all our suffering?"

A man who worked as a driver at the gulag where the inmates built the Moscow to Volga Canal thinks not. He says: "We believed it was the right thing to do. `Drinking water for Moscow'. That was the slogan. That was the call to action." When he witnessed the slaughter of prisoners, he was told by officials: "Forget everything you see, forget everything you hear."

"The advent of democracy in Russia has not led to any truth and reconciliation," says Macqueen. "Not one perpetrator has ever been questioned, let alone arrested. Indeed, they talk openly with no sense of guilt. Few Russians want to remember.

"It is all because there was no genuine revolution in 1991. There was no statement saying `Communism bad, democracy good'. The Communists have just metamorphosed. They walked through an Alice in Wonder- land mirror and came out the other side as something else. The KGB, for instance, has converted into a bank."

Immersing himself in these atrocities has taught Macqueen that "Russians are not animals. They're human beings put in the wrong environment. It also explains Serbia. I like a lot of Serbs but recognise it's a society that has been doing terrible things. We're no different. What keeps Britain `civilised' is not necessarily something within us, but the structure of our society. If people are allowed to run gulags, they will."

Macqueen, a fluent Russian speaker who lived in Siberia, has been researching Gulag for 10 years, and it hasn't all been plain sailing. "Some people who had killed prisoners in the gulags would shout at me down the phone, `You arsehole, go home to London'. It's damn difficult to get to the perpetrators. You have to go through an awful lot of shouting to get there."

`Gulag' is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight