How Siberia's dark history could be its financial saviour

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The Independent Online

For more than two decades it was a living hell for anyone Joseph Stalin deemed to be "an enemy of the people", but a Siberian mayor believes it is now time to cash in on his region's dark history - by reopening part of the Gulag for fee-paying tourists.

To the horror of prison camp survivors and human rights activists, Igor Shpektor, the mayor of Vorkuta, has floated the idea of re-opening one of the many Soviet prison camps whose network spread in the 1930s.

His vision would give the discerning history-conscious tourist, the hardy ones at least, exactly what the original inmates endured - suffering.

Tourists would be housed in re-creations of the camps, complete with watch towers, guards and fierce dogs, rolls of barbed wire, spartan living conditions and forced labour. If they tried to escape they would be shot - with paint balls rather than bullets.

Mr Shpektor told one American newspaper that blueprints for the camp had already been drawn up and an appropriate location, the site of an abandoned camp, identified. All he needed, he added, was to raise the necessary funding. Crucially he did not say how much tourists would have to pay in order to relive an experience that millions would rather forget.

Reaction from local people and a human rights group called Memorial, which tries to document the suffering and death caused by the Gulag system, has been stormy. They have condemned the idea as "sacrilege" and an insult to the Gulag's survivors.

According to Memorial, some 200,000 prisoners, known as zeks, died in the camps surrounding Vorkuta, out of more than two million deported there between 1932 and 1954. Many of them were forced to shovel coal in the region's extreme climatic conditions. In winter, the temperature plunges to minus 40C while in summer the population of mosquitoes explodes.

Mr Shpektor argues that by experiencing the reality of the Gulag, people will understand better that it is something that must never be repeated.

Situated 1,200 miles north-east of Moscow, at the northern tip of the Ural mountains and beyond the Arctic Circle, life for the citizens of Vorkuta is difficult. Many of its coal mines have closed, unemployment is high and much of the population (which includes camp survivors) is ageing.

If Mr Shpektor realises his peculiar dream, it will be the first "reality Gulag camp" for tourists in Russian. That said, the curators of Perm 36, the country's best-preserved camp, in the Urals, already offer rooms to scholars to raise funds. And the Solovetsky islands, in the White Sea off Archangelsk, with another camp and a historic mona-stery, have become a popular tourist attraction in their own right.

The Gulag

* The Gulag was a system of forced-labour camps in the USSR. The word derives from the acronym for 'the chief directorate of corrective labour camps'

* It was set up under Lenin around 1920 but was greatly expanded by Stalin

* At its peak, the system had 476 camps - many in Siberia and the far east

* An estimated 50 million people died in the Gulag between 1930 and 1950

* Prisoners included Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, and Anatoly Shcharansky, who wrote Fear No Evil