Deep in the Ural mountains, I take a cameraman and a translator to the most feared place in all Russia. Known simply as Perm-36, it is the last standing gulag in a system of hundreds of thousands of labour camps that scarred the landscape of the Soviet Union until 1987. It was a system of concentration camps that terrorized two generations of people in the largest country in the world. Today it is a museum. But few Russians tourists go here. The trauma of Stalin’s gulags is too real, too fresh, and too terrifying even today.
I know this place. It’s practically in my own Aunt’s backyard, on the outskirts of the industrial city of Chusovoy. The concrete buildings, the five guard towers, the five electrified fences that wrap around this miserable piece of real estate deep in the forest is what is left of the home of so much incomparable human suffering. I traveled here only one year ago, in the dead of winter, when temperatures reach minus 50 degrees because we are literally on the edge of Siberia. While the rest of my pals are seeking the beaches and tall cool cocktails, I am drawn to this extreme place in search of answers about my own Russian mother, Agnes Spicer, for my documentary film project, “The Traitor’s Daughter.”
If it hadn’t been for Canada, she would have landed up behind these barbed wires, or in a gulag just like this, as a “traitor” during the Second World War. Two million Soviet soldiers who’d been POWs in Germany got a hell of a homecoming in 1945. Not exactly a ticker parade. Not in Stalin’s Russia. The Russian war vets landed up back behind barbed wire, convicted in absentia, of collaboration with the enemy Third Reich for “allowing” themselves to be captured.
My tour guide, Irina Tasche, pours us all a shot of pure Russian brandy after taking a couple hours to show us the cells, the barracks, the communal wretched work place where guards watched over inmates condemned to make domestic irons sold in nearby Chusovoy. Inmates whose “crime” might have been to eat a sandwich wrapped in a newspaper featuring Stalin’s photograph or something equally banal.
It was during the archival research that I discovered another Canadian connection behind the barbed wire of Perm-36. The museum staff pointed out a large black and white photograph of their most infamous inmate.
Danylo Shumuk was 18 when he disappeared behind barbed wire, a victim of Stalin’s secret war against his own people, eventually claiming the lives of 20 million. Shumuk would spend the next 42 years in confinement. He was an outspoken Ukranian patriot, at a time when it was dangerous to be so.
His great nephew, Victor Shumuk remembers the angst of his Canadian relatives in Vernon, BC, as they feared the worst. He agreed to share his memories of his infamous relative with us. Victor’s father, Ivan, took the plight of his Uncle Danylo to Parliament Hill, back in the mid 1970’s. It took 10 years, but Canada’s youngest prime minister saved Danylo Shumuk’s life. In a little known story of Canadian heroism, Joe Clark describes how he engineered the release of the man who became known as “The Eternal Prisoner”.
With Danylo’s story, Canadians get a rare glimpse into a secret war behind the Red Curtain that would eventually claim the lives of 20 million people. My grandmother was one of them. She died in the Gulags at the age of 47, as an ‘Enemy of the People’. My mother and Danylo Shumuk could also have shared the same fate, if it weren’t for a country that welcomed them as new immigrants.