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The Ghost of Gulags Past

5:50 PM, Dec 8, 2009 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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I seemed to have missed the news that in Russia's state schools, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago is now required reading--a monumental step for a country that continues to grapple with the darker moments of its history. (I know, tell me which part of Russian history is not dark?) To wit, the December 7 issue of the Financial Times ran an article on Russian companies that were built on slave labor.

Irina Flige of the Memorial society, which helps to preserve the memory of the gulags, tells the FT's Charles Clover that "There are so many of these enterprises, half of our economy is former camps. Our companies do not deal with this legacy at all. Everybody just ignores it." Untold millions are said to have perished in the gulags while helping to build such companies as Norilsk Nickel, currently the largest producer of nickel and palladium in the world.

"Russia's official approach to this tragic history," writes Clover, "is to extol the successes of the Stalin era while simultaneously lamenting the tragic loss of life." Clover also interviews Lev Netto, a Norilsk Nickel survivor who, in 1945, remembers seeing a fellow prisoner gunned down for falling out of line and being torn apart by guard dogs. But not to worry, unlike other companies, Norilsk Nickel does acknowledge its dark past. In fact, it runs a museum, observes a memorial day, and, most impressively, pays reparations to gulag survivors: Victims receive an annual stipend of $119.