Horror of camps only hits me when I get home to Prague, says Štěpán Černoušek of Gulag.online

Photo: gulag.online

Gulag.online is a freshly-launched interactive virtual museum of the infamous Soviet system of labour camps. The unique project comes from the group Gulag.cz, which documented the remains of camps in remotest Siberia and converted the results into maps and a 3D camp tour that are accompanied by the testimonies of Czechoslovak survivors. Gulag.cz is headed by Štěpán Černoušek, who worked at Radio Prague’s Russian section in the early 2000s. When we met, I asked Černoušek where his interest in all things Russian had come from.

Štěpán Černoušek,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“It’s a long story. It started more than 20 years ago in 1994, when I was a secondary school student, and I went to Russia for the first time, to St. Petersburg, on a student exchange.

“I think I was the only student exchange between the Czech Republic and Russia at that time, because nobody was interested in Russia in those days.

“I was really surprised that Russia was not only a country of Soviet enemies, which most of Czech society thought at that time.

“I was surprised that it was a really nice and interesting country with very different cultures; there are more than 100 nations in Russia, which is really interesting. The nature is very nice.

“I started to travel to Russia very often. I started to study the Russian language and Russian philology.

“I also organised trips to very remote parts in Siberia, in the Far East – and these are places which are somehow connected with the history of Soviet repression and the Gulag. Maybe that’s the reason I started to be interested in this topic.”

You went on three expeditions to Siberia to the “Dead Road”, an uncompleted railroad along which there were Gulag camps. What did you find when you got to there?

“For me, going there was a very important moment. It was the start of a more professional level of my work or my interest in Russia.

“When I was preparing for the first expedition in 2009, I checked Google maps, satellite maps of this railroad, because I was interested in abandoned railroads.

“I found [the Dead Road] on satellite maps and I also discovered some strange buildings along the railroad – and when I looked at these buildings I was sure they must be Gulag camps.

“I was really surprised how many camps are still along the railroad. Also I was surprised that I didn’t find almost anything on the internet about these abandoned camps.

Photo: gulag.online
“I was so interested in how they looked. That was the reason I organised the first exhibition there.

“In the end we reached three camps in deep forest, in deep taiga, far from the nearest villages.

“I was really surprised that these camps are in very good condition, even though it’s more than 60 years since prisoners left them.

“We found a lot of items of prison life, like bowls, camps and gloves, and also some letters that prisoners wrote.

“They were still there in these buildings, but it wasn’t a museum – it was just abandoned.

“I thought, How is it possible that it’s still there? It’s not a museum.

“There isn’t a single museum in Russia like the former Nazi camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But these camps are still there in Russia.

“It was the moment when I thought, What should we do about this? So I decided to organise two more expeditions and to start mapping it at a more professional level.

“Especially during the third expedition, when we made some panoramic pictures and very exact measurements. And then I was thinking about what to do with these results.”

Those places are extremely remote and very, very far from any civilisation. Did you ever feel in danger?

“We were afraid of bears [laughs]. Because it’s deep forest, 200 kilometres from the nearest village. And we didn’t have a gun [laughs]. That was the only danger I felt.

“We had some problems. For example, during the third expedition we had a motorboat but the motor broke down. We had to stay on the boat without a motor.

“There was almost no current on the river, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We floated for four days, very slowly. And after four days we met the first boat, which saved us.

“So there were some moments which were not very comfortable.”

Photo: gulag.online
As you say, you were there 60 years after the camps were closed and abandoned. Is it still possible when you’re there to get a sense of what the horror of life was like there? It must have been really hell on earth.

“Yes, it must have been hell on earth.

“It’s really strange when you go in the deep forest and you find barbed wire, watchtowers and former barracks. You can feel a strange atmosphere there.

“But I have to say I didn’t have time to feel it very deeply then, because we had to work, we had to make measurements, we had to make photographs, videos, etc.

“Only after I come back from expeditions, only when I’m home in Prague, do I start to feel these horrors.

“Usually I am ill for one or two weeks after the expeditions because it’s a very emotional moment, being there. But I can feel that only after I come back.”

Generally, do you think people today are sufficiently aware of the Gulag and what it was and what a horror it was?

“I’m not sure. I’m not a sociologist, so I don’t have any exact data.

“But I would say for example that in the Czech Republic or in Europe, everybody knows about what the Holocaust was, what Nazi camps were, what they looked like. They know it’s possible to go to museums: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, etc.

“People often know there was some Gulag in the Soviet Union, but a lot of them think that it was just one camp, somewhere in Siberia.

“But nobody knows that there were 30,000 small camps over 40 years, from 1919 to 1960. It was a huge system.

“Almost 20 million people passed through the Gulag and there were at least two million victims of the Gulag.

“I would say not so many people know how huge the system was and how horrible it was.”

Two and a half years ago, I think it was, I spoke to you about the launch of something called Gulag.cz. Now you have launched Gulag.online. What’s the difference?

Photo: gulag.online
“Gulag.cz is the name of our organisation. After the first expedition, I started to think that it would be fine to have an organisation which could focus on the topic more professionally.

“Also the first results from our expeditions we published on Gulag.cz website. There was a small, very basic 3D model with panoramic pictures.

“And now after one year’s work we have made a new 3D model which is a complete reconstruction of a Gulag camp. You can go inside all the buildings.

“It is connected to satellite maps and old Russian military maps and it’s also connected to the testimonies of Czech victims of the Gulag.

“All of these things are connected to each other and it’s very interactive. It shows you a basic view of what the Gulag was, what Soviet repression was.”

You mentioned the testimonies of Czech victims of the Gulag. What kind of things were they telling you in these interviews, which are in video form?

“This part of the Gulag Online museum was done by my colleagues from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which is a partner of the museum.

“There is a project called Czechoslovaks in the Gulag at the Institute and my colleagues did, I think, more than 50 interviews with survivors over the last six or seven years; unfortunately most of them are dead today.

“They also very often go to Ukraine, to the former KGB and NKVD archives, which are today open to everyone, which is one of the results of the political changes in Ukraine. That’s very good for historians.

“They’ve found a lot of materials and documents and materials in those archives about Czechoslovak citizens.

“So we now have a lot of materials and we would like to add the results of this work to Gulag.online.

“Now there are 10 stories of Czechoslovaks or Czechs repressed in the Soviet Union, which are connected to the maps, to the 3D model.

“For example, if one of the witnesses speaks about life in the barracks you can just click and have a look at the 3D reconstruction of a barracks, etc. And we would like to go further in this.”

Photo: gulag.online
And some of the Czechoslovak victims of the Gulag were actually Russians who had come here before the end of WWI or between the wars?

“Yes. It was a very sad story. After the Bolsheviks took power in the Soviet Union, a lot of people who were against the Communists left.

“A lot of them, thousands of people from Russia and Ukraine, went into exile in Czechoslovakia before WWII.

“In the 1920s and 1930s there was a big community of them in Czechoslovakia. Most of them got Czechoslovak citizenship.

“But after the liberation of Prague in 1945 by the Red Army, one day after they liberated Prague and Czechoslovakia, NKVD soldiers started to arrest people from this exile community.

“They were Czechoslovak citizens but at that time the Czechoslovak state didn’t do anything.

“Hundreds of these people were abducted back to the Soviet Union. A lot of them were killed after trials and a lot of them were sentenced to the Gulag. It was a very sad story.

“The children of these people are still in the Czech Republic. We are in contact with them and they support our work.”