Historians say the Russian authorities have started shredding Gulag archival records. Here’s what we know.
1. What happened?
Scholars have learned about the existence of a confidential interdepartmental memo ordering the destruction of all registration cards issued to convicts in the Soviet prison system who were 80 years old by February 2014. A researcher named Sergey Prudovsky first drew attention to this secret order on May 10. On June 8, the newspaper Kommersant reported that the director of Russia’s Gulag History Museum has also raised the issue in a letter to Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council.
2. What are these “cards”?
When people were sent to the Gulag, the prison system opened a personal case file on each inmate — a folder containing the state’s information about that individual. Prisoners were also assigned registration cards that listed their basic information: full name, year of birth, ethnicity, profession, conviction, sentence, and so on. If an inmate escaped from prison or was maimed or died while incarcerated, his case file was archived permanently, like cases involving imprisoned foreign citizens. In the mid-1950s, the Soviet authorities ordered the destruction of all files on anyone who survived and left the Gulag. (These case files had not been transferred to permanent storage.) Despite the policy, some of the records survived.
Unlike case files, prisoners’ registration cards were archived and in 1959 they were transferred to the Interior Ministry. In his book, “General Ivan Serov: First Chairman of the KGB,” the historian Nikita Petrov says the USSR’s judicial and extrajudicial authorities had issued roughly 26 million registration cards to convicts by November 1953. (A single prisoner could have multiple registration cards.)
These cards were issued to both Gulag prisoners, and to people who were forcibly resettled, such as “dekulakized” peasants and deported peoples.
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