Issue 57 (2017)

Sergei Kachkin: Perm 36: Reflexion (Perm’-36. Otrazhenie, 2016)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2017

Perm36 In the opening sequence of Sergei Kachkin’s documentary about the gulag and its place in contemporary post-Soviet memory, a tracking shot along a railway line leads the viewer through a bare wintry landscape into the bleakness and isolation of Siberia. It is a sequence full of foreboding, a view already resonant from other films documenting or dramatizing man’s inhumanity to man, its pathos captured by the journey of the modern railway from vaunted engines of progress to transporters of death. The camera takes us first through a dark tunnel before it reaches its final destination: Perm’-36, the only Stalin-era gulag camp preserved in its entirety in the post-Soviet era.

Perm36 The camp had originally been set up in 1946 for petty criminals, but, after Stalin’s death, it housed Beria’s “henchmen,” as the guide put it, who were transferred here for their “illegal repressions.” From 1972, it housed mostly political prisoners, the first hundred of them transferred from the Mordovian camps in July of that year, when the notorious ‘Perm’ Triangle’ of Perm’-35, 36, and 37 was born. The last prisoner was released in December 1987, and in 1994 it was turned into a private Museum of the History of Political Repressions by Victor Shmyrov, its founder, and his wife, Tat’iana Kursina, its Director. It was evidently a popular venue for tourist groups, and even grander plans were envisaged for it as the basis for a major research center on this theme in the region.

Perm36Produced, directed, written, and shot by Sergei Kachkin, who had grown up in nearby Perm’, this film took five years to complete, was financed in part by crowd-funding, by the support of an anonymous patron, and by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Kachkin had been initially attracted by the Pilorama Information Center, an international civic forum, which had convened annually at the site of the museum since 2005. Including exhibitions, concerts, shows, and film screenings, the Pilorama meetings sought to educate the public about the camp and about political repression in the USSR. “There had been various moments,” he said, “both negative and positive, as at any public forum, but the spirit of freedom could be felt there, the possibility of exchanging both information and energy” (Shakirov 2016). Indeed, this potential for lively exchange at the civic forum had inspired Kachkin’s original working title for the film, Perm’-36 – A Territory of Freedom. As significant changes overtook the Museum in the third year of filming, however, he changed the subtitle to “Reflection” for its mirroring of both encouraging and disquieting trends in contemporary Russian society and for its reflection of the past in the present (Anon. 2016).

Perm36 The director focuses here on three former political prisoners: a factory worker, Viktor Pestov, imprisoned for five years for anti-Soviet leafleting, the literary scholar Mikhail Meilakh, sentenced to seven years in prison for collecting forbidden Soviet literature that had been published abroad, and the well-known human rights activist and former Duma Deputy, Sergei Kovalev, who spent 12 years there. Kachkin gives them the camera, so to speak, and lets each speak at length, with rarely an interjection. Each narrates his life in quite revealing ways. Pestov, here surrounded by visitors to the camp, charts his life from his anti-state leafleting in Sverdlovsk through his imprisonment with his brother, noting with some pride that his category of prisoner was regarded as particularly dangerous by the authorities. He mentions in passing that his mother, a KGB colonel, had asked to be relieved of her duties after his arrest, and had to take menial jobs thereafter. His language and facial expressions, and his boast that he continued his illegal activities after his release in 1975, convey to the viewer his perhaps inevitable conviction that it had all been worth it. He tells the visitors of his regret at causing his mother such trouble, but that she had forgiven him, telling him “vse po-russki” (roughly, “it’s the Russian way” to let such things pass). It is a cursory narrative of the details but a rather pat self-narration, and Kachkin himself gently notes later that “Pestov boasted a little,” and that this was “part of his image” (Shakirov 2016).

Perm36The second prisoner, Meilakh, filmed in his residence on the Gulf of Finland, splits his time between Russia and Strasbourg where he is a professor of French Literature. He was imprisoned for collecting banned Soviet literature (Solzhenitsyn, Mandel’shtam, etc) published abroad (tamizdat), and locates himself very firmly within the firmament of Soviet literary dissidence. The son of a successful and well-known orthodox Soviet literary critic, Meilakh narrates his life as one of rebellion going back to his primary school days, where he engaged in breaches of the rules, and recalls an illegal visit as a young boy to a British naval vessel anchored on the Neva, for which he had an early run-in with the authorities. He was, he noted with a wry smile, “destined to go to prison.” He takes pride in his baiting of his interrogators who wanted him to collaborate and inform on his friends. He even successfully demanded that one of his confiscated manuscripts be returned to him in prison, where he was able to work on it, although it was later re-confiscated. He still managed to outsmart them though, by having them send it to a collaborator and causing them no end of embarrassment, and even the heart attack of the person investigating him. Like Pestov’s self-narrative, Meilakh’s is an understandably human story of the survival of spirit and community in the face of awful odds. The revelation that he was released only after he acknowledged his guilt (he wanted to get home to his dying father) complicates this narrative a little.

Perm36The self-narration of the third prisoner, Kovalev, is located firmly in the Siberian countryside, Kachkin filming an extended sequence of him shooting wild grouse and recounting an old fairytale. Kovalev’s narrative is the least personalized, placing his dissident activities in a context of philosophically grounded and deeply principled concern for, as he puts it, the “moral right to self-respect.” For him, this is not merely a Soviet or Russian fight, but a global one for a world in moral crisis. However we read their self-narratives, these three men have clearly known lives of privation, isolation, and loneliness that began with Perm’-36, but may not have completely ended there.

Perm36 None of these narrations provide much detail about the regime in this particular camp during the 1970s, other than by inference. Oddly, Kachkin throws a light onto the larger context of the gulag system by discussing an exhibition room at Perm’-36 devoted to the extreme brutality of the conditions at the Kolyma camp system instead. The visitors’ reactions to Perm’-36 are at best hard to decipher. Kachkin saw in them “indifference,” something he attributed largely to young people’s ignorance of their own history (one individual had apparently asked where the gas chambers were). He did concede that some recognized the tragedy of the situation, although they preserved an ironic distance (Shakirov 2016). It is, however, undeniably easier to read one’s own expectations and disappointments into facial expressions than it is to divine actual views from them.


The most revealing aspects of this film come in the final forty minutes devoted to the Pilorama civic forum. This section is rich in vignettes, largely uninterrupted by the director, of individuals speaking about the Soviet past in ways that are revealing of the often poorly conceived, unintentionally self-aggrandizing, or knowingly misleading ways in which people harness the past to justify their present selves and actions. These views, sometimes a single view, reveal not only hopeless nostalgia for a Lost Russia but also clear-eyed realizations of the Way Russia Never Was.[1] This is nowhere clearer than in the forum discussion on the theme of “Twenty Years after the USSR: Losses and Gains.” The camp inmates reminisce about the gains in freedoms in post-Soviet Russia, particularly since the days of Stalin, pointing out that in those days this kind of gathering would have ended up with everyone being imprisoned. A group of young red-shirted members of the local Communist Youth League increasingly show contempt for them. As the ‘discussion’ degenerates into near-physical conflict among members of the audience, Kovalev’s barely controlled anger and Meilakh’s wry bemusement speak volumes about the status and condition of the past in modern Russia. One young woman asks why, if this is a democracy and most people want the return of the USSR, it should not be brought back? Kovalev’s response that “democracy is not, above all, the power of the majority but the rights of the minority” is met by audience members with a mixture of scorn and befuddlement, and suggests a real gulf of understanding between these young audience members and those who see value in the persistence of the museum and its civic forum.

Perm36 In the course of this film project, Perm’-36 was subject to administrative and financial attacks from the local authorities in Perm’. Looking suspiciously like a centrally coordinated campaign to undermine the whole enterprise, the Perm’ Ministry of Culture first turned this public museum into a state institution. It later fired Shmyrov and Kursina after a sustained media blitz against them. The new directors of the museum dismantled an exhibition documenting the incarceration of political prisoners in the Brezhnev era (Shakirov 2016). Kachkin notes that the exhibits were changed to  present dry facts on the gulag, and Pilorama was terminated, ending the scholarly research activities that had attracted local, national, and international researchers. Kachkin’s film also appears to have become a target of the campaign to end free discussion of the camp system. An online ‘review’ offers an idea of the tenor of this campaign. The author complains that the film had no business being shown on the anniversary of October, and that it had relied on very limited public funding and foreign funding. He criticizes the film’s failure to note that the museum “was an acknowledged foreign agent.” Worse yet, the reviewer claims that those sentenced to the camp were not political prisoners but rather “traitors to the Motherland,” including banderovtsy, spies, ‘forest brothers’ and the like. He concluded by personally impugning the three former inmates featured (Starikov 2017). Two prominent film festivals in Russia, the International Documentary Film Festival Flahertiana in Perm’ and the Message to Man Film Festival in St. Petersburg, refused to show the film, in Kachkin’s view, for fear of political—and possibly financial - reprisals from the local and central authorities (Anon. 2016).

Perm36 Why was this museum deemed so threatening at this moment in time? The film does not really answer this question, although the museum staff is unanimous in its opinion that one group in particular, Sut’ vremeni (Essence of Time), a supposedly “left-patriotic” movement, was behind the campaign. At its height, Pilorama attracted barely a hundred visitors, and while the museum was reportedly well visited throughout the year, it is hard to imagine this location eighty kilometers outside of Perm’ becoming a major tourist site. As the film shows, the museum is clearly being run on a shoe-string budget, and notwithstanding its plans for the future, its reach seems limited. A final rather poignant scene features a fund-raising auction of Pilorama materials which raised 30,000 rubles for the museum. The opposition itself, here represented by two groups, the youth league of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and Sut’ vremeni, seem threadbare at best. In Kachkin’s interview with the CPRF members in the camping area (for some reason, he does not include any interview with Sut’ vremeni ), the members mimic old Komsomol tropes and rituals that have little relevance to most people today. The First Secretary, Sergei Andrianov, does all the talking, and his two young PR and propaganda aides are oddly mute. His bland assertions of the greatness of Lenin and Stalin, and his cursory dismissal of the gulag population as largely insignificant in such a large country, seem more the product of willful ignorance than anything else. Indeed, he becomes most animated when criticizing Sut’ vremeni, which he views as little more than a Putin front with no real connection to Soviet Russian values. One is left wondering whether the Perm’ Ministry of Culture is acting less in response to organizations like Sut’ vremeni than using them as stalking horses to enact Moscow’s wishes.

Perm36 Two final vignettes suffice to convey the flyblown nature of oppositionists here. In the first, three “reenactors” dress up in old NKVD uniforms, asserting that the NKVD side of the story needs to be told. Again, bland, inchoate ideas about the disastrous turn to capitalism and the need to return to the values of a great country are confidently espoused by the man here (the two women remain silent). Of course, the NKVD ‘side’ of the story is present in every exhibition or museum about the gulag, but this man is clearly envisaging a kind of discourse in which the inmate and the NKVD officer are accorded some kind of balanced consideration, however that might look. The callous ignorance on display here is simply grotesque. Sitting awkwardly on an old, overstuffed, moldy couch in the middle of a blustery littered field in modern Russia, all three seem blissfully unaware of the distance they would have to travel morally and intellectually to become a real secret police officer in this Brezhnev-era camp. The second vignette takes place in a nearby city, possibly Perm’, where a tiny group of older Komsomolki hold a street rally to honor Stalin. The leader of the group presents a standard Stalinist-era gloss on Soviet history and importunes the young to fight for something more than “marrying an oligarch’s daughter.” The reactions of the small group in attendance, however, undercut its intended gravity in various little ways highlighted by the camera. These nostalgic Stalinists, Kachkin tells us, are a small group of misfits out of step with time.


Kachkin, then, is not offering here an extended and measured disquisition on the place of the gulag past in the post-Soviet present. Nor is that his intention. His is a film of vignettes, but all the more powerful for it. The inchoateness of ideas and values evident in many of these vignettes is familiar from recent examples both in Europe and in the US. We have already seen conservative populist and xenophobic citizenries deeply alienated from their own states, expressing vague desires to ‘take back’ their countries and make them great again. If the precise nature of these desires is unclear, the anger and disillusion in them is not.


1] See, for an example of each, bothfrom 1992, Stanislav Govorukhin’s film The Russia we Lost (Rossiia kotoruiu my poteriali); and Stephanie Coontz’s book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.

Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary

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Works Cited

Anon. 2016. “Against Repression Nostalgia: An Interview with Sergei Kachkin on his film-making life and his new film ‘Perm 36: Reflexion,’” Soviet and Post-Soviet Visions blog, 1 September.

Mueller, Steen. 2016. “Sergey Kachkin: Perm-36. Reflexion.” 24 August.

Shakirov, Mumin. 2016. “Perm’-36 kak metafora,” Radio Svoboda 23 November].

Starikov, Nikolai. 2017. “Khroniki lzhi ‘El’tsin-tsentra’: ‘Perm’-36’. Otrazhenie’ – pervye shagi dlia reabilitatsii ‘vlasovtsev’?” PVO [Partiia velikoe otechestvo] 21 January.


Perm’-36. Reflexion, Russia, 2016
Color, 100 min.
Director: Sergei Kachkin
Screenwriter: Sergei Kachkin
Cameraman: Sergei Kachkin
Editor: Kolia Votinov
Sound engineer: Nelli Ivanova
Sound mixer: Vladimir Ermakov
Assistant sound mixer: Elena Seregina
Music: Maik Kirin
Producers: Sergei Kachkin; Konstantin Nafikov
Production: april filmlab co-produced with Reflexion Films

Sergei Kachkin: Perm 36: Reflexion (Perm’-36. Otrazhenie, 2016)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2017

Updated: 11 Jul 17