New Russian documentary brings the horrors of the Gulag to the YouTube generation

Filming conditions in Kolyma, far in Russia's northeast: -55C outside. Photo: Yuri Dud's YouTube channel, screencapped by Runet Echo.

Yuri Dud seems an unlikely figure to rekindle Russia’s conscience about the darker chapters in its history. The former sports reporter now runs his own YouTube interview show where he interviews celebrities and other public figures. Each interview generates millions of views, making Dud a serious competitor even to state-owned TV. Although Dud has interviewed activists and politicians such as Alexey Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner, he is considered more of a society columnist than a “serious” reporter.

That's why the subject of Dud’s latest show shocked his both 5 million and the general public: a two-hour documentary about the Kolyma region, in Russia’s far northeast, that is almost synonymous with Stalin-era repressions.

This frozen, mostly impassable Arctic wasteland was home to the most notorious camps of the Gulag, the Soviet network of forced labor compounds into which thousands of petty criminals and political prisoners disappeared. It’s hard to tell exactly how many people perished from extreme cold (temperatures in winter routinely drop below -50C), or of hunger and toil in the mines, but even conservative official estimates put the number at 150 thousand victims in just one of the biggest Kolyma camps from 1932 to 1957.

Dud is aware of the contrast between his usual subject matter and the sensitive theme of his latest episode. As he explains in the opening sequence:

А почему вообще после рэперов, юмористов, музыкантов, актеров и режиссеров мы двинулись к такой сложной и тревожной теме? Причины две. Первая: в октябре 2018 года ВЦИОМ опубликовал социологическое исследование, которое привело нас в ступор. Почти половина молодых людей в возрасте от 18 до 24 лет никогда не слышала о сталинских репрессиях. Мы восприняли это как вызов и ждали момента, чтобы этот вызов принять.

After all the rappers, comedians, musicians, actors, and directors, why in the world are we engaging this complex and disturbing subject? Two reasons. Number one: In October 2018, VTsIOM [Russian Public Opinion Research Center] published a survey that left us in a stupor. Almost half of young people aged 18-24 have never heard of Stalin’s repressions. We've treated that as a challenge and awaited the right moment to tackle it.

Dud adds that his parents have always warned him: “Don’t attract unnecessary attention. Don’t stand out. We’re simple people, we don’t decide anything,” even in circumstances of obvious injustice. He says how he has always wondered about the origins of this fear among older Russians and concludes that “it was born in the first half of the 20th century and reached us through generations.” Kolyma, Dud says, is “the birthplace of our fear.”

Dud’s words have struck a chord with exactly the audience he was aiming for: younger Russians oblivious or only barely aware of their country’s brutal recent history.

Watching the #dud episode about repressions, my dad and grandpa told me it was bad, but I’ve never realized how bad.

The film is structured as a travelogue: Dud’s crew travels two thousand kilometers along the Kolyma highway, a mostly unpaved road between two regional capitals, Magadan and Yakutsk. So many prisoners died during its construction in the 1930s that the highway is colloquially known as “the road of bones.”

Along the road, Dud reaches or nearly reaches the sites of some of the deadliest camps, including Butugychag where inmates were forced to mine uranium ore without protective gear. He meets local activists fighting to preserve the memories of the victims from the forces of public indifference and unforgiving nature.

Dud also interviews descendants of Gulag inmates such as Natalia Korolyova, the daughter of Sergey Korolyov, father of the Soviet space program. Korolyov was arrested in 1938, spent several months in a labor camp in Kolyma and, nearing death from starvation and exhaustion, was transferred to a prison-like facility for researchers in Moscow until his release in 1944. Korolyov survived, but was not fully exonerated until 1957.

Korolyov’s daughter struggles to hold back tears as she describes the torture he suffered at the hands of his interrogators. Yet Dud is stunned by Korolyova’s opinion of Joseph Stalin. Her answers provide an insight into how complicated the issue of Stalin-era repressions is in modern Russia, even for people acutely aware of the horrors they inflicted on millions. While acknowledging the terrible toll of the Gulag system, including on her own family, Korolyova says:

Но многое было сделано, конечно, и хорошего. Например, при Сталине была дисциплина более стойкая. Потом, то, что Сталин не уехал из Москвы, когда враги, фашисты, стояли буквально у стен Москвы. Парад на Красной площади состоялся. Трудно судить, конечно.

But he did a lot of good things. For example, under Stalin we had stricter discipline. Stalin didn’t abandon Moscow when the enemies, the fascists, were literally at Moscow’s walls. He even held a parade on Red Square. It’s hard to judge, of course.

Anticipating the criticism that followed his documentary’s release, Dud ends the episode by stressing that the horrors of the past still have consequences in society today:

Некоторые из тех, кто досмотрел наше видео до конца, скажут: «Дудь, ну что тебе этот Сталин? Что ты так часто о нем говоришь? Тебе же недавно сказали, в чем одна из главных проблем в России: в том, что она живет прошлым, что до сих пор постоянно обсуждает, был Сталин прав, не был Сталин прав?» Мы проехали трассу «Колыма» не чтобы обсуждать, прав Сталин или нет. Дать правильный ответ на этот вопрос совсем не сложно и без нашего участия. Мы проехали трассу «Колыма», потому что это […] про наше настоящее. Страх — главный враг свободы. […] Не бойтесь. Уважайте себя. И, возможно, тогда периодов, когда к людям относятся хуже, чем к животным, в нашей стране больше никогда не случится. Всем мир.

Some of those who watch our video to the end will say: “Dud, what is it with you and Stalin? Why do you keep bringing him up? Didn’t someone tell you not that long ago that one of Russia’s main problems is that it lives in the past? That it’s still busy discussing if Stalin was right or wrong?” We didn’t travel the Kolyma highway to discuss if Stalin was right or wrong. You don’t need us to give the right answer to that simple question. We traveled the Kolyma highway because it’s […] about our present. […] Fear is the greatest enemy of freedom. […] Don’t be afraid. Respect yourself. Maybe then, our country won’t see any more times where people are treated worse than animals.

Dud’s documentary was an instant hit, even for his high standards: in the first week after its release, it received almost 12 million views. But with such a complex, controversial subject, the documentary predictably attracted critics. Award-winning writer Zakhar Prilepin in an op-ed, accused Dud of being a paid agent of the West on a mission to discredit Russia’s glorious history and undermine patriotism. Others disputed the figures mentioned in the episode, arguing that the real number of Gulag victims was lower.

Stupid reds are running around the internet, claiming that Dud screwed up the figures. See, they’re saying, it’s two odd million here, or he exaggerated by 25 percent there. Well then! Since there are irregularities and the pile of Russian corpses is actually 25 percent smaller, then to hell with it; let’s forgive the reds! Thank them for their humanism!

Some, echoing Natalia Korolyova, conceded that many innocent people perished in the labor camps, but argued that the situation still compared favorably to today’s (perceived) lawlessness:

Began watching Dud and turned it off after 30 minutes, the entire episode is steeped in hatred towards the Soviet Union and Stalin, I wouldn't be surprised if Dud ended it with “It's a shame Hitler didn't win.” As far as the camps are concerned: yes, many did time for a dog’s dick of a reason, it was brutal indeed… But everyone was too scared shitless to steal anything (that’s what we’re lacking today.) But damn, our times aren’t all that different, it’s just that the consequences are smaller: you can steal 30 billion and spent some five years in jail, no firing squads.

Such comments are quite common among contemporary defenders of Stalin’s policies. A record 51 percent of Russians told the independent polling agency Levada Center in March 2019 that they viewed Joseph Stalin positively. “Stalin is seen as a figure who ensured social justice, something Russians are increasingly seeking amid discontent with falling living standards and a government reform of pensions,” Karina Pipia, an analyst at Levada, told Bloomberg.

Despite the best efforts of Yuri Dud, alongside those of countless other civic activists, Russia will probably remain deeply conflicted over Stalin’s legacy many years from now. Russians’ fondness for Stalin and nostalgia for his era cannot be simply attributed to the government “whitewashing” the past. In fact, most contemporary efforts to commemorate Stalin are private initiatives, whereas many high-ranking government officials, such as Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, readily condemn Stalin and his repressions. In 2017 Vladimir Putin himself unveiled a memorial to the Gulag’s victims, declaring that “this terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and cannot be justified.”

A negative view of Stalin's legacy might be one of the few things shared by both Putin and his many critics, some of whom have appeared on Yuri Dud’s show.

The latest episode of Yuri Dud's show is available on YouTube with English subtitles:

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