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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Remember the Dead Who Slaved in Gulags




Across from the 2nd Rechka Bus Station stands a two-story wooden building that houses an odd collection of businesses: a lawyer's office, a notary public, a dentist, a newspaper, a funeral home and, in the basement, a new barbecue restaurant.


The paint has weathered away, but the structure retains touches of old Russian craftsmanship. The window frames are carved decoratively, and stars embellish some of the beams. The building, like Lubyanka in Moscow, stands at the heart of one of the 20th century's great convulsions of evil. It was a clinic for Vladivostok's gulag transit camp, from which the NKVD sent hundreds of thousands of slave laborers north and worked them to death in the arctic.


Next door, an auto repair shop sits in what looks like a stone-fronted bomb shelter half buried in the hill, and on Wednesday, the steel doors were locked and nobody knew where the mechanic had gone. But I could hear the ghosts calling within. It was once the camp's morgue.


These days, by the port of Vladivostok, workers are repairing the crumbling Monument to the Fighters for Soviet Power in the Far East, and they have slopped gallons of glossy black paint over two sculptures of soldiers and peasants at its base. But as a taxpayer, I protest. I want a monument to those who were sent to their deaths through the Vladivostok transit camp. And because I know my voice carries great weight with the mayor's office, I wish to endorse the plans of Valery Nenazhivin.


Nenazhivin is a grizzled Vladivostok sculptor who has claimed an old brick building as his studio and works amid disembodied metal heads, a pair of wooden lovers and a likeness of Andrei Sakharov. In 1985, Nenazhivin completed a 2.8-meter sculpture of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Vladivostok transit camp December 1938. Until the late 1980s, it was impossible to find Mandelstam's works in print in the Soviet Union, and Nenazhivin typed and distributed them through samizdat, or clandestine publishing .


Nenazhivin wanted to place the sculpture at 2nd Rechka. But in September, the mayor's office finally put it behind a cinema at the Stoletya bus stop. The figure lasted six months before hooligans smashed its head and left hand. Nenazhivin plans to cast a new Mandelstam in copper, and he hopes the new mayor's administration will place it beside the old camp building.


Nearly everyone at Kolyma, the gold mine gulag near Magadan, came through Vladivostok. In 1935, 44,601 live prisoners arrived. In 1936, there were 62,703. In 1937, 80,258 came to dig gold in the tundra. So the numbers went during Stalin's terror.


Thus, while it is stirring to reflect on the Bolshevist struggle that brought modern Vladivostok into being, the city should save its paint. Let the monument crumble. Vladivostok has others it needs to remember.