On January 11, 2016, Elena Racheva presented her book, 58th Uneliminated, at the Woodrow Wilson Center. 58th Uneliminated discusses the deplorable conditions in the Soviet Union’s Gulag during Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror through various testimonies from survivors and former employees of the Gulag. These testimonies also serve as important representations of Russia’s transition from a former Communist state to today’s society. Racheva’s book ultimately portrays a Russian society that has not effectively transitioned to provide justice or closure to its gulag victims. Yet, Post-Soviet Russia stands in stark contrast to its ally North Korea. Despite Russia’s inability or unwillingness to fully repair its past, it has transitioned away from Communism; a success story which North Korea, a country where up to 120,000 victims are held in political prison camps, cannot claim. As a result, there is still time to draw careful comparisons between the two countries and learn transitional justice lessons for North Korea’s gulag victims.
The Soviet gulag was first established under Vladimir Lenin following the Bolshevik Revolution. GULAG is actually a Russian acronym for (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerey), which means "Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies of the Soviet Secret Police" . Under the Gulag system, corrective labor camps were created to eliminate and isolate people perceived to be socially dangerous, mainly disruptive class-aliens whose actions and ways of thinking were deemed to be obstructing the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat . The camps contained several million inmates who were arrested and forced off their land in 1929 as part of Stalin’s Five Year Plan, an attempt to force a 20% annual increase in the Soviet Union’s industrial output and to collectivize agriculture. The camps centered on the complete disregard for the humanity of the prisoners and the obstinate efforts to attempt to fulfill the Plan. As a result, many people were held as political prisoners; others were imprisoned for petty offenses. The conditions in the camps were extremely harsh, with prisoners working long hours and receiving inadequate food rations and insufficient clothing. The diabolical living conditions in which these individuals were confined resulted in the death of nearly a quarter of the Gulag prisoners during the war years. .
Whilst writing her book, Racheva discovered that the Gulag subculture remains prevalent in many rural parts of Russia today, with many Russians being unable to change their habits and ways of thinking from the Gulag era. It became apparent to her that recognition had not been given to the innocent victims that were imprisoned in the Gulag, as most crimes that were committed up until 1953 had been completely displaced from mass consciousness. Racheva remarked that only a few memorials had been constructed to commemorate the innocent victims of Stalin’s labor camps. The decades of institutionalized political violence have not been chronicled; hence no collective or individual responsibility has been determined.
Additionally, there appears to be a lack of general understanding and education for former prisoners to process this horrific event in their lives. Many names of those that were repressed have been forgotten in today’s Russia, with many showing disinterest or indifference towards the history of the Gulag. Little, if any mention is made of what happened during Stalin’s reign or what occurred in the Gulag. It became clear to Racheva that many victims had omitted or refused to tell their loved ones, relatives, and neighbours that they had been, in fact, prisoners and had been held in the Gulag.
There are many reasons as to why former prisoners of the Gulag were reluctant to tell their own children about their experiences. Many wanted to protect their children from the brutality that they had experienced. They did not want their children knowing that they had suffered. It also appears as if many had omitted to tell their children out of fear for their safety or well-being. Many of the interviewees believed that if someone knew that they had been in the Gulag, their children would not be able to have an education or a prosperous career. The way of life in Russia is treacherous and laborious for many, and so it is not difficult to fathom that many former victims are unwilling to describe their experiences in the Gulag as they are spending their time trying to cope with life today .
In addition to the victims, Racheva also interviewed former prisoner camp guards and found that lack of accountability and remorse for the atrocities that occurred in the Gulag remains a constant reality for them. Many former perpetrators that Racheva interviewed expressed no remorse and stated that they felt that they had done nothing wrong; that they were doing simply what they were commanded to do. One might infer that Russia, as a country, has failed in its responsibility as a State to completely ensure that the older generation realize that the actions of the perpetrators were not only wrong but also criminal.
North Korea’s Gulag
North Korea also has a similar gulag-like prison camp system to that which was established during Stalin’s reign in the former Soviet Union. The situation in North Korea’s political prison camps is so dire that comparisons have been made to both the Soviet Gulag and the Nazi Holocaust. The prison camps in North Korea have been fraught with human rights violations. Those who are perceived as posing a threat to the regime are sent to the prison camps. Due to North Korea’s practice of guilt by association, three generations of entire families are imprisoned for the alleged political crime of a single family member, and they face dire conditions, extreme starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, and rape .
The human rights record in North Korea has not been subject to serious internal review; hence dominant collective national narratives are normally assessed in positive terms . Furthermore, North Korea has vehemently denied that any political prison camps exist and has continued to assert that its citizens have their human rights guaranteed.
The secrecy that surrounds mass atrocities in Russia is similar to what is currently occurring in North Korea. Prisoners who are released from the prison camps are required to publicly pledge their loyalty and appreciation to the regime. Prisoners are sworn to secrecy and must promise not to disclose information about the camps to those outside . North Korea is characterized by its expanded use of secrecy coupled with terror in order to control and manipulate mass opinion amongst its citizens. North Korea is the world’s most secretive and inaccessible country today and continues to refuse access to human rights monitors, and journalists rarely conduct impartial reporting.  North Korea’s repressive regime, therefore, makes it very difficult to acquire information, and efforts to seek accountability face significant hurdles . The difficulty of changing collective consciousness has been exacerbated by the structural deficit of knowledge about the prison camps in North Korea; the geography and location of the gulags in North Korea is unknown to most North Koreans.
The rest of the world has only begun to find out in recent years about North Korea’s gulags through investigations by human rights NGOs and a UN Commission of Inquiry report released in February 2014. Among such NGOs, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) distinguished itself by using satellite imagery for the first time to investigate the camps through its landmark report “Hidden Gulag” (2003). For the past 13 years, HRNK has released multiple reports on North Korea’s prison camps. HRNK has worked on many projects to highlight these camps and to provide information to the public about location, conditions, prisoners, human rights abuses, and any changes seen through high-resolution satellite images . Despite such efforts, the culture of secrecy surrounding North Korea’s political prison camps has had a huge and lasting impact on the construction of collective memory in relation to mass violence .
North Korea and Post-Soviet Russia
Little attempt has been made in post-Soviet Russia to confront its mass political violence, and no such attempt has been made in North Korea. The political culture in Russia and North Korea means that neither country has come to terms with its repression. Cynicism has grown throughout Russia due to years of widespread political corruption, theft of public assets, and the rapid erosion of the standard of living. This has generated a society that is nostalgic for its idealized past and one that is less critical of Stalin rather than a society that has faced its historical reality . Both societies can be characterized by a non-transparent political system, lack of accountability, prohibition of public discussion of the repression, and little sensitivity towards human suffering. Therefore, the problem lies in the fact that neither Russia nor North Korea has established democratic traditions that balance individual rights with collective responsibilities.
Unfortunately, this is unsurprising given that in the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been no government inquiries, public debates, open trials, or reconciliation commissions . There have only been a few attempts at transitional justice to prosecute those who were responsible for designing and administrating the Soviet concentration camp system, and therefore it has proven to be difficult to draw lines of accountability in Russia . For example, amendments to laws were made in 1991 that removed the possibility of claiming financial compensation for pain or suffering received whilst being a prisoner in the Gulag. Therefore, those who had experienced moral anguish have been unable to receive compensation, and this perpetuates the social stigma attached to these individuals who are still being viewed as ‘enemies of the people’ . Russia’s post-repressive society has failed to completely recognize the benefits of moving toward democratization and has evidently failed in restorative and retributive justice efforts.
HRNK’s Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu points out that, however, “as corrupt, violent, repressive, and opaque as Putin’s Russia is today, the differences between Russia and North Korea are immense.” For one, North Korean regime adamantly refuses to admit that political prison camps exist, whereas some attempts have been made in Russia to ensure that there is a general awareness that the camps, in fact, existed. For example, textbooks in Russia ambiguously refer to concentration camps. Furthermore, public awareness of the Gulag in Russia has been drawn from various sources. Soviet archives began opening in the early 1990s, which resulted in the publication of archival document collections and publication series that contain first-hand accounts of life in the Gulag . Writers have contributed to the public criticism of Stalinism and fostered an acute awareness of a collective trauma. Writers such as Solzhenitsyn exposed the horrors of the Gulag and emphasized the pivotal role that Stalin played in creating a regime of mass repression. Although there are not many, there are a handful of private monuments and museums that have been erected and scattered around Russia to commemorate former prisoners of the Gulag.
In addition, after Nikita Khruschev’s 1956 ‘Secret Speech,’ in which he condemned Stalin’s crimes to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, Russia went through a process of ‘De-Stalinization’. Under Khruschev, Stalin was deemed responsible for the widespread repression and mass atrocities of the Gulag, and Stalin’s policy of purge and murder was discontinued. Stalin was denounced for the crimes that he had perpetrated, including the imprisonment, torture, and execution of individuals on false charges . De-Stalinization meant that secret police tactics were erased, forced labor camps were closed, legal procedures were restored, and there was a greater degree of meaningful public discussion over what had occurred during Stalin’s reign .
Efforts to enforce transitional justice in post-Soviet Russian society has seen the emergence of a partially independent civil society with social movements and protests occurring from time to time. For example, the Public Chamber was established under Vladimir Putin in 2004 to make the interaction between civil society and the state easier by creating an official framework in which individuals can express their suggestions . Civil society organizations have made recommendations for the state admission of state culpability and demanded a ‘federal program’ to study terror and ensure that discussions center around not only the victims, but also the criminals who perpetrated the crimes in the Gulag . Such organizations have seen real achievements in cementing collective memory in Russia by providing legal support to rehabilitation procedures, contributing to the erection of memorials, and publishing lists of victims . Furthermore, the ‘Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russian Federation Interests’ was established in 2009 to look at manipulated facts or misrepresentations of past events . And by the end of 2001, 4.5 million political prisoners had been rehabilitated in Russia through the National Rehabilitation Commission .
Based on the testimonies from 58th Uneliminated, however, more can and should be done so that the Russian government intervenes to promote the recognition of its society’s traumatic past, specifically for the victims of the Gulag.
The administration of stern justice to perpetrators of injustice, as well as social integration and social rehabilitation of the victims of injustice, seem unlikely until the collapse of the Kim regime and the end of the military dictatorship that prides itself on its rule of terror. Nevertheless, it remains incumbent on new governments that have been preceded by repressive regimes to assess past crimes, memorialize victims through acknowledgement and compensation, and condemn past practices.
Despite transitional justice being scarce and limited in Russia, the changes that have been made in Post-Soviet Russia might offer a precedent for North Korea when the time comes for it to transition. Even though the reparations in Russia might be deemed to be simply ‘symbolic,’ no such measures have been implemented in North Korea. In order to protect human rights, the narrative presentation in both North Korea and Russia must consist of accurate facts and authentic perceptions of what occurred. Eyewitness testimonies, like those in Racheva’s book, for example, as well as survivor testimonies from prison camps, will be instrumental in reconstructing narratives and understanding what happened in those camps.
Without institutional recognition of the damage suffered by the victims, pacified collective memory will continue to be the norm in North Korea. In order to challenge mainstream history and to recognize the terror that has been inflicted in North Korea and in the Russian Gulag, a fundamental change needs to occur at the political level, where we move from a system of governance that devalues human rights towards one that prioritizes a democratic ethos .
 For more information on the event in which Racheva presented her book (GULAG: Gone But Not Forgotten) see: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/gulag-gone-not-forgotten.
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 HRNK has produced numerous publications on North Korea’s Gulag system from satellite imagery. For more information, please read The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps; North Korea’s Camp No. 22; North Korea’s Camp No. 25; and Imagery Analysis of Camp 15 “Yodok” Closure of the “Revolutionizing Zone”.
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 Applebaum, Anne. "The Gulag: Lest We Forget." Hoover Institution. January 30, 2005. Accessed February 29, 2016. http://www.hoover.org/research/gulag-lest-we-forget.
 Hong, Seong-Phil. “Transitional Justice in North Korea: Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities.” Center for Strategic & International Studies. August 20, 2010. Accessed January 27, 2016. http://csis.org/files/publication/110124_Transitional_Justice_North-Korea.pdf.