MAGADAN, Russia (Reuters) – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev laid flowers at a memorial to victims of the Soviet prison camps on Wednesday, a gesture campaigners said may mark a new readiness to confront Russia’s past.
Millions of people died in the Gulag prison camp system set up by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin but the episode receives little attention today and opinion polls show many Russians believe Stalin made their country strong.
Medvedev was the first Russian president to visit the memorial, in a remote region on Russia’s Pacific coast, and described the Gulag as “a tragic page in our country’s history.”
The memorial complex marks the spot where prisoners boarded barges to be taken along the Kolyma River to labor camps, a trip inmates called the Road of Bones.
Medvedev laid a bunch of red carnations at the Mask of Sorrow, a sculpture made in 1996 which depicts a vast craggy face weeping tears in the form of human skulls.
Medvedev’s visit is significant because his predecessor Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe,” stayed away from the memorial when he visited the region three years ago.
Addressing officials, Medvedev recalled that prison camp inmates were set to work mining for gold and building roads.
“We understand that the whole economic potential that exists here was built by the blood and sweat of millions of our countrymen. So that is all the more reason why we do not have the right to waste what was achieved at such a high price.”
A 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, Medvedev has displayed a different style from that of his predecessor and mentor. He has emphasized openness, freedom and respect for civil rights.
Putin, too, has condemned Stalin-era repression and last year visited a memorial near Moscow to honor victims.
Memorial, a non-governmental group that campaigns for wider recognition of the purges, said it hoped Medvedev would play a more active role.
“In the past years nothing has been done either to restore the memory of those who perished in the purges or to take care of those who survived,” Memorial chairman Arseny Roginsky said.
“We want to hope that this step by Medvedev will give a strong signal to both regional and central authorities that they should pay more attention to this topic, to implement the agenda of uprooting Stalinism.”
Historians estimate that up to 13 million people were killed or sent to labor camps in the former Soviet Union between 1921 and 1953, the year Stalin died.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians took an interest in discovering the truth about the period but that was soon eclipsed by day-to-day concerns about political turmoil and economic problems.
In recent years, Stalin’s legacy has been revised, with many people emphasizing the victory over Nazi Germany under his rule and his role in turning the Soviet Union into a world power.
An Internet poll to choose Russia’s most influential historical figure earlier this year ranked Stalin in second place, although he later dropped to 12th.
Some members of Russia’s parliament this month proposed returning a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, to its old spot outside the headquarters of Russia’s intelligence service in central Moscow.