Between 1939 and 1953, the Soviet Union deported almost one million people from the European territories it occupied. Some were sent to labour camps but most were deported to become settlers in villages in Siberia and central Asia.
There they faced starvation, illness, humiliation and often, death.
On 11 March, the French Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in cooperation with Radio France Internationale, which had already published a sound archive, launched an online museum with more than 150 testimonies of European survivors of the Gulag.
Teodor Shannin, now 80-years-old, is one of them. He was present at the launch of the online museum.
“I am delighted”, he says, “because this is an important piece of the history of eastern Europe about which very little is known.”
Leading the research and responsible for the team carrying out the interviews with the Gulag survivors is Alain Blum, director of Russian, Caucasian and Central European studies with the CNRS.
“In Europe we know about the Gulag but we think it is part of the history of the USSR”, he says. “On the contrary, it’s a part of European history.”
In cooperation with RFI, the Berlin-based Centre Marc Bloch, Cefres in Prague and the Franco-Russian centre for research on social sciences and humanities, 13 researchers travelled to 15 countries – in the former USSR, eastern Europe, Germany, France and Italy - and took interviewed survivors in eight languages.
It was easy to find former gulag inmates, many now in the 70s or 80, Blum says, because some had formed groups to meet and share their stories.
Most were happy to talk about their sometimes gruesome experiences, but there were exceptions.
“Some of them are still afraid, even now,” Blum says. “Either they didn’t want to be quoted by name, or they refused to speak altogether, because they are under the impression that it is still the same as under Stalin.”
But, he adds, these cases were rare.
One of the translators for the online museum is Vadim Poniakov, whose father was deported to the Gulag.
Much of what people told him during the interviews was “familiar,” he says, but he was often moved by what they had to say.
“My father was sent to Stalin’s camps for 15 years, and I was born in eastern Siberia of all places. So when I did the interviews, I felt as if I were inside. It wasn’t just an outsider’s testimony.”
Poniakov stresses the importance of the online museum, if only to raise awareness among the younger generations.
“If you take people between 15 and 30, they wouldn’t know about the Gulag. It’s too far back in history. They don’t even know who [the Soviet Union’s first leader Vladimir] Lenin was.”
But the survivors will remember till the end of their days. Some have come to terms with the past, says Blum. But not Shannin.
“I am not a good Christian,” he says. “I don’t feel any forgiveness. I hate Stalin and his henchmen, and I love Russia. So my affections are clearly divided.”