‘People in Russia are getting used to being afraid again’

Anna Portnova, one of the last surviving prisoners of Butugychag, with her daughter. At her home in Kolyma. (Credit: Nigina Beroeva)

Fear is something instilled in Russians long before 24 February and passed down from generation to generation, writes journalist Nigina Beroeva. Recalling an assignment where she visited one of the country’s most notorious Soviet prison camps, Beroeva examines the origins of Russia's legacy of fear.

“Can you imagine, you and I are now at a rally against the war and Putin, I'm holding a banner, and I don’t get arrested. I understand that we're not in Russia now, but there’s still fear.”

This phrase was said to me by the protagonist in my documentary about the anti-war emigration from Russia. At the beginning of March, I was filming the stories of people who had left because of the war. We were in Turkey, which is also not exactly the freest country in the world. But for Russians, who only yesterday were shaking in police cars, sitting in jail in front of investigators and getting fines just for going out with a piece of paper that read “No to War,” Istanbul seemed like the freest city in the world.

We left Russia, except for the fear we brought with us. Several people told me a similar story of being startled in the morning by a knock on the door next to theirs, thinking it was a search party. Fear is not a rational feeling, no matter whether there is real danger or not, fear is fear. It destroys from within.

People often ask me now why this happened, how we all let it happen. I ask myself that every day. It’s been more than 80 days now. I don't have an answer. But I can tell you a little bit about Russia. About the fear that exists. But in order to understand at least a little bit, the nature and scale of this fear, you have to start not from 24 February, 2022, but much earlier.

In 2018, I wrote an article for Figaro magazine about the Stalinist camps for the centennial of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I went to Kolyma to one of the worst camps in the whole world, Butugychag. In this camp, prisoners, including political prisoners, mined uranium for Soviet atomic bombs with their bare hands.

The remains of uranium mining Russian prison camp Butugychag (Credit: Nigina Beroeva)

The remains of uranium mining Russian prison camp Butugychag (Credit: Nigina Beroeva)
I will not describe now this hell on earth, where in winter the temperature dropped below 60 degrees Celsius, the wind blew out even the stones, where prisoners slept on bunks 30 centimetres wide, where they died of cold and hunger by the thousands. It seemed to me at the time to be one of the most powerful and terrifying pictures of my life. But...

On the same trip I met one of the last surviving prisoners of Butugychag, Anna Portnova. She must be 98 years old now. In 1946, right after the end of the Great Patriotic War, 22-year-old Anna was arrested for allegedly feeding the Banderaites (members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, an ultranationalist Ukrainian group led by Stepan Bandera -ed). The girl was sentenced to 15 years of labour in camps and sent to Kolyma, to that terrible Butugychag.

The woman told me about hunger, cold and fear, about how she and other girls felled huge trees, how the guards beat them... She told me that when Stalin died, they did not have strength even to rejoice. Anna was released in 1956. For her relatives, she had died  – in Soviet times being a relative of an “enemy of the people” was also scary. Anna remained to live in Kolyma.

“Daughter, please don't write anything that would make me an ‘enemy of the people’ again,  I'm frightened,” Anna asked me in a trembling voice as we were leaving. Her faded, but still heavenly blue eyes filled with tears.

In that moment, I realised that this was the worst thing I had ever seen. It’s a fear carried through a lifetime. The fear and the certainty that you could go to jail for anything. No reason. Just like that. Without the right to a lawyer, without communication with relatives, without the right to correspondence.

The story of Anna Portnova is one of millions. More than a million people passed through the Kolyma camps alone. The total number of repressed in the USSR is unknown, the archives are still classified. But there are estimations – some say about 4 million, while others say that more than 15 million people suffered from repressions. But no matter how many people survived the GULAG, the whole country lived in fear of it. And this fear did not go anywhere. The USSR collapsed, the Iron Curtain collapsed, but the fear and sense of insecurity remained. It was inherited from parents to children and grandchildren.

Read also: when the memories of a war veteran surface 30 years on

I don’t know when exactly this fear, like a ring of omnipotence, acquired new power. The Russian government was escalating repression. They jailed activists, journalists, eco activists... The list of political prisoners grew by the day. New laws were adopted, making it easier and easier to imprison people. After each rally, we had hundreds of arrests, dozens of criminal cases, searches and detentions. We were getting used to it.

The country started to write denunciations again. I remember the feeling of sticky anxiety that comes at the sight of a policeman in Russia. You're not guilty of anything. You haven't done anything, but just seeing a policeman makes you anxious and want to hurry away. We’re used to it, too.

Yegor Lesnykh, the main subject of one of the documentaries I made, got three years in prison. At one of the rallies, Yegor saw policemen beating up a guy and a girl, they were screaming for help. He tried to pull the policeman away. The video perfectly shows that the policeman did not get any injuries. The investigators came to Yegor’s apartment at 5:30 in the morning. This was a common time for searches and arrests, both during Stalin’s and Putin’s times. Usually, law enforcers introduce themselves as neighbours from downstairs, saying that water is dripping from the ceiling. The sleepy people believe them and open the door.

Last year, after the rallies in support of Alexei Navalny, the police started coming in with searches and arrests. They used surveillance cameras to identify those who were at the rally and came to their homes to get them. People sat at home and listened to the footsteps in the stairwell. They got used to that, too.

They’re also used to the fact that they could be put in jail for a post on social networks. We’re used to the fact that the child custody agency can take a child away, or make your life a living hell. That they can expel you from university for participating in a rally, or fire you from your job. And it’s Russian roulette, it may or may not shoot. You get used to it. But getting used to it doesn’t mean that you stop feeling fear. It’s just that fear also becomes the norm. When I tell my friends who stayed in Russia that the police came to my house in Moscow twice in two months, they respond: “What’s the big deal, it’s normal, they just came to talk. Now they are coming to everyone.” And indeed they come to a lot of people. People who once shouted at a rally or wrote anti-war posts on social networks. And we get used to it again.

We get used to the fact that on Fridays the authorities announce new “foreign agents”, that criminal cases are opened for discrediting the Russian troops that are waging war in Ukraine and that this can lead to up to 15 years in prison. That there is practically no one to write and tell about the new prisoners and the old ones, because all the independent media in Russia have been shut down.

Also, some people have a fear of communicating with those who have left. They don’t seem to have the status of “enemy of the people” yet, but the fear of becoming a relative of this enemy or a friend is there.

Despite this fear, there are still people in Russia who go out on solitary pickets or write “No to War” on the walls. There are still journalists who, no matter what, continue to do their job.

And more and more often I think of Anna Portnova, a former GULAG prisoner who had no strength to rejoice in Stalin’s death, but who carried her fear through her entire life.