MOSCOW: Against a snow-covered backdrop and in temperatures of -55 degrees Celsius, Russian YouTube star Yuri Dud tells of his journey through the “epicenter of Stalin’s crimes”.
The online video from the remote, far north-eastern Kolyma region that was notorious for its Gulag camps has racked up more than 14 million views since the start of spring.
The unexpected success of the two-hour documentary has reignited debate about how young Russians remember the bloody legacy of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
“All my life, my parents have told me: ‘Be careful, don’t draw attention to yourself’,” says 32-year-old Dud, who made a name for himself through YouTube interviews with politicians and celebrities.
“I always wondered where this fear came from among the older generation. Why are they so scared that even the smallest act of courage will lead to punishment?
“My theory is that this fear was born in the first half of the 20th century,” he says in the film.
“And one of the places where this fear originated is Kolyma.”
At least a million people were sent to the region from the 1930s onwards as part of Stalin’s Great Terror — a drive to stamp out real and imagined dissent.
Tens of thousands died in the mines and camps.
Dud says he was inspired to make the film after seeing the results of a survey last year that showed almost half of Russians aged 18 to 24 had never heard of Stalin’s repressions.
In a separate poll this year, 70 percent of Russians said they approved of the dictator’s role in history.
“Russians know that (Kolyma) is a faraway area tied to awful events, but they don’t always know why exactly,” said Irina Shcherbakova, a member of the rights group Memorial, which documents Soviet-era crimes.
With his large fan base and “guileless questions” in the documentary, Shcherbakova described Dud as an ideal guide to the history of the region for newcomers.
Many young people leave school without a clear understanding of what Stalin’s time in the Kremlin meant for the country, she told the Media
“It messes with their heads,” said Shcherbakova, a historian who regularly visits schools.
Stalin is presented as the author of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, “but also as the author of the Great Terror. It creates cognitive dissonance.”
Natalia Zorkaya of the independent polling center Levada said the Terror is included in textbooks but “these are sensitive questions that are very often put to one side”.
Under the two-decade-long rule of President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin and the state media have played up the achievements of the Soviet Union, especially its role in defeating Nazi Germany.
However “the question of the human cost of the victory is excluded from the public space and schools cannot make up for that, even with excellent teachers,” Zorkaya said.
In the documentary “Kolyma: The Birthplace of Our Fear,” subtitled in English, Dud speaks with historians, young people from the region as well as relatives of former prisoners.
Weaving together their stories, the film presents modern Russia’s complex relationship with the camps — with views on the period ranging from nostalgia and patriotism to disgust.
Some reactions to the video have been less nuanced.
The firebrand writer and journalist Zakhar Prilepin said the Kolyma camps had a “logical justification” and counted among their inmates “many murderers and real spies”.
In online comments, he accused Dud of giving the West a negative image of Russia, saying that “our children want to remember the bad things”.
For Levada researcher Zorkaya, the vast majority of young people have been “indifferent” to the debate over Stalin’s legacy.
“But this video could be a sign of a growing interest in the past,” she added.
“The next generation will perhaps understand that the roots of many things which are happening today, in our increasingly repressive regime, go back to the Stalin era.”