DOLINKA, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - Their only crime was to be German.
An icy wind lashing against his face, Viktor Fast gazed at rows of crumbling barracks in the snows of central Kazakhstan where his parents — along with millions of other Russian Germans — endured years of cruelty in Soviet labor camps.
“It was a bitter time,” said Fast whose family members were accused of collaborating with the Nazis in the 1930s despite having lived in Russia for centuries as ordinary farmers.
“It was not a good time to be German,” said Fast, 58. Now a resident of Frankfurt, he often comes to this remote spot to pay respect to those who died here as part of Stalin’s purges.
Millions of people including ethnic Germans and Russian dissidents died between 1930 and 1960, unable to survive starvation and torture in a network of gulag camps scattered from Russia’s Arctic tundra to the inhospitable Kazakh steppe.
Snow crunched under his feet as Fast toured Dolinka, a village at the center of the Kazakh gulag system. Only scraps of barbed wire and a scattering of crumbling barracks — many converted into houses — remind visitors of Dolinka’s past.
Decades on, Stalin’s Great Terror campaign is recognized globally as one of the biggest crimes against humanity. Yet survivors and campaigners lament what they see as Russia’s reluctance to face up to the horrors of its past.
“People don’t cherish their memories,” said Fast, speaking Russian with a German accent. “Seventy years of Soviet policies have erased their memories.”
As Moscow debates Stalin’s role in its history, rights campaigners have accused Vladimir Putin’s Russia of trying to whitewash the dictator’s ruinous legacy, turning Stalin’s purges into a forgotten chapter of Soviet history.
There is little debate about gulag camps in Russia where Stalin was voted Russia’s third most popular figure in history in a nationwide poll last year.
An epigraph praising him was recently restored on the wall of a metro station in Moscow where communists laid wreaths on Monday to mark 130 years since Stalin’s birth in Georgia.
“There is a creeping effort to vindicate Stalin and promote the benefits of strong-hand rule, and that is a big worry,” said Yekaterina Kuznetsova, 71, a prominent gulag researcher. “But history is cunning. It tends to repeat itself.”
It is unclear exactly how many died in the Kazakh gulag camps, collectively known as Karlag. The overall gulag death toll also varies from 1.5 million to 20 million. Dolinka residents describe the surrounding steppe as one big mass grave.
One field is dotted with crosses, a place where hundreds of children — “the offspring of the enemies of the people” — were buried. It is known as Mamochkino — or Mummy’s — cemetery.
A chilly 1943 note by the NKVD Soviet security service, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, states: “The death rate among prisoners has increased sharply in Karlag ... Having spent a work shift in the frost many are unable to warm up in the cold barracks ... and die without receiving any medical help.”
Stalin’s legacy hangs like a dark cloud over this part of Kazakhstan, a vast steppe nation deemed remote enough by Soviet rulers to test hundreds of nuclear bombs and lock up dissidents.
The nearby city of Karagandy, many of its imposing Stalin-era buildings constructed by gulag prisoners, is dominated by a big statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. A tiny marble memorial to gulag victims stands in a local park.
Twenty years since becoming independent, Kazakhstan itself is struggling to come to terms with its past, keen to maintain good relations with Russia — its biggest trading partner.
Many are upset with their government’s reluctance to skirt its Soviet legacy in a nation where over a million Kazakhs died in gulags and during a Soviet-inflicted famine in the 1930s.
Last week hundreds of people rallied in Almaty to accuse the government, which has retained a Soviet style of governance, of not doing enough to respect the past.
“It’s a difficult topic. I would say it’s a taboo,” said Achim Schmillen, a researcher from Germany who traveled to Dolinka to visit a gulag memorial.
“Relations with Russia are very important. It’s hard for them to get the right attitude and define their identity.”
Many former camps are now part of Kazakhstan’s jail system. Some, like a row of abandoned barracks in Dolinka, are used as a waste dump. Wrapped tightly against the biting cold of -30 C (-22 F), villagers turn away as they walk past briskly.
A tiny village museum is packed with gulag items, its walls plastered with photos of prisoners’ gaunt faces.
A journal kept by one prisoner lies on display, showing a hastily written entry dating back to March 1953. “Today there was an announcement ... that Stalin died ... I can’t believe this.”
Karlag was closed after Stalin’s death. Often unable to find anywhere to go, many survivors and their wardens settled down in the same villages, forming an uneasy fusion of tragedies that were never discussed in public.
“After the Soviet collapse some of them were worried that they would be tried for crimes against humanity,” said Kuznetsova, the researcher. “But of course no one came.”
Russia denies accusations that it is whitewashing Stalin’s totalitarian system. In October, President Dmitry Medvedev said the crimes of the past should not be forgiven.
Survivors think otherwise. Mikhail Shmulyov was jailed for not killing himself when captured by German troops in the 1940s. The 90-year-old feels bitter about Russia’s stance on history.
“I was never a communist. But after this experience I became a true anti-Sovietchik (dissident),” he said in his wooden home in Almaty which he has elaborately decorated with Buddha statues, paintings and old black-and-white photographs.
“Today we see pictures of Lenin and Stalin everywhere again. I find it shocking. Communism must never be forgiven.”