Three crooked, concrete pylons represent the fence posts that once ringed the camp. A dozen emaciated human figures, also fashioned from concrete, huddle below, representing the thousands of Soviet prisoners incarcerated here in World War II — in front of a pyramid of human skulls.
It is known as the memorial to Dulag-100, the Nazi prisoner-of-war camp that once stood here. But this place is also a tribute to one man’s struggle to preserve this memory in the face of years of institutionalized disinterest and denial.
Aleksandr Manachinsky, devoted most of his adult life to constructing the memorial, in Russia’s north-west region of Pskov. But it was his son Vladislav who completed it. Manachinsky senior, a St. Petersburg architect, died six months before it finally opened last June — and thanks to private rather than state support.
At least three million Soviet POWs died in Nazi-captivity, most of them Russian. Yet across the country, there are just a handful of monuments remembering them — because both the Soviet Union and the Russian government of today treat them as a source of shame.
“The attitude of the state, the army and former soldiers who weren’t captured hasn’t changed,” says Pavel Polian, a historian at Russia’s Higher School of Economics and an expert on World War II prisoners. Soviet POWs, he adds, are still seen as “traitors and collaborators.”
Other less glorious episodes of Russia’s wartime history – such as the behavior of its own troops as they took over Germany — are similarly played down, or simply erased altogether, critics say, in the Kremlin’s efforts to create a unifying historical narrative.
Aleksandr Manachinsky’s interest in Dulag-100 began while he was working in Porkhov, a town near the site, in the 1980s. When he heard what had happened to the prisoners at the camp, it “touched him very deeply,” says his son, Vladislav, a sculptor.
Some Russian media reports have said as many as 85,000 people perished here. Experts suggest that figure is inflated, but no one doubts there was huge suffering here. And Manachinsky felt the small memorial stone he found at the site did not reflect the scale of what amounted to a forgotten atrocity.
So he set about designing a vast memorial complex, and looking for funding. “It was the most important work of his life,” says his son.
Dulag is short for “Durchgangslager”, the German term for “transit camp”. And Dulag-100 was one of dozens set up the Nazis in Russian territory they occupied. They were usually built next to railway stations, serving as both transport hubs to send forced labor to other parts of Germany-occupied territory, or as killing sites in themselves. Jews and Soviet officials were often executed in such camps.
Starvation, disease, exposure and mistreatment claimed the lives of many more.
Dulag-100 was based around a Red Army barracks, but this didn’t give POWs much shelter, according to local historian Mikhail Tuk. “During the day they had to be outside regardless of the weather,” he says. At times the camp was so full many prisoners had to sleep outside, even in the harsh Russian winter.
Many of their experiences have only come to light since the fall of the Soviet Union, as surviving former POWs have been able to speak publicly about their incarceration. Some war archives were opened too in the 1990s. And yet official disdain for Soviet citizens captured by the Nazis hasn’t changed.
That meant it was hard to drum up support for the Dulag-100 memorial. Manachinsky ploughed on through the 1980s, but what funds he had dried up in 1992, before he could finish the project. By contrast, any event or monument celebrating victory in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War is virtually guaranteed to get official support. Manachinsky tried that route, writing to leading Russian political figures begging for money, but to no avail.
Locals dubbed the unfinished edifice the “hockey sticks”, or the “three boots.” Motorcyclists used the area as a practice ground. Farmers brought their cattle to graze around the monument. “The soldiers were without heads and it was tragic,” says his son Vladislav Manachinsky, “even a cause for shame.”
It was local people who were the key to getting it finished. Laborers working on a nearby road raised money to re-start the work in 2015, and as word spread donations came in from road-workers nationwide. A special charity was set up to receive donations.
But when work resumed, Aleksandr Manachinsky was too ill to oversee it and had to hand over to his son.
The 42-year-old Vladislav Manachinsky, who knew the monument from summers he had spent helping his father as a student, says he simplified the original design, scrapping some side panels and adding a bell. But, he says, his father would have approved.
It was a “double responsibility,” he says. “On one hand, it was my father’s work. That was very important. And then there was the social significance.”
More than three decades after Manachinsky first conceived of the Dulag-100 memorial, it finally opened last June. Several top officials came to the ceremony, including one of Putin’s advisors, a government minister, and the Pskov Region governor. But none mentioned the words “prisoner of war” in their speeches.
The Dulag-100 memorial is a rare challenge to the official narrative – its awkward, angular structure poking above the landscape almost a metaphor for the battle to preserve a more balanced reading of Russia’s history.
There are a few other exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule. A statue has been set up for the POWs of Dulag-184 in Vyazma in the Smolensk Region – but it was thanks to a campaign initiated by relatives of the dead and human rights groups.
The Soviet Union’s prisoners of war have yet to be fully remembered. But Vladislav Manachinsky is clear their history cannot be forgotten.
“They are our citizens and they died for the motherland,” he says. “A lot of people ended up as prisoners not because they were cowards, but because that’s just what happened.”