MOSCOW (AFP).- A Russian researcher said Friday he has discovered that Moscow has ordered the destruction of prison records including those relating to the Soviet Gulag, alarming historians and prompting a rights body to intervene.
Researcher Sergei Prudovsky told AFP he discovered the matter when he had contacted authorities in far eastern Magadan, where Soviet prisoners once mined gold, and was told a prisoner's record card had been destroyed under an "official order" from 2014.
"I found out absolutely by chance the record cards were destroyed," said Prudovsky, a researcher who specialises in camps in Far Eastern Russia.
"I submitted a request. I was interested in the fate of one person, whether he had survived in the camps. I found out that there exists an order for internal use."
The reply from the local interior ministry, which Prudovsky posted on Facebook, says record cards are only stored for a limited time under an order given to the ministry, the FSB security service and other bodies with Soviet-era archives.
The cards record prisoners entering camps, moving between them and what happened to them -- whether they died or were released, researchers said.
Under President Vladimir Putin, a former spy, Russian authorities have moved to downplay the horrors of Soviet imprisonment of millions, including political dissidents in prison camps.
Prudovsky passed the letter from the interior ministry to Moscow's Gulag Museum, which then contacted the Presidential Rights Council, an influential advisory body.
- 'Deeply disturbing' -
The head of the presidential rights council Mikhail Fedotov told RIA Novosti news agency that destruction of such cards would be "barbarism", but that he hoped in this case "simply some mistake happened." He promised to raise the question with officials.
Alexei Makarov, a researcher at Memorial, the country's top rights group that helps honour the victims of Soviet repression, said the news came as a surprise.
"We heard about this from Sergei Prudovsky when he received the letter. This is an order for internal use, not published, which doesn't get discussed with the public or with Rosarkhiv," he said, referring to the state archive agency.
It is unclear how many cards have been destroyed, he added.
"It's impossible to understand the scale of what happened," he said.
"They could have acted to fulfil it in a half-hearted way.... Unfortunately we don't know how bad the picture is."
If the destruction has happened on a mass scale, "this will make our work more difficult," he added.
A researcher at the Gulag Museum, Alexander Makeyev told Interfax news agency that so far the problem has only been found in Magadan and the museum wants to find out if it affects other regions.
US historian Steven Barnes, associate professor of Russian history at George Mason University, told AFP that he had not personally encountered the issue in his Gulag research, but added that "any destruction of extant materials related to the history of repression is deeply disturbing."
While most of the Gulag central administration archive has been put on microfilm and stored outside Russia, "a large number of documents remain off limits to researchers and subject to the whims of the Russian political system for their long-term preservation," he said.
© Agence France-Presse