Gulag prisoners
© Mikhail Sokolov/RFE/RL
A photo of Gulag prisoners in Perm (undated).
Russia's Interior Ministry says it is digitizing thousands of registration cards of prisoners caught up in the Soviet-era gulag camp system, not destroying them as historians warned.

The ministry released its statement on June 13, about a week after a Russian researcher first made the charge that the records were being destroyed.

According to historians, the registration cards contain key information about people caught up in the sprawling prison camp system that existed for decades during the Soviet era.

The Moscow-based Gulag History Museum, considered the country's foremost exhibition of the prison camp system, said earlier this month that researcher Sergei Prudovsky had discovered a directive from 2014 ordering the destruction of the cards.

The issue caught the attention of the Kremlin-backed Presidential Human Rights Council, whose chairman said such a move would be "barbaric."

There was no immediate reaction to the Interior Ministry's announcement by the history museum.

Concern about the archival records comes as Russian authorities have downplayed the horrors of the Soviet camp system, and the system of repression overseen by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

President Vladimir Putin has openly lamented the demise of the Soviet Union, and sought to highlight positive aspects, such as the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

Comment: In a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, Putin elaborated on the tragedy of the demise of the Soviet Union:
CHARLIE ROSE: You also said that the worst thing that happened in the last century was the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Soviet empire. There are those who look at Ukraine and Georgia [2008 war] and think that you do not want to recreate the Soviet empire, but you do want to recreate a sphere of influence, which, you think, Russia deserves because of the relationship that has existed. Why are you smiling?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Laughing) Your questions make me happy. Somebody is always suspecting Russia of having some ambitions, there are always those who are trying to misinterpret us or keep something back. I did say that I see the collapse of the Soviet Union as a great tragedy of the 20th century. Do you know why? First of all, because 25 million of Russian people suddenly turned out to be outside the borders of the Russian Federation. They used to live in one state; the Soviet Union has traditionally been called Russia, the Soviet Russia, and it was the 'greater Russia'. Then the Soviet Union suddenly fell apart, in fact, overnight, and it turned out that in the former Soviet Union republics there were 25 million Russians. They used to live in one country and suddenly found themselves abroad. Can you imagine how many problems came out?

First, there were everyday issues, the separation of families, the economic and social problems. The list is endless. Do you think it is normal that 25 million people, Russian people, suddenly found themselves abroad? The Russians have turned out to be the largest divided nation in the world nowadays. Is that not a problem? It is not a problem for you as it is for me.

As many as 17 million people were sent to the camps, with an estimated 2 million being held at their peak in the 1930s and 1940s.

Among the best-known accounts of the camp's horrors was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's epic history The Gulag Archipelago.