Barbed wire, Dneprovsky, Kolyma

Barbed Wire2

Barbed Wire

Maybe the most telling relic – and a symbol – of the Soviet labour camps is barbed wire. Different camps were built differently at different times, but usually they had zona, or zone, the area of the camp itself, that was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded from towers. One can still find old wire from the areas where the camps were situated, especially in remote places like Dneprovsky in the Kolyma wilderness. Dneprovsky was a mining camp, and here barbed wire was used to zone off the area where prisoners worked.  Some of the wires have been dismantled, and in many places they were reused in some other purposes after the Gulag era, but in Dneprovsky one can find fences with barbed wire still standing after sevety years and coils of it thrown to the ground. It rusts, but  it doesn’t go away – just like the  memory of Gulag in modern Russia.

This will be the last photo of this blog. The book featuring stories and interviews from my travels after the remnants of the Gulag Archipelago will be published (in Finnish) at spring 2019.


Church fresco, Butovo, Moscow


Church fresco

Church frescoes usually show events that happened centuries ago. In Russia, however, there are churches that commemorate the “new martyrs”, as Russian orthodox church calls them. They are saints who were killed during Soviet era. In an atheist country many people were persecuted, thrown into the Gulag and also killed because of their religious beliefs. This painting is found on the wall of the brand new memorial church in Butovo, one of the sites of mass killings during the Great Terror. It depicts the arrival of Bolsheviks to the Solovki island monastery, which was turned into a prison camp and model to the entire Gulag. Priests & believers were imprisoned and murdered, and they were doing forced labour. This continued for five decades in many camps around the Soviet Union.

Camp maintenance building, Dneprovsky, Kolyma

Mine Camp

Camp maintenance building

Rough mountainsides are strewn with relics of labour camp that was once situated there. One can spot tools, rails, shafts… Down in the valley the ruins are more humane, if that can be said. Dneprovsky Gulag camp operated in this area from 1930s to 1960s. It was built in two valleys: the zone was in the next one, and the mine was here. Every morning inmates walked through frozen wastelands from the camp to the mine. The guard towers are still dotting the slopes, and in the valley there are other buildings left. Few of them actually date from later times, as there was activity in the area also after the Gulag era, but those that have collapsed almost to the ground are usually older and connected to the camps. In spite of its dark history, this half rotten camp maintenance building was beautiful in the autumn, jutting from the colourful ground like a grey tombstone.

Unknown victim, Kommunarka, Moscow

Kommunarka Face

Unknown victim

Today there are couple of well-known memorials to the victims of the Great Terror & Gulag, and dozens of smaller local monuments. Apart from these, private memorials thrive all around Russia and the former Soviet Union. Sometimes they are orthodox crosses or headstones, sometimes merely printed pictures of the dead relatives, like this one at the former Kommunarka shooting ground, now an orthodox graveyard. During the purges at the end of the 1930s, more than 10 000 people were shot and buried at Kommunarka, about twenty kilometres from the central Moscow. From the beginning of 1940s the area was sealed for decades, and it’s almost impossible to tell who were the people who lost their lives here. Some are know, for example Nikolai Bukharin, who fell from Stalin’s grace and was thrown into a mass grave. Most of the victims, though, will forever stay nameless, and even their faces are blurry, literally and metaphorically. Their memory remains only as long as the rusty wire holds the picture to the tree trunk.

Fragment of a rail, Dneprovsky, Kolyma


Fragment of a rail

In the pristine, undulating mountains of Kolyma wilderness, marked by stony ground and colourful shrubs as far as the eye can see, one unexpectedly comes across relics of prison camps. They are mostly rusty mining equipment, blending in to the colours of autumn. Dneprovsky was a mining camp at the Soviet Far East, operating from 1930s to 1960s and ruthlessly exploiting prisoners as a labour force. Many of the camp zones were dismantled after Gulag became history, but huge mines with heavy instruments were hard to tear down or relocate, especially since the nearest towns are hundreds of kilometres away. So they just left the heavy stuff there, in the valleys & forests, hills & streams. There were tracks running down the mountainside for the mining carts, and some of them are still in their proper places. The inscription in the rail states that it was made in 1941 in steel plant “Stalin”.  It was just one of the little tragic ironies of Gulag, that the tracks in the prison camp had been manufactured in a factory that had been named in honour of Joseph Stalin, the father of the entire Gulag system. Hundreds of thousands passed through the dreary camps of Kolyma, and tens of thousands died there in vain.

Photographs on the shelf of Gulag survivor Anna Vasilevna, Vorkuta, Russia


Photographs on the shelf of Gulag survivor Anna Vasilevna

Anna Vasilevna was born in Crimea, warm & sunny part of the Soviet Union, but most of her life she lived at Vorkuta – a prison city, which was frozen and dark almost year round. She was first arrested during the World War II, and again after it, allegedly as an “enemy of the people”. Innocent of any crime, Anna spent thirteen years in Gulag doing forced labour. She was in her twenties when she stepped into the twisted parallel world of Gulag, and she survived the violence, work and other routine atrocities. After she was released from the camp at 1950s, she had no choice but to stay in Vorkuta, just few miles from her former prison barracks. Anna, 94 years old when I met her, had ever since lived in crumbling microrayon at the edge of the town. She was not bitter, and she enjoyed her life with a cat and a meager pension. On her bookshelf she had two photos of herself, one that was taken soon after she got out of the Gulag, the other about sixty years later.

Dust, Kolyma Highway, Kolyma

Kolyma Dust


There are four seasons in Kolyma, and all of them are bad, at least when it comes to the roads – or the road, “Trassa”, as locals call it. Kolyma Highway, a road meandering more than 2000 kilometres through the Russian Far East between Magadan and Yakutsk, is never an easy one. At winter it’s frozen, at spring and autumn it’s virtually a swamp, and at summer the unpaved road is full of blinding, choking dust. Gulag prisoners built the “highway” between 1932 and 1953. They finally got the thing done, but as soon as the entire stretch was finished, they had to begin to fix the older parts, mangled by the ruthless climate. Needless to say, the builders got their share of the conditions, and on top of that they were toiling under merciless prison guards. Thousands died during the mindless project. That’s why Kolyma Highway is nicknamed the “Road of Bones”. Many dead were buried in the foundations, because it was impossible to dig the permafrost. Even now skeletons turn up once in a while. The road is still in use and they try to keep it in drivable. More that a road, though, it seems like world’s longest memorial to the victims of Gulag.