Ostensibly nothing discerns the sleepy city of Medvezhyegorsk from other similar towns in Karelia at the western edge of Russia. But at the end of the main street one comes across huge, bulky building that seem totally out-of-place. Built at the 1930s, it served as the headquarters of the BelBaltLag, the same Gulag camp that built the famous Belomorkanal, or White Sea-Baltic Sea canal, still flowing lazily some twenty kilometres to east. Prisoners doing forced labour were living in tents or mud-huts by the canal, but the officers & managers of the camp and the guests – including the famous writer Maxim Gorky – used this building, which also served as a hotel. It was magnificent place with more than hundred rooms, two restaurants and even a spa! The contrast to the conditions of Gulag was just grotesque. The huge building stands in the center of Medvezhyegorsk, a bit worse for wear and half-empty, but still sturdy & proud. It has become an unintended memorial to the excesses and absurdities of the Soviet Gulag.
Rudnik was not just one part of the town of Vorkuta, it was the place where the entire camp city began. In 1931 first miners, most of them Gulag prisoners, came to the area surrounding Vorkuta river and established a new mine – and a new Gulag camp. In ten years it grew to be one the most notorious places in the Soviet Union. The first shaft, where the forced laborers toiled, was situated right beside Rudnik. When Vorkuta grew, Rudnik evolved to be a microrayon that housed free population: geologists, prison guards etc. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the entire area was slowly abandoned, and Rudnik became a ghost town, carrying the memory of the Gulag in the discarded buildings.
One of the most symbolic – and controversial – buildings in central Moscow is the former headquarters of the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, known as the NKVD. The building, left one in the photograph, served at the end of the 19th century as an office for Russian insurance company. After the revolution Cheka, the first secret police of the Soviet Union, took the place over, and converted it into a headquarter of horrors for the illegal interrogations, purges and the Gulag. It was in use through all the different titles of the Soviet state security apparatus, like KGB. During the glasnost period it was suggested that the building should be converted into a museum of political repression. This never happened, and the Russian security service FSB still accomodates it. The Victory Day was approaching at the time of this photo, and that is why the huge red star is standing on the traffic island – in the same place where the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the architect of political repression in the Soviet Union, stood for decades.
To get an excuse for the sounds of guns in the middle of nowhere they claimed it was a firing range, but in fact it was an execution site. At the end of the 1930s more than 20 000 prisoners, mostly politicals, were shot & buried in Butovo forest near Moscow. The area was later filled with trash, sealed and guarded for a long time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russian orthodox church bought the place. The land was cleared, and soon unknown fates of thousands of innocent people began to unravel. Some names and fates, though, will remain a mystery forever. Nowadays there is a memorial to the victims of political repression in the middle of the mass graves. In orthodox tradition, people set food, drinks and small gifts to the graves of the loved ones, and same happens at Butovo memorial. It was Easter, so mourners had brought sweet kulich bread to the monument.
From 1930s to 1950s Vorkuta was one of the most notorious Gulag camps in the Soviet Union. Situated far away in the arctic tundra, it offered harsh climate, hard work and even harder guards. So it can be imagined that the punishment cell of one of Vorkuta’s lagpunkts was not the most pleasant place in the world. The former prison served as a some kind of warehouse after the dismantling of Gulag system in the 1960s. Later in was abandoned, but sturdy stone building still stands in northernmost part of the town, Severny. It is a solemn monument of all the grotesque traits of the camp system.
Levashovo memorial cemetery nearby St. Petersburg is like some twisted enchanted forest. Small wooden area near the military air base of the town is filled with makeshift memorials that the loved ones and relatives of the dead began to build to the forest after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thousands of people from Leningrad and all over the oblast were buried here in mass-graves, mostly during the Stalin’s purges at the end of the 1930s. After that the area was closed, but the memory literally raised from the grave when Russians could again commemorate the victims of political repression and Gulag. Many trees are full of photographs, icons, personal belongings of the murdered and even copies of their arrest documents. It’s like walking through unwritten page of history.
The vast forest of Karelian republic at western Russia hides a dark secret under its mossy soil. At 1937 and 1938, as the Great Terror raged, about 10 000 people were brought here. Most came from the nearby Gulag camp of Solovki, others had been doing forced labour around the towns of Medvezhyegorsk and Segezha at Karelia. All of them were shot and buried in mass graves. People from almost sixty different countries and nationalities were killed in the area. At 1997 the burial site was finally uncovered, and it became a memorial for the victims of the political repression of the Soviet Union. There are some official monuments at the tract of forest, but also many unassuming but beautiful smaller memorials scattered here & there, like these two red pillars with the names of the dead.