The most telling and touching mementos of the Gulag and the Great Terror are the enameled photographs attached to trees and crosses in the areas where the mass graves were situated. At the fringes of Levashovo village, twenty kilometres from St. Petersburg, there is a memorial cemetery for the victims of political repression in the Soviet Union. It is at the site where NKVD killed & buried thousands of people of Leningrad during 1936 and 1937. The huge grave was found at 1989, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union it became a place of remembrance for the relatives of the dead. It was they who brought the plates with the photographs there. Looking at them now, it’s somehow evident, that these people were innocent victims of a deranged machinery. The photos give a face to the millions who suffered in vain. They are like tiny fragments of lost collective memory.
Vorkutlag was one of the harshest and most dreaded Gulag camps of the Soviet Union. Situated far above the Arctic Circle, where winters are freezing & dark, and summers short & scant, with permafrost always under the feet, it can be easily deemed as inhuman. What is more, prisoners had to work underground in the mines. This continued for decades, from 1930s to the end of the 1950s, and the city of Vorkuta was born around the camp. Still, as with many labour camps, Soviet state tried to pretend that it was just a routine prison or almost a normal mining town. That’s why they erected a memorial to celebrate the first mine of Vorkuta, called “Kapitalnaja”. Now the monument, built at the Soviet era, lies abandoned and collapsed in the vast wastelands near Vorkuta river. Thus, instead of a macabre tribute to a hellhole, it has become an unintended memorial to thousands of exploited people who were forced to work themselves to death in the mines of Vorkuta.
About 100 kilometers from the city of Perm, known at the Soviet times as “the gate to Gulag”, was the camp called Perm-36. Established after the World War II and ran almost until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Perm-36 was a “second generation” Gulag camp, serving first as a “normal” logging labour camp but later, after the death of Stalin and the official end of the Gulag system, as strict camp for political prisoners. Perm-36 is the only Soviet era camp that has been turned into a museum. Many parts of it are reconstructed, though, and don’t carry the authentic memories. The solitary confinement cell, being built of stone, has however survived as a ruin monument for the thousands of people who suffered there.
There is practically nothing left of the once thriving Gulag camp of Inta at the Arctic region of Russia. The camp was gradually closed after the death of Stalin, and in the 1960s traces began to vanish fast. The mines where the inmates were doing forced labour continued to operate, and some are still working, but “free” population arrived to replace the released prison workforce. Some factories of Inta are built by the prisoners and, thus, they can be considered unintentional memorials to the victims of Gulag. But the area where the camp “zone” (zona) was, that is, the area inside the barbed wire, was built over during 1970s. There is a small stone to commemorate the victims, but otherwise the memory has vanished under the ostensible normalcy.
Deep in the Karelian woods there is a small tract of forest with colourful fake flowers and dozens of enameled portraits on the trees. At Sandarmokh more than 10 000 people were executed and buried at 1930s, some from the small Karelian villages and some from the huge Belomorkanal labour camp nearby. People from at least 60 different countries are still lying there, all victims of Gulag and political repression in the Soviet Union. The area is nowadays memorial cemetery for the innocent dead. All the names will probably never be found out, but some have been identified and have gotten a plaque. Aleksandr is one of them.
The huge Gulag camp of Vorkuta operated from 1938 to 1956 in the remote Arctic region of Russia. There were many separate lagpunkts around the city, one of them near the village of Jur-Shor at the northern side of Vorkuta. The camp was called Rechlag and held mostly political prisoners who worked in the coal mines. At the early 1950s, the inmates went into a strike against the inhuman conditions of their camp. At least fifty prisoners were shot, among them people from many different countries, who had been brought to Vorkuta after the war. The memorial cemetery is dedicated to them, but it has also become more general monument to the victims of Gulag from all around the former Soviet Union and entire world.
In the middle of Siberia, an hour or so from Novosibirsk, lies the small city of Iskitim. At the fringes of the town was the notorious Lozhok camp no. 4, that belonged to the Siblag complex. This Gulag camp operated from 1929 to 1956 and the inmates were mostly forced labourers in the surrounding quarries (the pits are still there, mostly filled with water like idyllic lakes). The local legend maintains that a spring burst out on the place where Gulag guards executed forty priests. Be it true or not, later the place became a pilgrimage site, and after the fall of the Soviet Union orthodox church reclaimed it. Now it’s a popular destination for the believers who draw water from the spring with bottles and even swim in it. At the same time, it’s a memorial to the thousands who suffered and died at the Lozhok camp.