All along the Kolyma Highway, or Kolymskaja Trassa, as locals call this 2000 kilometer road meandering through the Russian Far East, one can spot gold and lead mines, some working, others left to the dogs. Oldest are from 1930s, and they were built using prison labor and operated by Gulag inmates until the 1960s. After that most of the mines were abandoned, but few continued to run with free labour, and later new pits were opened. The original Gulag mines have scarred the pristine scenery. Apart from the mostly wooden relics of the administration buildings and refineries, there are huge open spaces in the landscape with few stunted trees. These are the areas of the former open-pit mines, still easily visible. The emptiness of these wastelands has become special kind of monument to the Gulag camps and their hundreds of thousands of victims in the Kolyma area.
The town of Iskitim in Siberia, about an hour from Novosibirsk, is mainly known for its drug problem and ever-present dust. It also had a Gulag problem during the Soviet era. Lagpunkt no. 4 of Siblag complex was operating at nearby Lozhok from 1940s onward, inmates doing forced labour in the mines. Prisoners were transported through the railway station of Iskitim, and that’s why the main cemetery of Iskitim has a Gulag memorial. It’s a simple but beautiful cross, bit worse for wear, but still standing. Weeds were growing on the stone path leading to the monument, and on the pedestal there was but a single faded flower, fake one. For me it epitomized how Gulag and its victims are remembered – and forgotten.
The former graveyard of Gulag inmates in Susuman, small town in remote arctic region of Russia, seems to have turned into a graveyard of cars. But under the rubble & ruins one can find the small, rotten crosses in the graves of the prisoners who were buried here. During 1930s, when the Kolyma Highway reached these frozen hinterlands, many lagpunkts of labour camps were operating around the town. In Susuman there was a hospital for sick prisoners. As “sick” in Gulag meant that one was more or less dead, the cemetery of the hospital was in active use. After the Gulag system was dismantled during 1950s and 1960s, the hospital was taken in civilian use. When the Soviet Union collapsed, two-thirds of the population of Susuman moved closer to civilization, and the hospital was abandoned, and so was the cemetery. Apart from the rotten markers on the graves, there is now a new memorial cross, standing lonely in the taiga.
Far, far away, among the barren landscape of Kolyma wilderness at the most eastern part of Russia, there are still authentic traces of the camps of the Gulag era. At the heights of Dneprovsky mine one can find few rotten watchtowers standing, and on the other side of the hill the barbed wire hangs like a rusty stave with spiky notes on it. Dneprovsky was a labour camp where inmates mined led for the endless use of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands perished in the Kolyma because of hard work and even harder climate, with cold frequently reaching –50°C. The barbed wire, now a strong symbol of political repression, was used in most of the Gulag camps to separate the zona, or zone, the area were the prisoners were allowed. They lived & worked caged like animals for five, ten, or even twenty five years, the dark lines always cutting up their horizon.