You didn’t get big memorials when you died in Gulag. Usually, you didn’t get nothing at all. That’s why Russian soil is still scattered with thousands of human relics that will forever stay hidden & unidentified. Lucky few got some kind of grave marker, but even that didn’t amount to much. This shaky wooden pole stands at the area of abandoned Dneprovsky mine in the vast wastelands of Kolyma, Russian Far East. The miners at Dneprovsky were forced labourers, and there was a prison camp in the next valley between 1930s and 1960s. Grave’s location probably means that the victim died while working – not uncommon affair in Gulag. Now the wooden pole is rotten & the plaque all rusty, and the name has vanished. There is practically nothing around the grave for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. Its loneliness in the autumnal landscape is boundless.
In the heart of Siberia lies a small town called Mariinsk. Unassuming at first, beyond the lull hides a past of prison camps. Mariinsk was the headquarters of the SIBLAG, conglomeration of lagpunkts around Siberia. There were no camps at Mariinsk itself, but at the edge of the town one finds a prison that was used by NKVD. The biggest surprise is, that the prison is still in use, now as a part of the Russian prison system. Built before the revolution at 1913, Mariinsk prison became part of the Gulag at 1930s and was put under SIBLAG at 1940s. When Gulag system was dismantled during 1960s, the building was transformed into a “normal” prison. And today, more than twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it still operates. This is why the photo is bit blurred: it was taken secretly from the window of a Lada, as photographing the prison was not permitted.
Vorkuta has no landscape. At the faraway arctic wasteland where tree line ends and tundra reigns, ruins & crosses are best landmarks and, at the same time, memorials to the past. From 1930s until 1960s Vorkuta had one of the biggest Gulag camps in the Soviet Union. Dozens of lagpunkts surrounded the town, and the inmates were mostly employed in mines. Hundreds of thousands of them from all around the Soviet Union – and foreign countries, as POW’s were hauled there during and after the World War II – suffered & perished here, and the permafrost ridden ground of Vorkuta became their grave. Most of the dead will remain nameless and, at the best, can hope for some rude reminder of their existence, like these two half-rotten crosses, other with barbed wire around it, at the edge of the Yur-Shor cemetery outside Vorkuta.
Kolyma Highway traverses more than 2000 kilometres through the wilderness of Russian Far East. Roadside villages are scarce, one in every 200 kilometres or so, and as scarce are the inhabitants in these villages. Some of the places, like Kadykchan, have become ghost towns. The road was built during 1930s and 1940s by Gulag prisoners, and so were, originally, many of the villages. Some of them, Kadykchan included, are actually former prison camps turned into towns. At 1970s Kadykchan was thriving city in the Soviet north, and most of its buildings date from this era and are constructed with free labour. But the oldest parts of the town, like the school, were built after the World War II, most likely with Gulag labor. Thus, the abandoned schoolhouse of Kadykchan is an unintentional memorial to the dark legacy of prison camps in the arctic Russia.
The conglomeration of lagpunkts in the thick forests of Perm area was established as Gulag camp after the World War II, but it operated long after the death of Stalin, all the way until perestroika. After 1960s the name Gulag was no longer used, but many camps continued to operate. Perm-36 was actually one of the last prison camps to be closed in the Soviet Union. That’s why parts of it are still standing. Many buildings of Perm-36, for example the barracks, are repaired or even entirely reconstructed, and its main building is one of the few authentic relics. The camp was, above all, a prison for Soviet dissidents. They lived in wooden cells and did some menial work, but mostly they were just shut out from the rest of the world, surrounded by fences, barbed wire and dogs. Now Perm-36 stands alone some 100 kilometres from the city of Perm as a crude reminder of the not-too-distant past.
One of the most imposing memorials to the victims of the Soviet Union’s political repression and Gulag is not to be found in the big cities of Russia. Standing on a hill outside Magadan, away in the Russian Far East, the Mask of Sorrow, or Maska skorbi, mourns the dead in sublime loneliness. It has a good reason to be there. Between 1930s and 1960s hundreds of thousands of prisoners were transferred via the port of Magadan and hauled to the wilderness of Kolyma area to work in labour camps – and perish there. Few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, at 1996, this 15 meter statue was erected to commemorate them. It was designed by Ernst Neizvestny, whose own parents were also victims of the purges. Behind it opens the still untamed landscape of Kolyma.
If labor camp sounds like a bad place, a prison inside a labor camp was even worse. In the arctic city of Vorkuta at Russia’s Komi republic, huge Gulag camp operated from 1930s to 1960s. As the town is so remote, many relics of the past remain, like the former punishment cell in one of the satellite towns surrounding Vorkuta. Here were confined the inmates who had declined to work in the hellish mines or had in some other way defied the “rules” of the camp. In principle, punishment cell meant solitary confinement, but often the camp was overcrowded, and so was the cell. It was even worse than being alone. After the Gulag era, the former cell was used as a warehouse until it was abandoned for good. Punishment cells were usually built of stone, and that’s why many of them have survived to this day as unintended memorials of the vain suffering in Gulag.