There is a place called Yur-Shor about ten kilometres from the center of Vorkuta at arctic Russia. Only thing is, there is no village, no mikrorayon – nothing. Sole indication that people lived (and died) there at some point are the scattered remnants of a former Soviet Gulag camp and a lonely graveyard in the middle of desolate tundra. Yur-Shor cemetery has few official monuments to the prisoners who died during the rebellion of the nearby camp at the beginning of 1950s. Apart from that, there is bunch of half rotten wooden crosses to mark the mass graves. The crosses look utterly deserted in the featureless wastelandscape, especially as some have lost their cross-beams or plainly fallen down to the permafrost ground. Vorkuta held prisoners from different countries, and after the World War II many German POW’s were placed there to do forced labour in the mines. This victim, Wolfgang Eshke, was most likely a German. He died at 1953, far away from home.
In the small village of Vostochny, there is nothing left – not even inhabitants. The old settlement near Inta at arctic Russia was home to many former Gulag prisoners who built their new lives there when the nearby camp was closed at 1950s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the economy plummeted and the brick factory, lifeline of the village, was shut down. Everybody left, some to Inta, some south to Kotlas and even to Moscow. The old graveyard of Vostochny, which actually has one of the first memorials ever erected to Gulag prisoners and which is officially titled memorial cemetery, was also abandoned. Now the headstones are rusty, and nature & stray dogs have taken over the memory.
Apart from the memorial cemeteries, there are hundreds of nameless places where Gulag prisoners were executed all around Russia and other former Soviet countries. This inconspicuous tract of forest some ten kilometres from the small city of Mariinsk in Siberia is one of them. At 1930s and 1940s, when Siblag camp was operating nearby in an red-brick prison, condemned prisoners were brough here and shot to death. It’s not known what the officials did with the bodies, as only few of them were later found from the area. Nowadays the site is some 100 metres from the local road, and on the roadside there is a small plaque with a poem, and a solemn stone monument. Names of the perished prisoners are mostly unknown, and there is nothing on the site itself to tell its tragic story.
Around Russia and other former Soviet countries, there are hundreds of memorials & monuments to the victims of Gulag and political repression. Only few of them, though, are known to the larger public. Most are situated in the very remote places, usually at the sites of the former Gulag camps, and it’s mostly local relatives of the victims who visit them. Such is the memorial of Sosnogorsk, a small town near Uhta at the arctic region of Russia. The pedestal on the huge metal candles has only three words in it: “Victims”, “Political” and “Repression”. Sosnogorsk, known as Izhma at that time, had a Gulag camp from the end of the 1930s until the 1950s. The prisoners were building railroads and doing forced labour in oil and gas fields around Sosnogorsk. Thousands of them perished in the harsh climate. Nowadays the town is half empty, but natural gas is still extracted from the ground. Gulag era is all but forgotten, and the only memorial to the victims is hard to find from the yard of a housing block at the edge of the town.
During Stalin’s purges, thousands of innocent people were taken twenty or so miles out of central Moscow, where they were shot and buried. Then they were forgotten. Some of the mass graves began to appear to daylight after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Butovo was the place to bury “common people” and priests, whereas “distinguished” dead were put into the grounds of former Donskoi monastery. Communarka was somewhere in between. Fallen politicians and members of intelligentsia were executed & buried there from 1936 to 1941. The area is now memorial cemetery, but nobody knows who lies where. Many “monuments” are nothing but Xeroxed portraits of the dead, duct-taped straight to the trees. But somehow that makes the place even more solemn – like some enchanted forest gone awry. This victim, named Markus Markovitis, died at the age of 33 in 1938.
Vorkutlag operated in the arctic city of Vorkuta from the 1930s until the 1960s. The camp was eventually closed after Stalin’s death and prisoners were released. However, most of them couldn’t leave Vorkuta, either because they were not allowed or because they had no means to do it, as the town is situated literally in the middle on nowhere. Thousands on former prisoners built their “new” lives just few miles from the place they had been imprisoned for years, and many continued almost the same work they had done in the camp, mostly mining. One of them was Anna Vasilevna Krikun. She survived over ten years of harsh climate and forced labour, for example road building and mining, in the Gulag camp of Vorkuta. Anna Vasilevna is now 94 years old and has been living in Vorkuta ever since 1950s when she was set free. She has seen the dismantling of Gulag and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Anna Vasilevna doesn’t seem bitter, just a bit lonely with her shy cat at the half-abandoned microraion of Vargashor in the middle on the tundra.
Perm-36 is basically the only former Gulag camp that has been turned into a museum. Many premises, like prisoner’s barracks, have been restored or rebuilt, but the area carries also some authentic ruins & unintended memorials, like this former prisoner transport vehicle, sunken into snow. Perm camp was important at the latter part of the Soviet prison camp history after the World War II. It operated from the end of the 1940s all the way to the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This abandoned & rusty prison transport vehicle – called Chorniy Voron or “the black crow” in Russian – is probably from the 1960s. At that time Perm-36 operated as political prison camp.