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.
As followers of Postcards from Gulag blog might have noticed, I consider the enameled photographs of the victims as the most touching and telling memorials to the era of terror and Gulag in the Soviet Union. The faces – innocent, startled, angry or just plain – of everyday Soviet people stare from the makeshift tombstones or from trees near the mass graves like ghosts from the past. Many would gladly forget them, but they just won’t go away as long as the past remains buried. Memorial cemetery of Levashovo nearby St. Petersburg carries dozens of these faces around a small tract of forest. Thousands of people were buried here during the Great Terror at 1936-1938. One of them was Ivan from Leningrad. The plaque testifies that he was arrested in 1937 and shot at 1938.
I don’t know if anybody has counted how many watchtowers have survived intact from the Gulag era, but I’m sure that former Dneprovsky labour camp has most of them. The towers for example in Perm-36 camp and other museums are reconstructed or fake, but in Kolyma wilderness at Russian Far East many watchtowers have been standing in their original places through the decades. It is almost as if the freezing cold of -60°C afflicting the area every winter had preserved the rickety woodpiles. Now they loom abandoned & monumental in the no-man’s-land of the former labour camp. Most of the Kolyma mining camps operated from 1930s until the late 1950s, after which they were closed and left to the dogs. Dneprovsky labour camp was one of them, but it still carries countless mementos from the forgotten past – rusty shovels, spikes for cutting stone, mining equipment etc. are to be found from the large area in the folds of the lead-grey mountains. And the chain of watchtowers – many of them worse for wear like this one, but still miraculously standing – still jut out from the stony ground like unintended memorials for the victims of Gulag.
Icy river flows steadily through Inta, a small town in the middle of Russian arctic taiga. In the first glance, nothing reminds that Inta was center of Soviet labour camps from the 1930s to 1950s. But looking more closely, almost everything here bears a footprint of Gulag. Many apartment blocks were built by prisoners, and so were the roads & the railroad. Here, near the small metal bridge, was located women’s zona, the secluded area of the camp. Many of them did forced labour in the sawmills and small factories on the banks of the Bolshoya Inta river. The factory visible in the background was also built by prisoners, and is still in use. After the collapse of the Soviet Union local people have began to attach love locks to the old bridge. The contrast to the relics of Gulag is startling but hopeful.
By the Kolyma highway at Russian Far East, literally in the middle of nowhere at taiga wilderness, stands a ghost town of Kadykchan. It consists mostly of abandoned bone white housing blocks built at the 1970s, but the old part of the town was constructed in Gulag era and was made by the prisoners. Originally, in the 1930s, the site was a mining camp like so many places in Kolyma. After the World War II the prisoners began to build the town of Kadykchan for the free – or at least relatively free – workers that were meant to replace forced labour. Came the school, the dom kulturi and the first wooden houses. Kadykchan thrived, relatively speaking, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. After that the troubles began, and at the turn of the millennium the entire city was simply shut, and the entire population moved elsewhere. The empty ghost town still stands there, and nowadays the old part of Kadykchan, built partly over the former camp by the prisoners, is a rotten but beautiful memorial to the lost era of Gulag.