Former Crematorium in a Church, Moscow, Russia

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Former Crematorium in a Church

At 1920s the Soviet Union, officially an atheist country,  began to utilize hundreds of churches in some other use. They became warehouses, garages, swimming  pools – and crematoriums. The church of Donskoy monastery at the edge of Moscow has a dirty secret under its floor. It was closed at 1922, and already at 1924 the church served as a penal colony for children. Later, at 1927, church was turned into a crematorium. It had deep cellar structures and high tower, so it  suited perfectly for this use. It was actually the first crematorium in Moscow. At Donskoy they cremated the bodies of many notable persons who were buried in the  Kremlin wall, but later, during the purges at the end of the 1930s, it was used also to get rid of the remains of political prisoners and so-called “enemies of the nation”. Victims burned & buried at Donskoy were mostly from higher echelons of Soviet society – including former head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, and writer Isaac Babel. After they had fallen out of favour of Stalin, they were shot & cremated here before they even saw the Gulag camps. At the edge of graveyard outside the church there is the so called common grave no. 1, where the ashes of the victims were thrown. In the cellar of the church, now mostly a storage room, one can still find the area where the crematorium was situated and see some traits of its masonry in the wall.

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Nagaevo Bay, Magadan, Kolyma

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Nagaevo Bay

Magadan, a sizeable city in the Russian Far East, has a bad ring to it. For many people the mere name denotes labour camps, horror, death. Nowadays Magadan is more or less normal mid-size Russian town in the middle of nowhere, but as it was originally built by Gulag prisoners, many places carry reminders of the past. Moreover, prisoners headed to camps in the desolate Kolyma area were transferred through the city. First they were brought by train to Vladivostok, then hauled in cargo ships to Magadan via sea of Okhotsk and through this place, Nagaevo Bay. Trip from Moscow to Magadan lasted sometimes more than month, and thousands of people perished even before they saw the Gulag camps. The headquarters of the camp conglomerate Sevvostlag was situated here. Most of the buildings in the bay are more recent that the Gulag era, but the Bukhta Nagayeva lighthouse is from the time when the ships full of human cargo anchored here.

Dalstroi Administrative Building, Dneprovsky, Kolyma

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Dalstroi Administrative Building

Dneprovsky is one of the best preserved Gulag sites in the entire Russia, and thus an important unofficial memorial to the victims of the political repression in the Soviet Union. It was a mine operated by labour camp prisoners from 1930s to 1950s. In the vast wastelands of Kolyma, situated in the Russian Far East, there are hundreds & thousands of kilometres of harsh nature. All the same, NKVD and Dalstroi, a company managing the mining industry in Kolyma, succeeded to establish a chain of camps in there – with the cost of thousands of lives. From Dneprovsky one can still find mine shafts from that time, as well as watchtowers & barbed wire fences. They hang at the slopes of stony mountains, whereas at the valley one can spot scattered remains of administrative buildings , like this half-collapsed shack embraced by beautiful autumn foliage.

Kalle Karlovich, Sandarmokh, Karelia

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Kalle Karlovich

Some official Gulag memorials are lofty, even flamboyant, but the most touching ones are the small enameled portraits nailed to trees and crosses near the mass graves. They somehow bring the reality of the persecution and the innocence of the victims alive. The eyes of the dead seem to be staring from the past, bewildered. This plaque is from the Sandarmokh memorial cemetery deep in the Karelian forests. Almost 10 000 people, some from the nearby Gulag camps, some fresh from the civilian life, were executed and thrown to pits in here during the Great Terror at 1936-1938. They were from different countries, as this was the time when Stalin targeted the national minorities in the Soviet Union. This man, Kalle Karlovich Juntunen, has a Finnish name, but his patronymic is Russian, so he might also be of Karelian origin. His remains are scattered all over the forest, so he has no real grave, but at least somebody has given him a face.

Dom Kulturi, Kadykchan, Kolyma

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Dom Kulturi

By the Kolyma Highway, after kilometer 700, there lies a ghost town called Kadykchan. It once had over 10 000 inhabitants, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union profits of the nearby mine slumped, and at the turn of the millennium the entire town was left alone in the middle of the taiga at Russian Far East. Most of the buildings in Kadykchan are from 1960s or 1970s, but the oldest ones originate from 1940s and 1950s and were built by forced labour. Kadykchan was originally a Gulag camp, and the first mine in the area was manned by prisoners, including writer Varlam Shalamov. Prisoners also constructed the oldest part of the city, for example the school and Dom Kulturi. After the labour camp system was dismantled at the 1960s, free – at least relatively free – citizens moved to the city, and its past as a prison camp was obliterated. Now, when the town is abandoned, it has become a tragically beautiful memorial to the futility of Gulag.

Kolymskaja Trassa, Kolyma, Russia

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Kolymskaja Trassa

It could be described as the longest single memorial to the victims of Soviet Gulag. It is also by the victims, as the Kolyma Highway, or Kolymskaja Trassa like the locals call it, was built by Sevvostlag prisoners at the beginning of the 1930s. The entire stretch of more than 2000 kilometres was made by forced labour. Moreover, the road is grave of thousands of people, as the dead builders were buried near the roadline or sometimes to the roadbed itself, when the permafrost of the Kolyma region made grave digging all but impossible. That is how it earned the nickname “road of bones”. Kolyma Highway is still in use. The modern road has, of course, been repaired and rerouted many times, but it still is the legendary, deathly Trassa, meandering through taiga from one Gulag mine to another.

Dneprovsky Mine Watchtower, Kolyma, Russia

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Dneprovsky Mine Watchtower

Around the isolated Kolyma area at Russian Far East, much nearer to China or Japan than Novosibirsk, let alone Moscow, there are still lots of relics from the dozens & dozens of labour camps that operated there from 1930s to 1950s. Winters in Kolyma are harsh, even inhuman, with temperatures occasionally descending to -60 °C, and it almost seems like the ruins of the camps have been frozen and thus preserved in the middle of nowhere, like a mammoth in permafrost. Even the wooden watchtowers, so rare everywhere else after 60 years since the dismantling of the Gulag system, abound in the mountains of Kolyma. Here at Dneprovsky mine prisoners were digging tin, and their every move was monitored from the chain of towers near the shafts. Surrounding landscape is as barren & beautiful as the stories of Varlam Shalamov, who wrote about the Kolyma camps.