Enameled photographs dot the tree trunks surrounding mass grave of the victims of the Great Terror. The faces are like holes in the familiar world, and they seem to say: something is missing, something is wrong. Levashovo memorial cemetery nearby St. Petersburg is a gallery of dead people. Most on them were innocent of any crime, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of the photographs, brought here by family or friends, are solitary, but there are few couples and even entire families. These two, Paavo and Katarina, were Finns, and died at the height of the purges in 1937. Many people, especially communists, left Finland for the Soviet Union with great hopes just to get killed there when Stalin began to persecute national minorities at the end of the 1930s. No trace was left of most of them, but somebody has attached the pictures of this couple to a tree. Somewhere in the tract of forest their bones lie mingled with thousands of others.
From the folds of grey mountains of the boundless Kolyma wilderness, there juts few solitary guard towers, authentic relics of the Gulag era. As rickety as these discarded constructions are, they nevertheless seem to epitomize the prison camps of the Soviet Union. The towers have stood and survived there all alone for decades as unintended memorials to the thousands of innocent people who toiled & died in camps all around the country. Here, at Dneprvosky, inmates were doing forced labour at lead mines. The camp zone was located in the next valley, and every morning prisoners were brought to work by guards, who then manned the towers. If you tried to escape, you were shot. But there was nowhere to escape anyway, only thousands of kilometres of taiga and tundra. Most of the Gulag camps at Kolyma were closed during 1950s and 1960s, but their remains are still there, telling the unfinished story as part of the barren, lifeless landscape.
Apart from labourers & farmers, dozens of artists were locked up in Gulag at the Soviet era. Some of them had written books or painted canvases that had angered the state, and some were just innocent victims of the notoriosly whimsical secret police. Usually artists had to take part to the same forced labour than everybody else, but sometimes they got an opportunity to use their skills. Many camps actually had theatres and even real theatre troupes, and artists had to paint portraits of Stalin or cheery slogans to the camp walls. Moreover, sculptors made statues to the squares & parks of nearby towns which, being situated in hinterlands, lacked talent of their own. This statue of writer Alexander Pushkin was made by Nikolai Bruni, writer and sculptor, who was arrested at the middle of 1930s. He was hauled to prison camp nearby Ukhta at the northern Komi republic. The town needed a statue for the anniversary of Pushkin, and Bruni designed & sculpted it. Next year he was shot because of his “counterrevolutionary crimes”. The statue that he made still stands at Ukhta as a memorial to Pushkin and at the same time to Bruni himself.
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.