It is unsettling to realize that the victims of Soviet repression who have at least some markers on their graves are actually lucky – there are tens of thousands of dead buried somewhere in the Russian soil without a face or a name, and nobody will probably ever know about their fates. This man, called Ivan Kuznetsov, was thrown into the huge mass grave of Levashovo forest, of “Levashovskaya Wasteland” as it was then called, during the Great Purges at the end of the 1930s. Altogether, at least 20 000 people, mostly from nearby Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, were buried here during few years, and after that the entire tract of forest was fenced & sealed – and forgotten. After the Soviet Union fell, memorials began to appear at Levashovo, and research on the graves began. Some victims were identified, but there are always more of the faceless ghosts of the past.
From 1930s to 1960s labour camps dotted the vast Kolyma area in the easternmost nook of Siberia. Even though there were dozens of mines and adjacent camps, and hundreds of thousands lived and died here, most places have disappeared, swallowed by the taiga. Dneprovsky mine, situated some twenty kilometers from the Kolyma Highway between Magadan and Yagodnoye, is an exception. The zone itself has vanished, but the lead mine where the inmates worked has abided in the middle of nowhere. One can find many mine shafts and watchtowers, few administrative buildings, and two concentrators, or separators. The gravel was rolled down the concentrator and prisoners were standing by it and separated ore and lead. The heavier lead continued its way to the end of the line, was rolled to trucks waiting under the chute, and then traveled first to Magadan and soon all over the Soviet Union. The apparatus is built mostly of wood, but there are few metal pieces on the primitive conveyor belt. The other concentrator is open, and this one is covered, which means it’s more recent one, probably from the beginning of the 1950s. Still, the temperatures at winter often reached -50°C. Work was hard, and prisoners died literally on their feet right here. The concentrator is standing abandoned on the side of a stony mountain, silent like a grave.
Until the 1930s Kotlas was a sleepy town in the Arkhangelsk region of Russia. Then the Soviet Union got the idea of “opening of the north”, which meant that the arctic regions of Russia were to be tamed for industry and colonization. Other clever idea was to utilize the huge prison population of Gulag to do the dirty work. Kotlas became one of the central places for this project as it is situated conveniently between big cities of Russia and the far north. Prisoners were used in chopping down the forests, building bridges, and especially constructing the railroad towards the arctic region. During the World War II Kotlas evolved into a huge transit camp where thousands of prisoners waited to be hauled to the north, often towards their deaths. There are two memorial cemeteries in Kotlas, one for the prisoners who died when building a railroad bridge, and the other, Makarikha, for the victims of political repression in the Soviet Union. Makarikha has dozens of gravemarkers, many erected decades after the Gulag. The ones built of sheet metal were typical in the Soviet Union. Their colours are faded, but they still try to remember the people who died here, often nameless and faceless like ghosts.
Although Vorkuta is situated in the mainland Russia, it feels like an island, so far it is from anything and everything. There aren’t even roads leading to the town, and one has to get there by train or via air. Nice place for a labour camp, the Soviet Union probably thought. From mid-1930s until 1960s hundreds of thousands of inmates, many of them political prisoners, lived and died in inhuman arctic conditions, and worked in the coal mines of Vorkutlag, one of the most dreaded Gulag camps in the entire Soviet Union. As Vorkuta lies north of the tree line, all the wooden building material had to be hauled from the south, and the cells of the prisoners were often makeshift and shabby. The ruins – or mere relics – of the wooden barracks remain in the tundra around modern Vorkuta. The old supporting poles of the buildings stick out from the permafrost like weird monuments, and as the years have gnawed the wood, the surface often looks like a memorial plaque with indecipherable but very real writing in it.
All along the Kolyma Highway, or Kolymskaja Trassa, as locals call this 2000 kilometer road meandering through the Russian Far East, one can spot gold and lead mines, some working, others left to the dogs. Oldest are from 1930s, and they were built using prison labor and operated by Gulag inmates until the 1960s. After that most of the mines were abandoned, but few continued to run with free labour, and later new pits were opened. The original Gulag mines have scarred the pristine scenery. Apart from the mostly wooden relics of the administration buildings and refineries, there are huge open spaces in the landscape with few stunted trees. These are the areas of the former open-pit mines, still easily visible. The emptiness of these wastelands has become special kind of monument to the Gulag camps and their hundreds of thousands of victims in the Kolyma area.
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.