NKVD Cell, Tomsk, Siberia

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NKVD Cell

While many of the Gulag camps have been accidentally or deliberately destroyed after they ceased to operate at 1960s, some punishment cells and transit prisons belonging to the camp system have survived, mostly because they are built of stone. At the sizeable city of Tomsk in Siberia, one former NKVD prison is still standing, and it has been preserved as a museum. The prison is situated in damp cellar, the cells are small and there are only the bare necessities. At the inner court of the red brick building there was an execution site.

Camp Railroad, Vorkuta, Russia

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Camp Railroad

This piece of track is part of the long railroad that skirts around arctic Vorkuta. It was originally built to serve the lagpunkts surrounding the city. At 1940s Vorkuta was essentially a Gulag town, with dozens of labour camps scattered in the harsh tundra. They were mostly mining camps, and the railroad connected all of them, providing the camps and hauling the coal away. The railroad was used also after the dismantling of Gulag in the 1960s as the mines continued to operate with free Soviet citizens working in them. Now the camps are gone, most of the mines are closed and the microraions around them are reduced to mere ghost towns. But the wound of the railway still stretches there, a solemn unintended memorial for the hundreds of thousands who suffered here in vain.

Unknown Victim, Kommunarka, Moscow

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Unknown Victim

It seems an ordinaty tract of forest by a new highway at Kommunarka, some fifteen kilometres south from central Moscow. But behind the rotten fence crowned with rusty barbed wire one can spot trees with photographs or printed portraits of the victims. The area became a secret execution place at the end of the 1930s. At least 16 000 people were shot & buried there. Most of them were notables, like politicians and officers of the army. The forest belonged to the dacha of Genrikh Yagoda, head of the NKVD, and when he was ousted at 1937, the new leader, Nikolai Yezhov, decided to turn the place to a mass-grave. Yagoda himself was soon buried there. Some of the victims will remain nameless forever. At 1940 the area was sealed, and it was opened only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now there is a small monument and a new church at Kommunarka graveyard, but otherwise the memory of the thousands of victims is fragile, duct taped to the trees, eaten by time.

Statue of Poet Viktor Savin, Syktyvkar, Komi Republic

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Statue of Poet Viktor Savin

Syktyvkar, the capital of Komi Republic, was important city in the “opening up the north”, meaning the Soviet Union’s project to penetrate to the arctic regions during the 1930s. This was done mostly with the forced labour of Gulag prisoners. Prisons and camps abounded in and around Syktyvkar. The father of Komi literature, poet Viktor Savin, was one of the many members of intelligentsia who perished in the camps. He joined the communist party after the revolution as a young man, and wrote poems praising Lenin and Stalin. Apparently this wasn’t enough, as he was thrown into Gulag during the Great Terror. Savin was pushed from camp to camp, and eventually he died at 1943 in Tomsk region. Now Savin has a statue in the central Syktyvkar, but Gulag is not mentioned in the memorial plaque.

Watchtower, Perm-36, Perm Krai

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Watchtower

Perm-36 is allegedly the only Gulag camp that has been turned into a museum. While this is not strictly true (there are other former camps that have been partly preserved) and Perm-36 is heavily reconstructed, the museum has conserved an important part of the Soviet camp system, especially from its latter era after the death of Stalin. Perm-36 camp operated from the 1940s until the last days of the Soviet Union, and it was meant mainly for the political prisoners and dissidents. Among the dense forests of Russia near the Ural mountains stands a solitary watchtower of the former camp. Behind it, inside the zona, one finds relics of the barracks, but somehow the tower itself, a symbol as poignant as barbed wire, communicates the utter isolation of Gulag victims.

Hungarian Graveyard, Vorkuta, Russia

Hungarian Graveyard

Hungarian Graveyard

Arctic city of Vorkuta was born as a Gulag camp. Around the town center there were many lagpunkts, whose inmates worked in the coal mines, mostly at 1940s & 1950s. Later these areas were converted to “normal” microrayons for free workers. Only thing that reminds of the camp past in one of the suburbs is this graveyard, where mainly Hungarian victims of Gulag were buried. The graves still stand out as small mounds, and very simple crosses, made out of metal pipes, have been stuck to the ground. Small plaques attached to the crosses have names of the dead welded to them, or just numbers if the name is not known. Because of the decomposed bodies, the ground of the cemetery is thicker with earth that other parts of Vorkuta’s permafrost, and that’s why there are taller plants growing in the area.

Memorial Plaque, Levashovo, St. Petersburg

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Memorial Plaque

Levashovo cemetery at the small village some twenty kilometres from St. Petersburg was one of the places where people shot during the Great Terror were buried secretly at the end of the 1930s. Many similar mass graves existed around Leningrad during the Gulag times, especially when the purges were most active, but Levashovo is the only one that has become official memorial cemetery. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, relatives of the people who disappeared and were killed began to attach photographs of the victims to the trees around the graves, and soon Levashovo had many unofficial and official memorials. Most touching of them are very simple plaques nailed straight to the trunks, just listing names, and dates of birth & death. As lonely mementos amidst vast, forgotten forests, these small, white plates with resin of pine tree frozen on them like blood, seem to embody how political repression of Soviet Union is remembered – and forgotten.