The Sad History of Repressions in Kazakhstan
Karaganda is a special city on the map of Kazakhstan. It is now the country’s largest industrial centre, but few remember that during Soviet times it was also the second cultural hub in Kazakhstan (after Almaty) and practically the first industrial capital city of the Republic. This generally positive history is often overlooked as it is now known more for the trauma of the generations who suffered in the largest of the GULAG camps, the Karlag, which was located not far from the city during Stalin’s repressions in the USSR from the 1930s to 1950s.
The Karaganda corrective labour camp, run by the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate) and the USSR’S NKVD (security forces), commonly known as Karlag, was established on 19 December 1931. The NKVD designed it as a ‘giant’ state farm. The main centre, with the administration and general directorate, was based in the settlement of Dolinka, 40 kilometres from Karaganda. Smaller branches of the camp were spread out over a huge area, in Akmolinsk and Balkhash, near Jezkazgan, along the Chu River and even beyond the official boundaries. Prisoners were housed throughout the vast expanse of the Karlag, with departments and sections located at distances varying from 5 to 650 kilometres from the centre of the camp. To help you picture its terrifying scale, it was about the same size as France.
From 1930 to 1931, they started the forced eviction of the local population from the area designated for the Karlag, which involved moving 4,000 Kazakh yurts and a population of 80,000 people. There were also 1,200 German, Russian and Ukrainian households located
there at the time and NKVD troops were drafted in for this brutal operation. The Germans, Russians and Ukrainians were mainly resettled in adjacent districts in the Karaganda Oblast. The fate of the Kazakhs was particularly tragic; many people from the northern part of the camp were resettled in and around the city of Karaganda and this process was combined with ‘de-kulakisation’, the repression of wealthy peasants who were seen as class enemies, in which they had everything taken away from them, their property, cattle, sheep, horses and camels. After the local people had been evicted, long columns of prisoners arrived and were housed in hastily-built barracks.
The main feature of Soviet repressions was that they were not aimed only at obvious political opponents and these were in fact an insignificant proportion of the many millions of victims. The overwhelming majority of prisoners were repressed not for their words or deeds but because they belonged to a social or national group to which the Soviet regime was hostile.
The programme imposed by the GULAG (the government agency in charge of the Soviet system of forced labour camps) was intended to completely crush the prisoners. The majority of them died from lack of food, hard physical labour, the high morbidity rate, dystrophy and tuberculosis, and the
mortality rates were particularly high during the years of the Great Patriotic War (WWII). In his report to the GULAG on 18 February 1943, Yaloshkevich, the head of the Karlag Operation and Chekist Department (secret police) stated that “Flu-related diseases and emaciation are responsible for the greatest number of deaths. Patients with high fever are kept in cold barracks for a few days and often taken to the hospital in severe condition; some patients die in barracks, without getting any help”.
This cruel fate suffered by thousands of people has not been forgotten. Today, a building that was part of the camp administration at Dolinka is home to the Museum of the Memory of the Victims of Political Repression, which holds the entire history of Karlag. The museum displays illustrate every aspect of life in the camp, describing the role of the camp system in the country’s economic development, the achievements and contributions made by the prisoners to industry and agriculture and of course the people themselves. They included a great number of famous scientists, physicists, geneticists, biologists, historians and physicians as well as actors and artists of international renown.
The prisoners provided a free labour force for collieries and metallurgy plants.
The industrial development of Central
Kazakhstan, such as the Karaganda coal field and the Jezkazgan and Balkhash copper-smelting facilities, was a result of their hard work. Agriculture was developed and in Dolinka an experimental station was set up to grow and select new varieties of crops that had never been grown in Central Kazakhstan, such as corn, sunflower, Sudan grass, sesame, saffron and new types of rye and millet. A garden was planted that was the first of its kind in Central Kazakhstan, growing 85 varieties of fruit and berries and 30 species of trees and bushes. Older residents say that lemons used to grow in hot houses and even in the harsh winter the head of the camp would have fresh strawberries on the menu. One of the camp’s former prisoners, G.levin, wrote in his memoirs: “During the Karlag era it was a blossoming corner, an oasis in the desert. The ambitious irrigation system could be heard out in the steppe, the forests and amongst the oak trees. The Dolinka settlement was drowning in foliage”.
Unfortunately, very few authentic artefacts of that time remain, but the few that do lay bare the horrific reality of life in the camp. A collection of domestic items from the homes of ex-prisoners gives a feel for the era and everyday life in Dolinka at the time. Today, many of the residents are descendants of people who came from both sides of the barbed-wire fence, the children and grandchildren of prisoners and those who guarded them. The lives of these people became entwined many years ago and every family has an extraordinary story to tell. In order to feel that, you need to walk down the streets
of Dolinka, where here and there you will see scenes that seem frozen in time. Next to the administration building there is still a two-storeyed officer’s house, where the camp’s officers once lived; a little further on there are two apartment houses intended for younger officers and next to them are the barracks where the civilians, prisoners who had been released from the camp, were housed, and they are inhabited still. You might look into a backyard and spot a barbed-wire fence whose rusty coils have grown into the earth…
Throughout the years of its existence, over a million prisoners were sent to the Karlag and they have left an indelible mark on the history of Central Kazakhstan.
Main types of repressive migrations in different years:
• on social grounds — de-kulakisation (Cossacks, kulaks, noblemen) 1920-1930s.
• on ethnic grounds — deportation of ‘punished’ people as well as settled Kazakhs from camp locations; members of the Labour Army; representatives of nations designated a ‘security risk’ and therefore exempt from military service until they were mobilised for the war (1942-1945).
• on religious grounds — in accordance with the decree of 1930 by the CEC (Central Executive Committee) and CPC (Council of People’s Commissars): ‘Concerning the Struggle against Counterrevolutionary Elements in the Executive Bodies of Religious Associations’.
• on political grounds — people convicted by article 58 of the Criminal Code of RSFSR for political crimes against the proletarian state including repressions against the Kazakh intelligentsia and representatives of the Alash Orda party.