Karlag HQ at Dolinka. They have preserved the building as it was.

“Karlag” is the abbreviation of Karagandinskii ispravitel’no-trudovoi lager (Карагандинский исправительно-трудовой лагер), the Russian for Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp, the largest of the camps that comprised the Gulag. On my recent trip to Karaganda, I spent my first day at Dolinka, a small town 45km to the southwest. Dolinka was home to Karlag headquarters. The old administrative building from which Karlag was run is now a museum to Stalin’s victims.

The Gulag was most notably introduced to the West by Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). Under Stalin, Soviet “criminals” were sent to labor camps in some of the least hospitable regions of the USSR to perform hard labor: coal mining in Kolyma, agriculture on the Kazakh steppe, the construction of the Belomor canal north of Moscow. According to an authoritative study by Steven A. Barnes, Death and Redemption, 18 million souls passed through the Gulag system–approximately 6% of the USSR’s population as it was in 1991–and many died or otherwise never returned to their families and homes.

There are many myths that surround the Gulag. One is that it was a wholly capricious system in which the majority of inmates were innocent of crimes as we, in the West, perceive crime. Another is that the Gulag was a system of death camps.

The Belorussian monument at Spassk

Karlag’s history demonstrates that it is wrong to think of the Soviet corrective labor system as similar in a substantive way either to German concentration camps on the one hand or the American internment camps for Japanese[-Americans] in WWII on the other. For one thing, Karlag was much larger than any camps in either of those systems: 200km wide at its widest and 300km long at its tallest, our tour guide at Dolinka compared it to the size of France (670,000sq. km). This is not quite accurate because Karlag was not a rectangle, but the point stands. This camp was on the scale of small or mid-sized European countries. There is no way that such a massive territory could be efficiently patrolled and guarded as to be impenetrable either in or out.

Moreover, as Barnes argues convincingly, unlike a Nazi camp, Karlag was a penal colony with the reeducation through labor and reintegration of its prisoner population into Soviet society as its ultimate goal. At Karlag, inmates  were put to work by and large in agriculture and animal herding.

Lastly, the inmates ranged from prisoners of political conscience and innocents ratted out for allegedly having spoken even a few words against the State to hardened criminals, POWs and others who might “conventionally” be considered threats to the the general population. Again drawing from Barnes, the

The monument to repressed artists at Dolinka

Gulag system developed a remarkably complex bureaucracy and system of institution with which to sort and categorize prisoners: those considered more dangerous were sent to the most distant and difficult camps.

None of this is to say, however, that the system was not deeply perverse. The “most dangerous” criminals were those who were the “counterrevolutionary agitators,” i.e. “politicals” from the intelligentsia. Thieves and professional criminals were treated with greater leniency because, in the eyes of the state, these people were closer to the working classes and more redeemable.

Furthermore, Stalin frequently classed whole populations of people as suspect and had them deported into the Soviet hinterland. Thus in the 1930s Poles were the first to be relocated from the European Soviet Union to Kazakhstan; later quite literally all of the Chechens and the Ingush were deported to Karaganda. But as in Dante’s Inferno, there were gradations of Hell. The deportees did not technically live within the borders of Karlag. They lived much as the free citizens of Kazakhstan at the time. However, Karlag’s administration was bureaucratically responsible for the deportee populations, and the deportees could not freely relocate elsewhere. They were, in effect, put under house arrest in new homes in a different republic of the Soviet Union. Interestingly – and something never mentioned in the museum at Dolinka – Barnes writes that ethnic Kazakhs were rarely incarcerated at Karlag. It would have been too easy for them to slip into the steppe and hide among the free population. Kazakh Gulag prisoners were sent to camps within Russia.

Israeli monument at Spassk

The museum was otherwise decent, but the fate to befall Karlag inmates and deportees was better communicated by walking across the land these people were forced to work and from which they had to eek not only subsistence, but also production quotas of wheat. Labor above and beyond the Plan was the way to demonstrate ones reform and commitment to Soviet society. But even on the spring day on which I visited, it was cold and wet, and the soil looked neither rich nor fertile. It is hard to imagine inmates’ suffering in the depths of winter and peaks of summer.

An associated monument to Stalin’s victims is at Spassk, the site of a former POW camp under the umbrella of Karlag. Spassk now houses a series of monuments. Countries from which citizens were interned either as military combatants or as suspect peoples have erected stone markers reminiscent of large gravestones. The countries include Belorussia, Russia, Ukraine and also France, Korea and Israel, among others. Each has a simple inscription in several languages. There is little fanfare around the stones; behind them stand several unmarked black crosses of different sizes and unknown provenance. Together, the markers are a quiet, dignified and fitting memorial out on the steppe.

The steppe near Dolinka and Karlag on the day we visited

  1. kazaknomad said:

    Thanks for this update and post about Dolinka and KARLAG. I have to say that the administrative building is amazing, I was told they were going to move the museum to this compound. I saw it before this white washed “remont.” See my earlier blogs and pictures of my visit to Dolinka. I think our tour guide from the original museum (used to be the hospital) told me the story of when they would kill some of the “incorrigibles” they had the orchestra playing out in the courtyard so that the shots would not be heard. Yes, the big white building was meant to impress and intimidate. I’m familiar with Barnes work, I need to find it to read through it. GREAT work!

  2. Thanks for the great post on Karlag (and for the comments on my book on the subject). It is a subject I am obviously passionate about and want more people to know about.

    Like Kazaknomad, I’ve not seen the building since the remont, though I should be heading there in March or April 2013 for some new research. I was last there in 2006, and it was abandoned, crumbling, and boarded up. I’m quite interested in seeing the museum (and the ALZhIR museum outside of Astana.)

    One addition to your fine post on the subject of Spassk. Prior to and after its time as a POW camp, it was an integral part of Karlag and later Steplag and was long known as a place prisoners went to die. In part, this was because invalid prisoners were concentrated in Spassk.

    Finally, we should always keep in mind (as the first word of my book title suggests) the incredible numbers of deaths that were part and parcel of this system. In Karlag, death rates during the war reached as much as 30% of the prisoner population per year. Further, the national deportees experienced tremendous death rates during the process of deportation. The exact numbers will never be known, but we believe as much as 25% of these populations died in the first couple of years of deportation.

    By the way, a blog conversation about my book starts today at Russian History Blog (http://russianhistoryblog.org)

  3. kazaknomad said:

    Check what the KARLAG headquarters looked like when in sad disrepair back in November of 2008. http://kazakhnomad.wordpress.com/2008/11/18/karlag-buildings-in-stalins-neoclassicism-style/

    They must have gotten a good sized grant from the Kazakh government to make it look sparkling white on the outside. I would love to go back to see what the museum looks like on the inside. If you were able to go in the “new” museum, did you see the huge painting (20′ x 7′) of Lenin and Stalin, et al mapping out electrification in the USSR?

    • Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, but I really appreciate the photo. It’s amazing how much it’s changed! But the electrification mural is still there, more or less intact. The mural was in fact one of my favorite parts of the HQ/museum. Sadly, though, they’ve made it much harder to see actual camp grounds, which would be useful for giving a sense of what the camp experience was really like – and what it looked like.

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