Monday, May 15, 2017

Abandoned GULAG Prison

Mountain Toratau, Shikhan, Respublika Bashkortostan, Russia, 453239
This place had been on my radar for quite some time. I've been scouring the internet for abandoned places around Ufa, but most of them are too complicated to get to - meaning I'd near a car or decent amount of Russian - so I've been discouraged. I first learned about this prison when I was doing research about Tora-Tau (which I will blog about in a later post). When I saw that it didn't require any extra effort to get to if I was already going to Tora-Tau I knew I had to go! It is literally at the base of the Shikhan Tora-Tau, and if you look to the right, while standing in the main entrance, you will see it. Unfortunately, it's been pretty cold here this spring, so when we went the flowers weren't quite blooming like in these pictures.
In America, at least when I was in high school, GULAG is always referenced as the camp, like the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. However, GULAG refers to the prison system. I have always been fascinated with Soviet history, and after reading A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I never understood why this part of world history isn't taught as much. Maybe because it's shadowed by an even more horrendous event that took place in the West, but prison camps in the Soviet Union were unbelievably terrible places to be. I wrote more about the GULAG system here. Side note: If you loved All Quiet on the Western Front as much as I did you should read ADitLoID. The title itself will tell you what to expect from the book.
While trying to find information about this GULAG I kept seeing information that it was a women's camp. I thought that was really interesting, but it turns out it was actually a camp for the most dangerous criminals in the Soviet time. By "dangerous" I mean they were most likely political opponents or intellectuals, but any dictator knows mental strength is more dangerous than physical strength. Other prisons were located closer to the cities. At this current location only three buildings still stand with piles of stones speckled throughout the territory. This camp was smaller than others you will find scattered throughout the Soviet Union. It had only about 30,000 people (note the sarcasm), and operated from January 1949 to May 1953 around the time of Stalin's death.
Life in the Salavat camps, and especially this camp, was terrible. The job at this particular camp was to mine limestone. The rate of death was higher than the national average, and many of the prisoners here committed suicide. According to this website, prisoners were constantly shackled and slept on the floor. Walking inside the buildings, as someone who is 5'1", even I felt claustrophobic, and there wasn't even a ceiling when we visited. We couldn't figure out why they were built into the ground like they are or why there are strange cavities by the windows, but I can only imagine that melting snow wouldn't help keep these men warm. I also don't know the purpose of the buildings. The first two look like barracks, and from the readings I've done, I think that is a good assessment. However, the last building looked quite different from the other two, and we assumed it might have been an office or the dining area, bakery, or shop, all of which I read were built at this camp.
"Here in the 20th century was a prison camp of the GULAG system. Let all that happened here be forgiven."
The structure of the buildings is still in pretty good shape, but I give credit to the incredibly thick walls. According to my friend, Anya, who read the Russian information about the camps before we went, after the camps closed the locals came and took everything they could use, like the metal bars from the windows. Now, only graffiti and trash remain. I wish the Russian government would do a better job of preserving these places and educating people on what happened. I know it's not the most glamorous thing to remember but we need to learn about the mistakes of the past to make sure they aren't repeated in the future *coughdonaldtrumpcough*.
Someone wrote my last name on the wall. I think they knew I was coming. Just kidding, Albert is a common first name in this region.
What do you think about visiting such places?

8 comments

  1. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be a prisoner at this camp, or in any GULAG. This is something few of us will ever see in person, so thank you for showing pictures. It's always good to reflect on the past, especially a past that can seem so far away, and long ago.

    In school I had a teacher who always spoke about the Gulag Archipelago, and I think I've had a copy of that since high school. I still haven't read it, though I have read Ivan Denisovich.

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    1. Even while standing there it was so hard to imagine what it was like back then because the surrounding area was so beautiful and peaceful.

      I'll have to look into that book. When I went to Amazon to get the link for Ivan Denisovich I saw some suggestions for other books related to GULAGs that sounded really interesting as well.

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  2. very cool! I love that I always learn things while flipping through your beautiful photos!

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  3. What a fascinating trip. The GULAG was the personification of evil, it truly was. We lived for three years in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. During the Soviet times a lot of prisoners were sent to camps in Karaganda (Karlag) and just outside Astana then known as Akmola. There is little left of the old Astana camp which was where they sent the women of political prisoners but the Kazakh government have set up a very good little museum to commemorate what happened on Kazakh soil. The letters from children sent to the children's camp in Karaganda are heartbreaking. Some survivors still live in the city, we visited a few times and have an excellent video DVD of survivor's testimony. I wrote about it here http://ersatzexpat.blogspot.com/2013/05/remembering-gulag.html If you enjoyed A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch you may also like some of Orlando Figues work which details testimony of survivors.

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    1. Thank you for sharing. I couldn't imagine reading what the children said. I'll have to look into Orlando Figues work.

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  4. So interesting... thanks for sharing! I can't imagine that many people there.

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    1. Same! And this was one of the smaller camps!

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