30 May 2013

ALZHIR - Remembering the Gulag

During the Stalinist years of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan became a centre for labour camps for political prisoners.  These were mostly situated around Karaganda which is about 250 kilometers south of Astana.  The Kazakh steppe is a harsh and difficult place to live – freezing in winter with howling winds and driving snow, hot and dusty in summer and as such it proved an ideal location for these camps – the geography prevented escape.    A joke from all those years ago even refers to this – Karaganda rhymes with the Russian word for where so if you asked someone where and they would respond Karaganda they were indicating that they were literally going to the ‘middle of nowhere’ "Где?" — "В Караганде!".

Map showing the distribution of Gulag camps.

I understand that there is a very good Gulag museum (called Karlag short for Karaganda Lager, here in Kazakhstan) just outside Karaganda, unfortunately we have not yet had the opportunity to visit.  I have, however, had the opportunity to visit the Alzhir camp which was located just a few kilometers outside Astana.  This camp has now been converted into a museum and shows one of the most insidiously awful aspects of the labour camp system.

A wagon used to transport prisoners stands in stark contrast to
the beautiful flowers in the museum gardens.
The Stalin Wagons slept a minimum of 70
and were heated with a single stove.
Alzhir (АЛЖИРАкмолинский Лагерь Жён Изменников Родины) the Akmolinsk camp for the wives of traitors to the motherland was the largest women’s camp in the Soviet Union.  The women who were sent here were guilty of no crime other than being the wife, sister or daughter of a man found guilty of being a traitor.  Even very young children were transported to the camp – those under about the age of 4 or 5 staying with their mothers before being taken to separate state orphanages.

Alzhir during operation.
Although the museum is not far from Astana it takes about an hour to drive.  The road is in the process of being extended from a single carriageway to a proper motorway and the roadworks can cause extensive delays.  The museum is in a small village just to the side of the road.  As you enter the complex there is a display of a ‘Stalin Wagon’ used to transport the women in groups of 70 or more across the vast distances of the Soviet Union.  A small plot of land next to the wagon has been surrounded by barbed wire and has a representation of a watch towers so that visitors get a sense of how the camp was enclosed.  

The Arch of Sorrow marks the entry to the museum.
To get to the museum we walked under the ‘Arch of Sorrow’, designed in the shape of a traditional wedding headdress.  It is a stark, beautiful and unusual memorial and a sign invites all who walk under it to bow their head in memory of the suffering of the innocent victims who lived in Alzhir.  Walking on there is a selection of memorials to victims of different nationalities and then two bronze statues.  One, a man, looks at his feet, despair is written large on his face but the other, a woman, stares contemplatively into the future – seeing a life beyond her current suffering.  The path then leads to the memorial museum itself. 

Hope for the future
The first floor is dedicated to an exhibition on the fight for Kazakh Independence over the past 150 years, there are some interesting items on display – a mail shirt from the time of Kenessary Khan, some knives and pistols but the majority of the exhibits are photographs of those who stood up to the Russian and Soviet occupation.  The commentary on the exhibits is, however, fascinating and very well written and available in English as well as Kazakh and Russian.

The original door to an interrogation cell forms the centrepiece to a thought provoking sculpture
The second floor is dedicated to an exhibition of the lives of the women who lived in the camp.  The first thing you see, at the head of the stairs is a sculpture set around the original door to an interrogation room.  A diorama and some other displays show what life was like for the women.   It was disconcerting to see the personal effects – handbags, clothes etc that had been donated to the museum, they could have been my grandmother’s – the same style, the same designs as items I have seen in her attics.  Probably the most heart-breaking display showed letters that the women received from their children and the small items they made for them in return.

Women were told they were to meet their family members so they wore
their best clothes to the prison.  This cruel joke marked the
start of their prison term.  
Several factors helped to make the life of the women more bearable.  The commandant was, by most accounts, if not a gentle man then not a sadist.  The camp was located very close to a Kazakh village and the villagers did all they could to help the women – giving them extra food to supplement their meagre camp rations.  The first time this happened the women thought the villagers were throwing stones at them – closer inspection showed the ‘stones’ to be kurt – small hard balls of traditional dried cheese.

Models aim to give a sense of what life was like for the prisoners.
Photographs help to show life as it was.
Women came from all walks of life and all corners of the USSR.
The women came from all walks of life – famous actresses, accomplished doctors and intellectuals, the sisters of Marshal Tukachevsky and ordinary women from every part of the Soviet Union.  These women served their 5-8 year sentences and were then rehabilitated.  Some never found their way back to their families, their relatives and children having died in the system and many of them built new lives for themselves in Kazakhstan.  The last remaining Alzhir survivor still lives in Astana.  If you ask the museum attendants they will put on a video about the camp which has interviews with survivors and their children, it is in Russian but has English subtitles.

Women were separated from their children who
were sent to live in state orphanages.
A replica accommodation block.  The first inmates had to build the huts
themselves in the freezing Kazakh Winter.
Outside the museum there is a replica of the accommodation blocks.  This gives a sense of the cramped, miserably cold conditions the women had to cope with.  The exhibit shows a guard coming to take a child from his mother - too old to stay in Alzhir he will be sent to the children's orphanages in Karaganda this was a sad way of life for the inmates and their children.  To the rear there is wall of remembrance listing the name of every inmate.  It takes some time to walk around, even if you just read one name per panel.

The memorial wall lists the names of all the inmates.
The number of names is sad and frightening.
The camp was closed following Stalin’s death.  In 2007 the memorial complex was opened, as a nation Kazakhstan has worked hard to acknowledge what happened on Kazakh soil in the name of the Soviet Union and keep the memory alive so that it can not happen again.  To this end every 31 May is dedicated to the memory of the victims of political repression.

The victims of political repression are remembered each year.
There is a strong determination to ensure the tragedies of Alzhir never happen again.

Click on the picture for more information on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat


  1. I really enjoy your blog. Thanks so much for all the great information. Will arrive in Astana early next year, so I will be glued to every post. Have fun!

    1. Thanks Natalie! Astana is a pretty wonderful place to live.

  2. Wow. I shocked at how well preserved it is. It looks much bigger than the museum I saw in Moscow. Apparently there is a prison/museum in Perm that is very big, but I was told that it might be closed now. It's a shame. I think everyone should have an opportunity to learn about this.

    1. The site itself is gone sadly. The stuff there now are recreations, memorials and the museum. The Kazakh authorities are keen to ensure that it is remembered. There is a bigger museum in Karaganda though we never managed to get to it.

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