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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakh Capital Remembers Gulag

AKMOLA, Kazakhstan -- The snow-covered Siberian steppes run on forever, broken only by a huge, black iron cross bearing silent testimony to the women banished to a Soviet gulag that once stood on this barren landscape. Though the ground is now frozen by winter cold, farmers still turn up dozens and dozens of human bones when they till the soil in springtime near the remote city of Akmola, which means "white tomb" in Kazakh and was inaugurated in early December as Kazakhstan's new capital, replacing Almaty.

The only inscription on the cross are the words: "Here lie buried the victims of the years 1930 to 1940, and the early 1950s."

"This cross was erected in 1989 because everywhere we dug in these fields we found skulls, bones," said Vladimir Liovin, an activist in a Kazakh human rights defense association.

The forced labor camp built here was named ALJIR, the Russian acronym for Akmola Camp for the Wives of Traitors of the Motherland, though it was euphemistically known as Point 36. The camp was a gulag for women during the Stalinist purges from 1937 until 1945. That year, men were also brought to work in forced labor here until 1954, when the camp was closed by Nikita Khrushchev.

"Nearly 8,000 women a year passed through Akmola," said Liubov Drobot, a union official at the chicken farm that was built on the camp's ruins. "They started bringing them here in January and February 1937 from all over the Soviet Union. They were arrested swiftly during the night, many didn't even have time to prepare a sack," she said, leading a visitor through a small museum she and a few other union officials set up here.The temperature in the central room of the museum is minus 20 degrees Celsius, giving a hint of what the prisoners had to endure in the harsh winters in this far-off Central Asian site.

On the wall hang black and white photographs of women before their detention, elegant and smiling and totally unaware of what fate held in store for them. "There were lots of artists, lots of pretty women among the prisoners. They were generally between 28 and 30 at most," Drobot said. Among them was the sister of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevski, a brilliant Red Army general who himself became a victim of the Stalinist purges, the singer Lidia Ruslanova and the actress Natalya Satz.

The women were housed in hastily built barracks and died by the dozens. Their stories were told in drawings, hidden diaries and the memories of survivors whom Drobot managed to contact by putting ads in a local newspaper. "They had no idea where their husbands or their children were. They found themselves in this terrible climate, minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter, worse with the wind, the steppes that stretched on endlessly. Some went crazy. Most died of heartbreak or cold," she said.

In one journal by a woman named Valentina Chevchenko, her painful childhood drawings recount the sudden arrest of her mother one night in a Soviet communal apartment after the ominous black van pulled up outside then carried her off to an unknown destination.

Her mother was taken to Point 36 where she died, though Chevchenko did not learn this until years later in 1956 after the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress denounced the Stalinist purges.

One former prisoner, Natalya Voronkov, left a written account of her long-ago indictment "under Article 58 of the penal code, betrayal of the motherland," a day after she gave a speech raising doubt about one of Stalin's railroad construction projects.

"We slept 300 women to a barracks without any windows. Women died by the dozens. They put a metal tag bearing a number around their wrists then tossed them into a common grave," wrote Voronkov, who died a few years ago.

Akmola now expects an influx of up to 15,000 civil servants and their families. But the new capital has not tried to erase the memories of Point 36 or other forced labor camps that dotted the area. President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently inaugurated a monument at the city's entrance to commemorate Soviet-era victims of these dreaded gulags.