Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Forgotten Victims Despair in Steppe

APCommunists lining up Monday on Red Square to visit Stalin’s grave.
DOLINKA, Kazakhstan — Their only crime was to be German.

An icy wind lashing against his face, Viktor Fast gazed at rows of crumbling barracks in the snows of central Kazakhstan where his parents — along with millions of other Russian Germans — endured years of cruelty in Soviet labor camps.

“It was a bitter time,” said Fast, whose family members were accused of collaborating with the Nazis in the 1930s despite having lived in Russia for centuries as ordinary farmers.

“It was not a good time to be German,” said Fast, 58.

Now a resident of Frankfurt, he often comes to this remote spot to pay respect to those who died here as part of Stalin’s purges.

Millions of people including ethnic Germans and Russian dissidents died between 1930 and 1960, unable to survive starvation and torture in a network of gulag camps scattered from Russia’s Arctic tundra to the inhospitable Kazakh steppe.

Snow crunched under his feet as Fast toured Dolinka, a village at the center of the Kazakh gulag system. Only scraps of barbed wire and a scattering of crumbling barracks — many converted into houses — remind visitors of Dolinka’s past.

Decades on, Stalin’s Great Terror campaign is recognized globally as one of the biggest crimes against humanity. Yet survivors and campaigners lament what they see as Russia’s reluctance to face up to the horrors of its past.

“People don’t cherish their memories,” said Fast, speaking Russian with a German accent. “Seventy years of Soviet policies have erased their memories.”

As Moscow debates Stalin’s role in its history, rights campaigners have accused Vladimir Putin’s Russia of trying to whitewash the dictator’s ruinous legacy, turning Stalin’s purges into a forgotten chapter of Soviet history. An epigraph praising Stalin was recently restored on the wall of a metro station in Moscow, where Communists laid wreaths on Monday to mark 130 years since his birth in Georgia.

“There is a creeping effort to vindicate Stalin and promote the benefits of strong-hand rule, and that is a big worry,” said Yekaterina Kuznetsova, 71, a prominent gulag researcher. “But history is cunning. It tends to repeat itself.”

It is unclear exactly how many died in the Kazakh gulag camps, collectively known as Karlag. The overall gulag death toll also varies from 1.5 million to 20 million. Dolinka residents describe the surrounding steppe as one big mass grave.

One field is dotted with crosses, a place where hundreds of children — “the offspring of the enemies of the people” — were buried. It is known as Mamochkino — or Mommy’s — cemetery.

A chilly 1943 note by the NKVD Soviet security service, a copy of which was seen by a reporter, states: “The death rate among prisoners has increased sharply in Karlag. … Having spent a work shift in the frost, many are unable to warm up in the cold barracks … and die without receiving any medical help.”

Many former camps are now part of Kazakhstan’s jail system. Some, like a row of abandoned barracks in Dolinka, are used as a waste dump. Wrapped tightly against the biting cold of minus 30 Celsius, villagers turn away as they walk past briskly.

A tiny village museum is packed with gulag items, its walls plastered with photos of prisoners’ gaunt faces.

A journal kept by one prisoner lies on display, showing a hastily written entry dating back to March 1953. “Today there was an announcement … that Stalin died … I can’t believe this.”

Karlag was closed after Stalin’s death. Often unable to find anywhere to go, many survivors and their wardens settled down in the same villages, forming an uneasy fusion of tragedies that were never discussed in public. “After the Soviet collapse some of them were worried that they would be tried for crimes against humanity,” Kuznetsova said. “But, of course, no one came.”

Russia denies accusations that it is whitewashing Stalin’s totalitarian system. In October, President Dmitry Medvedev said the crimes of the past should not be forgiven.

Survivors think otherwise. Mikhail Shmulyov was jailed for not killing himself when captured by German troops in the 1940s. The 90-year-old feels bitter about Russia’s stance on history.

“I was never a Communist. But after this experience, I became a true anti-Sovietchik,” he said in his wooden home in Almaty, which he has elaborately decorated with Buddha statues, paintings and old black-and-white photographs. “Today we see pictures of Lenin and Stalin everywhere again. I find it shocking. Communism must never be forgiven.”