The Gulag’s Foundation In Kazakhstan



In early March 2006, I visited a graveyard in the empty Central Asian steppe near Spassk, just south of the city of Karaganda, Kazakhstan. This cemetery held the unmarked remains of prisoners of the former Soviet Union’s Gulag—the notorious system of forced labor concentration camps and internal exile—and the multi-national victims of a World War II prisoner of war (POW) camp that had operated on the same territory. Between the 1930s and 1950s, Spassk had served as a division of the Gulag forced labor camp Karlag, a World War II POW camp and the postwar Gulag special camp Steplag. On the day of my visit, the temperature hovered right around freezing—significantly warmer than the forty below of just a few months earlier—but the winds swept across the flat open steppe, piercing through my thick winter coat and several layers of clothing. As I ran about the graveyard snapping photographs of monuments placed since the fall of the Soviet Union for possible inclusion in the website, taking frequent quick breaks in a car to warm up, it was hard to imagine just how brutal life as a Gulag inmate in the Karaganda region would have been working out in the steppe with inadequate clothing in temperatures much lower than I faced. Winter must have seemed endless in this steppe and looking at the untrammeled view in every direction, escape must have seemed impossible without trees or even hills to hide you. Many never escaped and never left this steppe alive.

Deep in the steppe of central Kazakhstan, Spassk was but one drop in the vast sea of Soviet labor camps that made up the Gulag and extended to every part of the Soviet Union. Militsa Stefanskaia, a twenty-two year old librarian sentenced to three years for alleged counterrevolutionary activity, recalled her arrival at Karlag in the spring of 1938: “The train went through the steppe. The naked Kazakh steppe—steppe and more steppe—I do not remember anything else…. We went and went. The steppe flashed past the windows—we had gone to Kazakhstan…. And we kept going and going.”

Karlag was established at the beginning of the 1930s, during Stalin’s so-called “Great Break” when the Gulag emerged as a major institution in the Soviet Union’s drive to collectivize agriculture, to industrialize a largely agrarian country and to transform an entire people’s culture in hopes of catching up with a West that was understood as more advanced and profoundly hostile to the construction of socialism in the Soviet Union. 

I have conducted a local study of the Gulag camps of the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan over the last decade to complete a major forthcoming book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, that offers a comprehensive reconsideration of the Gulag. Drawing on memoirs, central and local Gulag archives, the study proceeds from the need to understand two key features of the Gulag. First, as we have long known, the Gulag was a place of mass death. Gulag deaths number into the millions and in the worst years the annual death rate approached twenty-five percent. Second and a greater surprise, throughout the Stalin era, twenty to forty percent of the Gulag population was released every year. No fewer than 115,000 inmates were released in any year and the number released in one year could reach well over 500,000.

Death and Redemption demonstrates that the Soviet Union had the knowledge, the facilities and the will to exterminate all of the prisoners who passed through the Gulag; yet the Soviets did not conceive of their concentration camps as instruments of genocide. The most salient feature of the Gulag was an apparent paradox: forced labor, high death rates and an oppressive atmosphere of violence, cold and constant hunger coexisted with camp newspapers and cultural activities, a constant propaganda barrage of correction and reeducation and the steady release of a significant portion of the prisoner population. If more than 115,000 Gulag prisoners were released every year, the question of how Soviet authorities determined who would be released and how they prepared them for reentry into Soviet society simply must be addressed. At the same time, each year thousands and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of Gulag prisoners died. Their fate must also be considered to understand the function of the camp system.

In Death and Redemption, the Gulag comes to appear as a last chance for a prisoner to remake himself into a fit Soviet citizen. The Bolsheviks were engaged in a radical project to build a utopian socialist society. In accord with their Manichaean worldview, they fully expected opposition to building that perfect society. Many whom they understood as their most implacable enemies, they executed outright, but many others were kept alive (at least temporarily) in the Gulag. The Bolsheviks could not escape their fundamental belief in the malleability of the human soul and they believed that labor was the key to reforging criminals. The very harshness of the Gulag was seen as necessary to break down a prisoner’s resistance in order to rebuild him or her into a proper Soviet citizen. If a prisoner refused correction, the brutality of the Gulag would lead to inevitable death, for the Bolsheviks were no humanitarians. If mistakes were to be made, they believed it was better to kill too many than too few.

My study shows how these key features of the Gulag were reflected in myriad practices that affected a prisoner’s daily life and ultimately determined a prisoner’s capacity for surviving the camps. Gulag practices were designed around a categorization matrix based on who a prisoner was upon arrival in the Gulag and who he or she had become while in the Gulag. These categories placed prisoners into a hierarchy according to their perceived danger, redeemability and level of reeducation. Complex hierarchies of living and working conditions, differentiation of food rations and practices of early release tied survival directly to one’s place in that hierarchy. The Gulag served as a crossroads, constantly redefining the line between those who could be reclaimed for Soviet society and those who were destined to die in the camps.

In September 1934, Karlag officials proudly sent a history of their concentration camp’s first four years in Karaganda to central Gulag authorities in Moscow. The first section, “Four Years of the Struggle for Reclamation of the Semi-Desert and for Reforging,” placed the camp’s creation in the context of  the Great Break.

[Karlag] did not emerge accidentally, just as nothing appears accidentally in the great proletarian country in the epoch of the dictatorship of the proletariat under the leadership of the party of Lenin with the genius leader of the world proletariat com[rade] Stalin at its head. At the XVI Congress of the [Communist Party of the Soviet Union comrade] Stalin put before the party, before the working class and all the laborers of the countries of the Soviets, one of the most important problems – THE PROBLEM OF THE RECLAMATION OF THE MARGINS, the problem of its economic flowering on the basis of the newest techniques and socialist forms of the organization of economic activity.

Rich as it was in natural resources, especially coal, the Karaganda region was certainly ripe for development. The region’s resources, while known in the tsarist era, remained underdeveloped until the 1930s. In fact, development of the Karaganda region’s natural resources proceeded hand in hand with the growth of Karaganda’s Gulag. The history of corrective labor camps in the Karaganda region begins with the late 1930 arrival of a handful of Chekists and their prisoners. Karlag would become one of the largest (geographically and in terms of prisoner population) and longest-lasting camps in the Gulag system. Prisoners frequently described Karlag as the size of France. Karlag was the central institution of the Karaganda region, even though it is not mentioned in Soviet-era histories and encyclopedias of the region.

Karlag was primarily, though not exclusively, an agricultural camp established to transform the semi-desert of the steppe into a productive agricultural base for the provision of livestock and crops to the region’s growing population engaged in the extraction of natural resources. The formation of Karlag as an independent camp followed almost immediately on the heels of an August 1931 Central Committee resolution on the development of the Karaganda basin as the Union’s number three coal provider. While the late Soviet history of Karaganda emphasizes the city as “an offspring of October” and carefully enumerates the Communists, Komsomols, miners and builders sent to Karaganda to construct the coal basin, Karaganda was perhaps more accurately an offspring of the Gulag, particularly of Karlag’s prisoner and internal exile population. 

The agricultural task before Karlag was daunting. They were asked to develop a semi-desert that exceeded in size many European countries. With what must have been tremendous understatement, the 1934 Karlag history noted that more than a few “skeptics, opportunists and pessimists” disseminated their doubts about the possibility of accomplishing such a major task given the climatic and soil conditions of the region. Yet many were also caught up in the atmosphere of “revolutionary times…of socialist construction [when t]here are no fortresses which the Bolsheviks cannot storm.”

The first winter at Karlag was quite difficult. Prisoners faced living conditions that are only hinted at in the official history: “The winter of 1930 passed in unbelievably harsh conditions: there were no living quarters. The camp population was accommodated willy-nilly [koe-kak].” The Karaganda region was sparsely populated and lacked building materials. Prisoners lived in tents, mud huts and even under the open sky, as the construction of living space lagged behind the expansion of the prisoner population throughout Karlag’s history. Inmates built their own prison camps.

Nonetheless, in these conditions, Karlag somehow established a semblance of mechanized agriculture in the steppe. They brought combines, tractors and automobiles to what they thought of as an “empty” steppe. Prisoners built massive irrigation works and dammed up regional rivers. Furthermore, Karlag authorities bragged in their history, they had been able to overfulfill their 1931 agricultural plan and considering the nature of their criminal human resources, they had provided a strong example for local collective farms:

Every ravine, every gully, every stream presented itself as a kind of fortress that was stormed in battle by the hero-organizers of Karlag agriculture. Yesterday’s wreckers, bandits, thieves and prostitutes, gathered from the various ends of the Soviet country, under the able and experienced Chekist leadership, accomplished great things. Burning with the flame of constructive enthusiasm, valuing highly and proud of that faith placed in them, the former lawbreakers stormed the semi-deserts of Kazakhstan…

These statements were in great part hyperbole and self-promotion, yet they also contained something of the tenor of the age. For as the official history noted repeatedly and as camp practices showed time and time again, Karlag’s work was not just about its economic role. As Karlag officials wrote in 1934, their task was not only to introduce a huge territory “into the stock of socialist agriculture, but also to return tens of thousands of former lawbreakers reforged in the hearth of collective labor into the ranks of the genuine shockworkers of socialist construction.”

Karlag was an integral part of the approach to this problem, in their case battling for the “reclamation of the semi-desert and for the reforging” of criminals into honest Soviet citizens. Karlag’s primary tasks, as they understood them, were twofold—the development of agriculture in the vast desert-steppe of Central Kazakhstan to support the emerging industrial centers of the region and in coordination with these “economic-political tasks to solve the social-political task of the reeducation of tens of thousands of former lawbreakers” through instruction in collective agricultural labor. A great many would die at Karlag as its authorities attempted to complete the often competing penal and economic tasks set before it, but these deaths too were seen as part and parcel of its work—the ultimate outcome for those who failed at their own rehabilitation and the end of the line, in an unmarked cemetery for so many.

Steven A. Barnes ( is Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Art History (



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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 at 11:37 am and is filed under Development, Geography, History, Human Rights, Identity, Nationalism, Russia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


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