Karlag labor camp leaves ominous legacy of the ‘Hell in the steppe’
Exactly 90 years ago, on May 13, 1930, one of the largest Gulag labor camps Karlag was formed by the decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR. The word ‘Karlag’ stands for the Karagandy Corrective Labor Camp. The center of the camp was located in the Dolinka village 45 kilometers away from Karagandy. There were two other branches of the camp outside this territory: one was located 35 kilometers away in Akmola region and another one was located 650 kilometers away on the territory of Lake Balkhash.
In 1930-1931, the forced eviction of the population took place in order to create the Karlag camp. The NKVD troops were involved in this operation. The local intelligentsia wrote a letter on this matter.
“The Karlag workers destroyed the graves of the noble Kazakh people during the construction of the camp branch in the territory of the tracts of Ortau, Alabas and Zhaidak Su. The grave of the son of the famous Zhidebai Syzdyk batyr, as well as dozens of other graves were destroyed and turned into a farmyard,” wrote First Secretary of the District Party Committee Suleimenov in a letter to First Secretary of the Karagandy Regional Committee Galaidin.
Historical data shows that the Karlag’s administration was subordinate only to Moscow. The national and regional party authorities couldn’t influence the camp’s activity.
The main goal of the Karlag camp formation was the use of prisoners’ free labor, who contributed to the implementation of Stalin’s program on the construction of socialism.
At the time of opening, 2,567 prisoners of 47 nationalities were placed in the labor camp. In 1937-1938, there were already 43,000 prisoners. In total, from 1931 until 1960, more than 1 million people were prisoners in the camp.
Scientists, military men, artists and other famous people were among the prisoners in Karlag.
“Karlag became the center of repression for the whole society, from the highest authorities to politicians and farmers,” said PhD in History Duisetai Shaimukhanov.
“From 1931 to 1956, 1.5 million people were sent to Karlag. I’ve been to many places. I visited Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps. The rules established there were similar to the Karlag rules. For example, there was one incident in the Nazi concentration camp. Wolves attacked the flock of sheep, which was grazed by women. The wolves killed a couple of sheep. The perpetrators were shot in front of other women in the camp. This kind of violence was used in Auschwitz and Buchenwald,” says Shaimukhanov.
The fact that the Karlag camp was called a “Hell in the steppe’ speaks volumes. In 1941, a special camp division for prisoners of war opened in Karlag. Nearly 40,000 people of different nationalities were brought there. According to incomplete data, 7,000 of them died in the camp.
“We lived in a Nazi concentration camp. Each prisoner was assigned a special cipher number. We were never called by our real names, instead they used only code numbers to call us. Each brigade consisted of 15 to 20 people. The prisoners worked in the extraction of copper ore. Since drilling was carried out in a dry state, the spreading dust led to tuberculosis and silicosis. The prisoners were in difficult conditions. They never ate properly, nor they received a proper treatment,” recalls a former camp prisoner Akhmetov.
This all led to protests. On May 16, 1954, a strike took place in the camp. This shocked the entire Gulag system. The uprising lasted 40 days. Prisoners opposed the government. According to witnesses, nearly 600 people were killed and injured. After the great uprising, special concentration camps in the entire Gulag system were closed. Karlag was eliminated on July 27, 1959.
Nowadays, the labor camp located in the Dolinka village is a museum. At the time, residents of nearby villages moved to the houses where the Karlag officers used to live.