Prison-Camp Past Haunts Arctic City

Museum displays reminders of Stalin-era forced-labor camps (gulags) in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area

THE folklore museum in this city on the Arctic Circle boasts an impressive array of artifacts and bright costumes that chronicle the history of the area's indigenous people.

In addition to the colorful main exhibit on native culture, a two-room display, which opened just recently, is devoted to the area's darker past - its history as an outpost in the so-called Gulag Archipelago of forced-labor prison camps.

"Until two years ago there was no information available about all of this," museum curator Lyudmila Lipatova says of the exhibit. "We only recently began discovering the truth."

During the Stalin era, concentration camps surrounded Salekhard, the capital of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area. A wide array of camp items have been collected by the museum. The most chilling perhaps are photocopies of the death certificates for dozens of camp inmates in which the cause of death is listed as "executed." Painted on the wall is a slogan: "Remember it, so it can't be repeated."

Many residents, however, apparently would prefer to forget about the city's Stalinist legacy. Salekhard is home to numerous people who were connected with the camps - either as administrators and guards or as prisoners - but most don't like to advertise the fact, Ms. Lipatova says.

"It's practically impossible to find people who will tell stories," she says. "They prefer not to remember those days."

The first camps were built in and around Salekhard, which is located at the mouth of the Ob River, during the mid-1920s and provided labor for the development of fishery industries in the area.

In the late 1940s, the camp system was greatly expanded to facilitate the construction of an Arctic railway stretching from the city of Inta, in Komi Autonomous Republic, through Salekhard to Igarka, on the Yenesei River. Construction on the nearly 1,000-mile project, called Railroad No. 501, began in 1947.

Gulags were positioned about every three miles along the route, each holding between 200 and 1,000 prisoners, Lipatova says. The exact number of camps and prisoners isn't known, she adds, since no accurate records were kept.

Because of the difficult terrain and climate, construction on the railway proceeded slowly, taking an incredible toll on the gulag prisoners. In March 1953, at the time of Stalin's death, about 40 miles of track remained to be laid.

But the passing of the dreaded dictator meant the end of using camp labor for railway construction. The Soviet Union's new rulers also transferred responsibility for the construction project from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Transport, which lacked funds to continue the project.

In the end, deprived of camp labor and short of money, officials were never able to complete the No. 501 railroad. An estimated 300,000 people died during the project, according to Lipatova, with little to show for their effort.

Today few traces remain of the gulags around Salekhard, as well as of the railway. Forest fires have destroyed many of the camps, and the few that remain are in a state of disrepair.

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