Moving Forward in Kazakhstan, While Remembering the Past

Posted by Daniel Rosenblum
June 30, 2011
Kazakhstan Gulag Museum

I was in Central Asia last week to take a closer look at the U.S. government assistance programs my office oversees. We spent the second half of the week in Kazakhstan where, last Thursday, we took a road trip to Karaganda, a city of a half million people located about 2.5 hours drive south of Astana, the capital. Karaganda is known as "Gorod Shakhtyorov," or "City of Coal Miners," established in the 1930's during the Stalinist drive to industrialize the Soviet Union. Today, it still struggles with the adjustment to a post-Soviet economy in which a formerly state-run coal mining industry has had to cope with market forces. An effort is being made to diversify the local economy, with mixed results.

We saw the impact of several projects sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Embassy, including one in which judges from the Karaganda regional court had received training and technical assistance aimed at making judicial proceedings more transparent and efficient (including the installation of audio and video recording equipment in the courtroom, which apparently has had a strong positive influence on the behavior of judges, prosecutors and lawyers alike). The U.S. government also supported a local NGO involved in helping apartment owners join together to renovate their buildings; the organization uniquely combines grassroots community activism, creative financing schemes, and a focus on energy efficiency into a package that could improve living conditions for thousands of city residents. We also observed how a small grant is supporting a young lawyer's efforts to expand access to information and to defend journalists from defamation lawsuits, a common tactic for intimidating investigative reporters.

The people we met were energetic, committed and passionate about their efforts to bring about positive change. They represented the new Karaganda, the hope for a more democratic and prosperous future.

Reminders of the old Karaganda weren't too hard to find, though. Entering town, you are greeted by a huge Soviet-era sign with the words "Miners Are the Political and Economic Pillar of the State" pasted onto a hillside. The building next to the Georgian restaurant where we ate lunch had on its side an enormous mosaic-mural depicting a "typical" Soviet worker's family in authentic Socialist Realist style.

And, most remarkably, about 40 kilometers from Karaganda, in the little village of Dolinka, we found a brand new museum devoted to telling the story of the "Karlag," the network of Stalinist prison camps that covered a 200 square kilometer area of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic from the early 1930's until 1959.

Many are familiar with the term "Gulag," a Russian acronym for "State Corrective-Labor Camp," that really entered public consciousness in the West after the 1973 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. The Gulag was an inhumane prison complex that the Stalinist regime used to house tens of millions of "enemies of the people" -- anyone whose nationality, religion, political ideas or cultural leanings brought them under suspicion by the police state.

The Gulag was also a country within a country, vast swaths of territory full of farms and factories staffed entirely by prison labor. The full horror of this system is brought into full focus by the "Karlag" museum. Its exhibits feature photographs and film footage of the men, women and children who lived, worked and died in the "Karlag." The museum also contains physical recreations of camp life and documents and artifacts from the period.

We left the museum shaken, as if waking up from a totalitarian nightmare. I commend the government of Kazakhstan for building and paying for the museum's operation. Its location is appropriate -- the building that houses it was the main administrative center of the Karlag -- but also unfortunate: it is so far off the beaten track that it's unlikely ever to attract the number of visitors it should.

One hopes that the museum's sponsors will find a way to ensure that many Kazakhstanis -- especially from the younger generation -- are able to visit this museum and learn more about this tragic aspect of the region's history.

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