Memories of the Kazakh Gulag forgotten

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KARAGANDA, Kazakhstan — Maria Sadina hunched over fading pictures of her parents, ethnic Germans who were deported in 1941 from the Volga region in Russia to one of Karaganda’s many gulag camps.

Ms. Sadina’s father was imprisoned for praising the quality of a German-made tractor, and for a decade he worked as a slave laborer in the nearby coal mines. Her mother was sent to the Karaganda gulag simply for her German heritage.

They had married and reared their daughter, Ms. Sadina, in a two-room brick house so low to the ground that visitors must bend over to avoid hitting the ceiling. Ms. Sadina, now a grandmother, continues to live in the same house, the walls now appearing to crumble, tending the same garden her parents once harvested to survive.

She pointed to the neighbors’ homes through her kitchen window. “These people are all children of the gulag,” she said. “Nobody talks about it anymore. Nobody even wants to look at their pictures anymore.”

The gulags once spread over the Kazakhstan steppe like a thick wreath. Eleven sprawling camps with names like Alzhir, a Russian acronym for the Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland, housed hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families. The camps, built shortly after the creation of the Soviet Union, were partly emptied to provide soldiers and workers during World War II and were eventually closed, although not dismantled, after Stalin died in 1953.

In Kazakhstan today, a large percentage of people have parents or grandparents whose life trajectories were savagely rewired by deportation and imprisonment in the camps. But memories of the gulags are dying, fading like Ms. Sadina’s photos.

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