Northern Siberia's living Gulag museum

Abandoned houses of the former Gulag camps in Siberia. Source: Anton Petrov

Abandoned houses of the former Gulag camps in Siberia. Source: Anton Petrov

In the Marble Gorge in the Kodar Mountains you can still see the original shacks, shafts and furnishings from a Stalin-era camp.

The road along the BAM

Traveling along the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), the biggest individual railway line in the world, is a truly unique journey. Although plans were considered as early as the 1880s, its construction began in Eastern Siberia only about 40 years ago. Along the route you will find the seven kilometer long Baikal Tunnel and the town of Severobaikalsk (5,646 kilometers from Moscow), where you can admire Lake Baikal and taste the famed omul fish. The train stops here for an hour, but if you’re in no rush it’s a great place to spend a few days.

Source: Anton Petrov

On September 29, 1984 in the Kuanda-Chara segment of the railway the BAM’s “golden junction” met: the two teams working respectively westwards and eastwards converged two days ahead of schedule. The BAM was so politically significant, that two railway tracts of the line were removed and put in place again a few days later for the eyes of high-ranking Soviet officials, who came to commemorate its completion.

A Gulag on the rocks

On Soviet maps Marble Gorge in the Kodar Mountains was humbly marked as an “abandoned geologist settlement,” but between 1949-1951 the gorge was the host of one of Stalin’s Gulag camps. Due to its remoteness, the ruins of the former camp, which today represent a rare glimpse into the world of the Gulag, have been preserved here.

In August 1945, after the U.S. had bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the USSR actively searched for new deposits of uranium in order to build an atomic bomb. The search was led by Lavrenty Beria, the former chief of secret police and the Deputy Premier in the postwar years. One such deposit was found in 1948 northeast of Lake Baikal in the Kodar Mountains.

In January 1949 the Borsky Corrective Work Camp was established as a Gulag settlement for the mining of lead. But “lead” was the code word for uranium in official Soviet documents at the time. In a short time prisoners built winter roads, helicopter landing pads, bridges and shacks in the middle of the taiga forest.

Source: Anton Petrov

One of the main settlements in the camp was called “Mramorny klyuch” (Marble Key). In this small stone cell with walls reaching 2,000 meters high you can still find shacks, small buildings, a watchtower, hanging electric cables and even household furnishings: rusted saws, dishes, decanters and other everyday objects from the camp. A bit higher, on a steep rock rampart of the gorge is the OLP-1 Mountain where uranium was mined. Here you can see shafts, small tubs and tools. 

In 1951 it became clear that there was not enough uranium for building an atomic bomb in the Kodar range. The deposit turned out to be merely a small natural accumulation of the element. When the mining in the Kodar range ceased the prisoners were sent to other camps. On the whole 3,735 people passed through the seven local camps.

Source: Anton Petrov

The Marble Gorge area is not equipped for tourism (the northern part of the Trans-Baikal Region is almost entirely undeveloped), nor is it a memorial complex. This museum has been preserved by nature itself and the gorge is covered with snow nine months a year. However, for the intrepid traveler that dares to visit, the Gulag and the atomic arms race will come to life. 

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