In a sleepy backwater spot on central Kazakhstan’s steppe, an imposing neoclassical building topped with a red star stands as a testament to the country’s totalitarian past.
This is the village of Dolinka, which was once the heart of the Karlag prison camp, a cog in the Soviet Union’s sprawling gulag system. From the time it opened in 1931 until its closure in 1959, at least a million people passed through Karlag, an abbreviation for the Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp. Karlag wasn’t just one camp, but a chain of them – spread out over an expanse of steppe roughly twice the size of Belgium.
Located 50 kilometers from the industrial city of Karaganda, this elegant gray building served decades ago as the camp’s processing center, primarily handling those caught up in former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s purges. Nowadays, it is known as the Dolinka Museum for the Commemoration of Victims of Political Repression. It opens a window not only on prisoners’ sufferings, but also on the tumult of the Stalin era, a period that left an indelible mark on Kazakhstan’s national psyche.
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Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.