Accessibility links

Breaking News

Fifty Years After 'Denisovich,' Traveling Back To Solzhenitsyn's Gulag

EKIBASTUZ, Kazakhstan -- November is not a good time to find yourself on the streets of this flat, windswept city.

The temperatures have dipped to minus-20 degrees Celsius, whipped to a bone-freezing chill by strong winds that blow in across the steppe, unimpeded by hills or forests.

This city in northeastern Kazakhstan is where Soviet planners chose to build one of their most notorious labor camps, a special facility for political prisoners that was part of the massive network of prisons known collectively as the Gulag.

The camp has long since vanished, replaced by the city's Shakhtyor Stadium. But Dariga Tokayeva, a guide at the Ekibastuz city museum, says the prison remains infamous for its miserable conditions.

"What was it like?" Tokayeva repeats as she considers the question. "There were barracks with no heating. It was very cold. People were brought there in the clothes they were wearing when they were detained. It was so cold here that the people were dying like flies."

Tens of thousands of Soviet-era prisoners passed through Ekibastuz, including Russian and Kazakh intellectuals, Chechens, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Balts, and German and Japanese prisoners of war.

'They Destroyed Them There'

The camp's most famous prisoner, Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was held at the camp from 1950-53, serving out the end of an eight-year sentence for anti-Soviet propaganda.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, prisoner No. 282
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, prisoner No. 282

Solzhenitsyn's legendary rendering of life at Ekibastuz, "One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich," was published 50 years ago this month in the Soviet literary magazine "Novy Mir" (New World).

In some parts of the world, the anniversary has revived interest in the grim history of the Soviet Gulag and the Ekibastuz camp, where prisoners were enlisted in bricklaying and heavy labor, forced outside as long as the temperature hovered above minus-40 degrees Celsius.

But a half-century later, most Ekibastuz residents have little to say about their city's past as a Soviet prison site. Today, the town is better known for its rich coal deposits and a phalanx of coal-fired and thermal plants that power large swaths of Central Asia.

One local resident, Yerkanat Sultan, can barely be heard above the gusts of howling winter air. But asked about the prison, he repeats a sentiment heard frequently among local Kazakhs.

"Sure, we know," Sultan says. "They oppressed Kazakhs there; they destroyed them there."

Bitter Topic

Even Solzhenitsyn, the camp's most famous inmate, remains a deeply divisive figure for many Kazakhs.

They say he lost his standing as a dissident icon when, in 1990, he published a now-infamous article arguing that Kazakhstan's northern territories should be part of Russia.

The article, "Rebuilding Russia," infuriated native Kazakhs and nearly led the country's northern territories into interethnic violence.

Zhumakeldi Kasenov, an elderly Ekibastuz resident bundled against the cold in a fur hat and a fur-trimmed coat, remains angry to this day about what he views as Solzhenitsyn's betrayal.

"I know about him," Kasenov says. "He was a Russian writer who served his prison term in Ekibastuz. His last articles were against Kazakhs and we have rejected them."

In With The New

Still, "Denisovich" and Solzhenitsyn remain permanent parts of the city's history.

The local museum contains photographs and quotes from the writer, and guide Nadezhda Storozhuk says she has corresponded with the writer's widow, Natalia, who has sent numerous books to add to the museum's archives.

There was even the hope that Solzhenitsyn himself would return to Ekibastuz and the site of one of his most famous literary works.

But Storozhuk says he never managed to make the trip before his death in 2008.

"In 2004, a Rossiya [TV] film crew came to visit the Ekibastuz camp," Storozhuk says. "They came with a man who had been Solzhenitsyn's friend, a prisoner at the Ekibastuz camp who was mentioned in 'One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich.' They filmed the former camp site. Solzhenitsyn was ill at the time and couldn't come himself, so his friend came."

The former prisoner, says Storozhuk, came back to Ekibastuz expecting to see barbed wire and other grim remnants of the camp. What he found instead, she says proudly, was a "young and prospering town."

Correspondents Merhat Sharipzhan and Daisy Sindelar contributed to this report

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.