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Kazakh Historians Campaign To Save Infamous Tsarist, Soviet Prison

At the moment, covered in dust and dirt, the once-infamous prison is nothing more than a garbage dump.
At the moment, covered in dust and dirt, the once-infamous prison is nothing more than a garbage dump.

Thousands were subjected to torture and untold suffering within its walls. Now, historians have launched a campaign to make sure a crumbling prison in southern Kazakhstan stands as a living monument to its former inhabitants.

The Small Prison served both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union well as a detention center for political prisoners and others on the wrong side of the regime.

Its time as a prison ended in the 1950s, after which it housed a shoe factory and later a bakery before it was abandoned entirely in the 1980s.

But historians Kairat Musabaev and Erlan Syzdykov see something in the ruins, and are seeking to turn what is left of the prison in the city of Turkistan into a museum.

Built in the late 19th century, what remains of the one-story gray-brick building was part of a larger complex, anchored by the long-since demolished Big Prison and a headquarters for regional law-enforcement agencies.

A long corridor conveniently connected the headquarters to the Small Prison, which featured two solitary confinement cells along with two larger rooms that could house up to 20 people each.

No one can pinpoint the exact location of the two larger buildings, but the four walls of the Small Prison have survived. Iron bars still adorn the building's windows and remnants of its underground chambers are still visible.

The prison's darkest period came in the 1930s, when scores of men and women were held there as enemies of the Soviet state.

Officials at the South Kazakhstan provincial Museum of Political Repression have ascertained the names of about 600 people who were sent to the Small Prison during the Stalin terror.

Some were executed within days, others were sent to prison camps, and many were simply never heard from again.

The inmates included people from all walks of life, from peasants to heads of collective farms, from religious figures to members of elite families.

Among them was 34-year-old Abzhappar Usenov, a local activist who helped establish Soviet collective farms before becoming the head of a village council.

He was accused of being an enemy of the state, and subsequently executed. Archives indicate that Usenov's crime was reciting religious prayers during the funeral of an old woman in his native village of Egilik.

Nameless Thousands

There were many female occupants in the Small Prison, including a group of nuns exiled from Russia. According to archives, a female Russian aristocrat, Nadezhda Golitsyna, was jailed and executed for "anti-Soviet activities" in 1938.

Historians believe there were thousands more whose names never made the books. The surname "Dinishov" -- etched in Arabic on one wall of the Small Prison -- is a rare reminder of the unknown who passed through unrecorded.

Historians Musabaev and Syzdykov see the museum as a monument for all who spent time there.

At the moment, covered in dust and dirt, the Small Prison is nothing more than a garbage dump.

The land it stands on was privatized by Turkistan resident Yuldash Nauryzbaev, who says he is willing to sell the land along with the building.

Musabaev and Syzdykov estimate it will cost tens of thousands of dollars to buy the land and, backed by local elders, have been working to convince local authorities to help them raise the money.

After receiving a letter signed by supporters and following several meetings with campaigners, the office of the local mayor gave his initial approval to resolve the issue, according to Musabaev and Syzdykov.

However, a new mayor has since been appointed, and the historians will have to start all over again.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reports by Kazakh Service correspondent Yerzhan Karabek
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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

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