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Czech Project Offers Virtual Tour Of Gulag's 'Dead Road'

A locomotive slowly rusts away in the Siberian taiga decades after being abandoned there when an ambitious Soviet railway project was halted in 1953. (Photo: Stepan Cernousek)
A locomotive slowly rusts away in the Siberian taiga decades after being abandoned there when an ambitious Soviet railway project was halted in 1953. (Photo: Stepan Cernousek)
Many of the horrors of the Soviet Union's gulag system of forced labor have been well-documented, but there are still plenty of gaps to be filled in our knowledge of the "archipelago" of prison camps where millions of inmates were literally worked to death.

One area of research that is still ripe for further study is the so-called Dead Road -- an abortive project launched in 1947 on the direct order of Josef Stalin as part of a grand plan to build a railway to Russia's easternmost territories across the desolate landscape of northern Siberia.

When construction was halted after Stalin's death in 1953, nearly 700 kilometers of a railroad to nowhere had been built at a cost of billions of rubles and thousands of lives.

The camps used to build the railway were simply abandoned and many of them have remained untouched in Russia's polar taiga region ever since.

Although there are memoir materials available from former inmates, not too much information is available on the camps themselves, partly because efforts to study them have been hampered by their sheer distance from civilization, with many of them lying in deep forest hundreds of kilometers from the nearest village.

Czech researcher Stepan Cernousek is one scholar who would like to address this shortfall.

"Thanks to the sheer desolation and remoteness of the area, the camps have been left as they were to this day," he says. "I was strangely intrigued by the camps when I saw their remnants on satellite maps. I was curious to see what they looked like from the inside and I could find practically no information about them on the Internet. So I decided to visit them myself."

Impenetrable Terrain

Cernousek and a few colleagues first visited some of the camps in 2009 and he has been back twice since.

Despite the historical significance of the locations he visited, there seems to be very little local interest in them and Cernousek believes that they are in danger of being swallowed up by the surrounding forest before they can be properly studied and documented.

"These Gulag camps in the taiga have been decaying for 60 years now, without anyone to look after them or without it even occurring to anyone that they have some value and could be of interest," he says.

"They are simply camps in the middle of the forest that nobody is interested in apart from some local hunters who occasionally visit them and use the facilities for wood, which naturally accelerates their decaying process. So they are freely accessible. No special permission was needed. We just went there, and I think the locals simply assumed we were some Western tourists going to have a look at the place."

PHOTO GALLERY: Scenes From The Gulag's 'Dead Road'

In some ways, the fact that the camps have been so neglected worked to Cernousek's advantage, because when he and his colleagues eventually macheted their way to them via almost impenetrable taiga terrain, they found a veritable treasure trove of priceless historical materials that had been practically untouched for decades.

"We still haven’t fully studied everything that we found and documented there," Cernousek says. "But it’s a terribly intense experience in itself to go deep into the taiga and to find personal artifacts of the prisoners there, ranging from part of a knife or a razor to documents -- really personal letters from the inmates. We found a prisoner's diary hidden in the latrine of a camp hospital in which there are verses that he wrote.

"From the documents it's clear that the prisoners were often from the ranks of the intelligentsia and that they were totally unjustly imprisoned there under those harsh conditions."

Panoramic Views

Cernousek is now making many of these materials available online as part of the project, which aims to offer people an insight into life in the camps without having to make the arduous journey there themselves.

Visitors to the website can view official and personal documents found at the camps as well as items left behind by the prisoners, such as medications, paintings and even a guitar.

The project also makes use of cutting-edge panoramic photography that allows visitors to take a "virtual tour" of many camp locations.

Thus far, more than 30 interactive 360-degree views have been uploaded to the site and dozens more are due to be added over time.

With support from the Visegrad Fund, will also try to map the fate of thousands of Czech citizens who were detained at the camps.

A lot of this research will be done in partnership with Prague's Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and it is hoped that the fate of Polish, Hungarian, and Slovak inmates will also be documented in conjunction with similar historical institutions in those countries.

In addition to photographic materials, there are also plans to include recordings of camp survivors' testimonies to help give visitors a comprehensive idea of life in the camps.
Stepan Cernousek
Stepan Cernousek

The only thing that visitors probably won't be able to take away from this virtual tour is a sense of the horrible conditions that the prisoners in the camps had to endure.

According to Cernousek, these have to be experienced firsthand in order to be fully appreciated.

"There was an old saying among the prisoners who worked in these Siberian areas that it was a place that had three months of summer and the rest is winter," he says.

"And this is the truth. We were there in September and it was still quite hot -- 15, perhaps 20 degrees [Celsius] and there was an incredible amount of mosquitoes and midges, which make staying there very unpleasant. They made it practically impossible to do any detailed documentation work because they were all over the place, getting into our sleeves, our faces – we had to wear mosquito nets.

"Then, within a couple of days, the weather changed. The first snowfall came as early as September 11. It began to freeze at night and essentially winter began during September. So there is practically no season there when life is pleasant. It's either warm and there are a terrible amount of mosquitoes...or else it's totally freezing."

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