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In the Gulag Archipelago

Graveyards and Gulags.

KAZAKHSTAN | Tuesday, 26 May 2015 | Views [42] | Scholarship Entry

Bolatbek is a man with a golden grin, and it is with a 24 carat flash that he declares, while waggling a finger at my husband who is searching for a seatbelt, “Nyet – this is Kazakhstan!” He drives like James Bond and we are shaken and stirred, when we emerge from his taxi outside the gulag museum at Dolinka, not far from the city of Karaganda.
Three and half hours later we are liberated by Irina, our guide. We need air and space to compute the size of what we she has told us. The jagged silhouettes of the cemetery memorials provide a stopping point in the otherwise empty steppe landscape.
Wreaths of emerald green, toilet brush bristles garland many of the monuments. Rusting obelisks lurch unevenly towards the twisted, metal railings enclosing each plot. A scrap metal dealer would love it.
Gulping reviving lungfuls of wind, we wander sombrely. The dead and their unblinking faces, etched in stone, or caught in a watermarked photo, bring life to the tales we have just heard and seen of entire populations uprooted and exiled; of forced labour following false accusation and families condemned through association.
The graveyard is industrial in scale. Kazakh lies next to Chechen; Latvian next to Pole. Jews, Communists, Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians are jumbled together, proof that the Soviet machine did not differentiate as to who it sent to the empty lands in the east. And these are the ones who died after liberation, or were born here. Millions have no record.
A garden of garish, plastic flowers are planted at the base of the marker inscribed in Kazakh to Gulnara Bazarova Kairbekova, while an overgrown lilac bush half hides the granite stone engraved Anna Schwarzkopf, telling a more modern story of emigration and return to the homeland.
“Yanchenko – Alexander Vladimirovich” we painstakingly transliterate. He glares at us, immortalised on a porcelain plaque adorned with a red star. Hatchet faced in suit and tie, he looks the perfect Party member. Vivid fragments of dyed eggshell, Orthodox symbols of resurrection, scatter the area. We wonder if he is turning in his grave.
The Museum and cemetery at Dolinka are must sees for anyone wanting to understand the history of Kazakhstan as the human dumping ground of the Stalinist period, and its rebirth as the rainbow nation of Central Asia. To get there, as throughout the former Soviet Union, stick out your arm and someone will stop. Negotiate your price and go, but check it’s not Bolatbek first!

Tags: 2015 Writing Scholarship

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