In search of the Rybinsk Gulag

While spending the second semester of my third year in Yaroslavl, Russia, I set out to research for my study abroad project the period at which political repression in the Soviet Union peaked, the Great Purge of 1937 and 1938. Although my knowledge of the topic was largely confined to broad brush strokes, I sought to immerse myself in the tragedies of the Yaroslavl region, examine their scope and assess the historiographical research of them ever since, grounding them in the context of the broader historical recovery of Soviet repression for the past two decades.

Between 1918 and 1975, roughly 18,000 inhabitants of the Yaroslavl region, its population numbering just over a million, were “repressed,” deported to labour camps in Central Asia, Siberia and the Far East, mired and displaced in a network of prisons and detention facilities dotting the province. The vast majority of them were arrested during the Great Purge, a sequence of political campaigns of murder and persecution designed to consolidate Stalin’s grip on the Communist Party and the country, when around 2,000 of them were executed. Repression in Yaroslavl, as across the country, turned a blind eye to status, ethnicity and age, destroying “counter-revolutionaries” and “enemies of the people” purported to proliferate in the political establishment and society, zealously removing the Party of its local representatives and rank-and-file, as well as citizens as ordinary as teachers, peasants, workers, railwaymen and priests. No reliable figures account for the level of death and destruction wrought in those few years, at least as many as 700,000 believed to have been executed and countless millions victimised.

It is almost impossible to ascertain that the scale and scope of political repression in the Yaroslavl region significantly differed from that which ravaged the entire country. But as my investigations progressed, I soon realised that my localised research could not omit a significant establishment in the system of repression, itself based in the Yaroslavl region. Built as of 1935 at the height of industrialisation, Volgolag was to become one of the largest forced labour camps integrating the Gulag system. Established for the purpose of constructing a dam that would provide for a “necessary shipping passage to the Moscow-Volga canal and Volga,” likewise powering electricity demand at the confluence of the Volga and Sheksna rivers, it was intended as another momentous demonstration of Stalinist development. The hub of the camp site was located on the outskirts of Rybinsk, the second largest city in the Yaroslavl region and a historic settlement of the Golden Ring, its outlying posts spread out across the province.

Central to the conception of a hydroelectric project of such ghastly ambition, and hindered by the absence of large and existing bodies of water in the area, was the need to flood a vast portion of the Yaroslavl terrain. As a result, over 663 villages from the historic Orthodox centre of Russia were submerged, as were a large number of their dwellers who refused to be displaced. The most significant of these was Mologa, a former bustling trade centre, the belfries of its churches still hauntingly emerging from the waters when the reservoir’s levels drop in summertime. Drowning it out was the Rybinsk Reservoir, or Rybinsk Sea among locals, the largest man-made body of water on earth at its time.

The camp remained operational until 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, but not without having left a murderous legacy. Up to 100,000 prisoners, at least a quarter of whom at any time were political prisoners hoovered up in the purges, worked on the premises of the camp in any given year. An influx of German and Finnish prisoners of war further boosted the numbers. Mortality among the inmates was high, an estimated 880,000 inmates’ lives consumed as a result of hunger, hard labour, abuse and failed escapes over eighteen years. In fact, so brutal was the labour to which they were submitted, that the production of a mere megawatt of power in the first years of the camp’s existence came at the expense of forty human lives. A futile sacrifice, only exacerbated by the realisation that the hydroelectric station achieved a minimal level of electric production for several decades, today powering just a few of Rybinsk’s districts.

Having sat in the Yaroslavl Library for three months researching the history of Volgolag and more recent efforts to unearth its part, I was determined before I left to see what remained, if anything, of the site. I set off from Yaroslavl with a friend of mine who on a geology field trip had previously visited the reservoir, and whose tales enriched my understanding of its more current role. We arrived at the train station in Rybinsk, a complex we seriously doubted could be deemed as still standing. Initially perplexed, we soon found a bus to Kamenniki.

The name of Kamenniki consistently cropped up in my readings of the victims of Volgolag. An artificial peninsula extending into the Rybinsk Reservoir, it neighbours the city district of Perebory where the hydroelectric dam and labour camp were located. Scattered across it, however, were also a string of smaller outposts connected to the main camp. It is at this former confluence of the operations of the Volgolag, where tens upon thousands of unmarked mass graves riddle the dense forests, only a fraction of which have ever been exhumed. Farmers all too often stumble upon bone fragments while raking their soils, consuming their contents afterwards undeterred. It is not uncommon to still see skeletal remains wash up on the shores of the islet, often appropriated by children for their renditions of Cowboys and Indians, much to the horror of their school teachers back in Rybinsk.

We began our bus ride to Kamenniki criss-crossing Rybinsk. The dam’s profitability long having since dimmed, the city now serves as a hub of aeronautical manufacturing, occasionally visited by the likes of Vladimir Vladimirovich. It expanded at the time of the dam’s construction, the city housing its workers as well as guards of the labour camp. So significant was the camp to the city, that geographical boundaries blurred and the two developed together and in close proximity, often disturbingly so. The city stadium “Metallist,” of which I caught a fleeting glimpse from my left rear window, is a telling example. Built after the Volgolag’s closure on the site of prisoner barracks, deliberately so as to hide their trace, human remains are reportedly still sighted within its perimeter. I wondered the same of the apartments and residential areas enveloping the stadium. After all, some say Rybinsk is a city built on bones.

Within five minutes, past the first pylons, the water and statue “Volga” come into view; a symbol of the reservoir, built upon its completion in 1953. The dam then appears to our side, its Stalinist Gothic features and surprisingly small size, considering its intended reach and output, all I can draw from a sighting of a few seconds. A penal colony soon follows; remaining, I presume, on the site of the forced labour camp preceding it. The road turns for Kamenniki. As we pass yard upon yard of birched forest, I cannot help but wonder of those innumerable souls sealed under its shallow soils.

Within forty minutes we come to the end of the line, the small village of Kamenniki. Barring its obvious name, there is no obvious reason for us having arrived here, although someone at the Mologa museum in Rybinsk did suggest we chat to “our friendly people there.” We wander about its sleepy streets, lined with apartment blocks, evidently purpose-built. Within minutes we chance ourselves upon a fenced plant, my suspicions immediately aroused. We round the perimeter to where it meets the reservoir, step over a stiff drinker and crawl through a recession in the fence, encouraged by the laughter of bathers emanating from within the plant. The plant, as we learn from a lingering sign, produces reinforced steel, although the machinery appears to have long been disused and the panes hollowed out. From here one can glimpse the tip of the Kamenniki peninsula, where from my readings I realised the large bulk of Kamenniki’s outposts was concentrated, and subsequently its mass pits. The reservoir itself paints a haunting picture, my friend observing from our pictures of its horizon how the ships appear to float over the water surface. We crawl back out of the premises, aggressively berated by someone, for he alleged we could be terrorists set on exploiting the fuel rods of the plant.

We continue to drift through the village’s streets, unsure of what exactly this place used to be, nor whether it played a part in the Volgolag’s running. We eventually summon the courage and wander over to a group of elderly women. They confirm our suspicions, that this was a settlement built by Gulag prisoners as the hydroelectric project was being erected, and populated by workers of the dam, her father one of them. The site of the plant had indeed been a forced labour outpost producing reinforced steel. Mass graves could be found in the forests outside of Kamenniki, especially at the islet’s northernmost tip, a village priest taking an interest in their exhumation and the application of the due rites of burial. There’s a museum about the village, today closed, with probably a word or two about the plant. Prisoners were rarely ever seen back in the day, secluded to the barracks at the northern reaches of the village, garages now taking their place. We visit the site of the garages, at the plant’s northern rim, a curious and unexplained morass of splintered timber adjacent to it.

We were able to speak to one more contemporary of the camp, a war veteran, but besides providing us with a general sketch of the reservoir’s history and the flooding of Mologa, there was tantalisingly little about the camp conditions he could illuminate us about. And with that we were gone, exhausted by the impenetrability of the place, the choice to visit on a public holiday at best flawed. I was disturbed by the nonchalance of Kamenniki; the plant, the settlement’s very raison d’etre, is undeniably a source of pride and legitimacy, but otherwise a distinct imperturbality at its history and origins pervades. It was as if nothing of the sort that I had read about could ever have conceivably occured here. This is not unique to Kamenniki, in fact the same could be said of the entire former domain of the Volgolag. Only a minuscule proportion of its vast territory has ever been extensively assessed by activists and researchers. The local authorities have never lent any encouragement or support to the initiatives of the few survivors, long refusing to build a museum or statue in honour of the camp’s victims. All that stands explicitly suggesting the existence of an establishment of such gruesome proportions is a small memorial slab on the reservoir’s shore. Such is the despair of the victims, that a decade ago a prominent local activist, himself in contact with relatives of perished Finnish prisoners at Volgolag, mooted the idea of lobbying leading European human rights bodies to cease all ties with the Yaroslavl region until greater cooperation was shown on the local authorities’ part. The biggest problem is local interest, long accepting of the most obvious and imposing physical reminders of the Volgolag, the completed dam and reservoir, and unwilling to unearth the murkier details of a bygone age, etched in the soils underneath. That is an impediment to the completion of the purges’ historical recovery not just in Rybinsk, but in all of Russia. But how much larger must have Volgolag’s terrifying scope then been, just to merit a modicum of historical and public interest?

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