Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kazakhstan 2018


What a glorious day it has been in Karaganda!  I woke this morning to a cool morning shrouded in fog, which really made the hotel grounds look picturesque, and then the fog cleared quickly to a superb, clear, warm day – and we made the most of it by going out from 9:00am to 8:30pm, at which time we headed to Karagada Railway Station to catch the overnight train to Almaty.  I started typing today’s diary on the train, but the cramped (but otherwise comfortable) conditions made completing it impossible; hence the late upload.

We began the day with a one-hour drive south-west of Karaganda across flat land peppered with factories and evidence of the extensive coal mining underground.  Some of the factories were from the Soviet era and were now disused, although many of the larger ones were now in private hands and fully functioning, often belching smoke as enthusiastically as the most ardent Soviet factory in its heyday.

Our destination was the village of Dolina, a settlement that was developed around a gulag in the 1930s called Karlag.  Enemies of the NKVD, precursor to the KGB were sent here to work in the labour camp, effectively providing free labour to the state under harsh conditions.  The inmates carried out a variety of labour tasks including building factories, arms manufacture, making clothes, cattle breeding and farming, and sheep farming.  Some high profile prisoners were sent to Karlag to carry out their work, a famous example being the USSR’s top aircraft designer, Andrei Tupolev, who designed many of his military and civil aircraft while a prisoner in Karlag.

People of many ethnic minorities suspected of disloyalty to Stalin were deported here, the largest numbers being Germans (from the west of the USSR) and Koreans (from Sakhalin Island in the Far East).  Conditions for the inmates were very harsh, although arguably little worse that the conditions being endured at the time by free citizens.  Indeed, some prisoners actually won national prizes for their high production and innovative practices, and yet remained prisoners because of their political beliefs.

The gulag headquarters was housed in a grand grey building with a large red star on the façade, and to the side were several statues from the Soviet era.  The interior comprised three floors now converted into a very well displayed museum, including the gruesome basement where the prison cells and interrogation rooms were accommodated.  Several rooms in the building had their interiors recreated to resemble their functions when the building was being used to run the gulag, including the commandant’s office, a scientific laboratory, the photographic records room, the medical clinic, the room where prisoners performed music and drama, while others were devoted to descriptive themes such as deportations, the rise of communism in the early days of the USSR, and modern economic developments in Kazakhstan.

The worst period of killing in Kazakhstan lasted from 1929 to 1932, with some deaths due to starvation under the failed policy of farm collectivisation, and others due to deaths in gulags.  In 1929, Kazakhstan’s official population was 2.4 million, and by 1932 it had declined to 1.7 million.  Not all this decline was due to deaths, of course, because there was also a large-scale exodus of refugees from Kazakhstan (and other parts of the USSR) at the time.  The demographic impact of this population decline lasted another 60 or 70 years, and the policy of farm collectivisation remained in place until the late 1980s.

The official Kazakh Government line is that the deaths were caused deliberately by a tyrannical government under Stalin that was determined to kill large numbers of people to maintain power and eliminate opposition.  The reality is more likely that the deaths resulted from the failed policy of farm collectivision, a policy that was well-intentioned but which failed in practice and was not corrected.

After two sobering hours at the gulag, we took a short drive through Dolina village, past the houses that were used by gulag personnel but which are now the homes of local farmers, to the Mamochkino Cemetery where children and Karlag prisoners were buried in the period 1930 to 1940.  Although most of the graves are unmarked, some original black metal crosses are still visible (including one that I saw for a three month old baby) and a few large memorial stones have been erected to remember to collective sorrow of the place.

We drove from the cemetery to the nearby town of Shahtinsk for lunch, arriving at 1:00pm.  Shahtinsk is a mining town with a population of about 40,000 people, but no noteworthy sights as we discovered when we arrived and were told, to our surprise, ‘walk around the town for the next hour and we will have lunch at 2:00pm’.  The town was not unpleasant, and there was a new statue of Kazakh poet, composer and philosopher Abai Kunanbai (or Abai Qunanbaiuly) being erected where Lenin once stood, a common practice in many Kazakh towns where the post-communist government is busy trying to build a new national identity under the slogan “Rukhani Zhangyru” (spiritual reconstruction).  In every way, the town was unremarkable, but the lunch we ate was wonderful when it arrived.

We finished lunch at 3:00pm and headed back to Karaganda, arriving at 4:00pm.  We made several stops in Karaganda, some of them replacing sites that had been dropped when yesterday afternoon’s walking tour had been suddenly truncated.  The first stop was the monument to Yuri Gagarin that I had visited during my own ‘walkabout’ yesterday afternoon.

The visit gave me an opportunity to learn more about why Karaganda is so closely related to the space program.  Although Karaganda is a long way from the Baikonur cosmodrome, which is the launching point for Soviet (and now Russian and other) spacecraft, the landing sites are located much closer to Karaganda.  There are four such sites: Arkalyk (about 750 kilometres to the north-west), Tengiz Lake (about 420 kilometres to the north-west), Zhezkazgan (about 600 kilometres to the west), and in rare occasions when an emergency location is required, East Zaisan Lake (about 1,000 kilometres to the east).

Our second stop was the eastern end of the street that is still known as Prospekt Lenina, where a park houses a substantial standing statue of Lenin.  The statue had stood for many years where the Independence Monument now stands in Prospekt Bukhar-Zhiray, but after independence it was moved to this less prominent location.  The surface of the granite statue is quite cleverly done – the areas of skin are smoother than the areas of clothing or hair, and hence appear lighter in colour in most lights.

Driving to the performing arts theatre, we were given the choice between having free time and continuing the city visits.  About one-third of the group chose free time, and headed off to bars or restaurants, while the remaining two-thirds of us made four more excellent visits.

The first visit was to Karaganda’s Grand Mosque.  Unlike the mosque in Astana, this one was not a gift from overseas, but was financed by the local community.  The mosque is very large with an elaborate interior, and its people proved extraordinarily welcoming.  In many countries, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter mosques, but in Kazakhstan it seems non-Muslims are generally welcome.  This mosque took hospitality to the next level, as we were welcomed even though a service was underway; I have never previously experienced this privilege.  At the end of the service, the local people were very curious to learn about us, where we had come from, and so on.

We then took a longer drive out of Karaganda along the highway to the south-east of the city.  Our destination was the Spassky Memorial, located eight kilometres south of the village of Zhumabek.  This area had been a copper mine 200 years ago, but in the Soviet era it was taken over for use as a shooting range and training centre for special forces, a use for which the area continues to be used.  In the 1930s, the area took on an additional, more sinister role as an execution ground for political dissidents.  It is estimated that during the period 1931 to 1937 about 5,000 people were killed here, either being shot or dying due to the poor conditions, with the most intense period of executions being 1931 to 1934.

The actual execution ground is still closed to the public because it is part of the military base, so the memorial has been built across the main road.  The area is tastefully organised with an array of sensitive, meaningful memorials erected by various governments and organisations representing the people executed.  On the wider ground beyond the memorial stones, clusters of three black unmarked crosses seem to acknowledge the vast numbers of unknown dead who suffered here.

Sunset fell just as we drove away from Spassky back into Karaganda, and it was dark by the time we had returned to the city.  Our next stop was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  As we arrived, a service was just finishing, so we entered the building for a quick look inside.  The interior was indeed elaborate, with intricately cut woodwork and an amazing array of frescoes – but the visit was indeed brief as the lights were suddenly and abruptly turned off after we had been inside for just a few minutes.

We made our way outside and continued on to our final stop, the Catholic Cathedral.  Karaganda is very rare among Kazakh cities in having a Christian church – most Christians in Kazakhstan meet in home churches or small prayer centres.  This large church in Gothic style was completed only a few years ago, and was very impressive in scale and appearance.  There were two priests present and a few parishioners present, one of whom was a visiting biology professor from Spain with whom we had a fascinating conversation.

We returned to the centre of Karaganda, where we collected those people who had chosen to have free time, and then drove to Karaganda Railway Station to catch our overnight train to Almaty.

Unlike our previous train journey in Kazakhstan, this journey was done on a modern train that was purchased recently from a manufacturer in Spain.  Like the others on the train, I found this train far more cramped and less comfortable than the older Soviet train we had used for our previous journey, and indeed, less efficient overall in its design.  It was good to lie down and get some sleep, but it was not the best quality sleep.

Day 15

Karaganda and surrounds


26 September 2018