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The ruins of a uranium mining Russian prison camp Photographs from an expedition by museum researchers trying to catalogue the Soviet Gulag before it disappears
On August 12, Moscow’s Gulag History Museum completed an expedition to the Magadan region, where researchers catalogued the remains of the “Butugychag” prison camp. Beginning in the mid-1940s, inmates at this facility mined and enriched the uranium used to create Soviet nuclear weapons. Meduza is publishing photos from this expedition, along with an account from the head explorer, Roman Romanov, the director of Moscow’s Gulag History Museum.
The USSR’s search for uranium deposits started in 1945, after the war. Beginning in the late 1930s, Butugychag had been the site of several prison camps in the Dalstroy, or “Far North Construction Trust,” where inmates mined cassiterite ore and tin. Some researchers believe Soviet officials focused their uranium search in this region because the dense radioactive metal is often found near cassiterite deposits. Ultimately, uranium was discovered in three places: Yakutia, Chukotka, and the Magadan region. The Soviet government promptly allocated men and resources to the mining and enrichment of this ore.
Our main goal is to describe the surviving camps and use all available technological means to catalogue their facilities. These prisons are gradually collapsing and disappearing. This legacy is being lost, and we need to sound the alarm and try to save what we can. That’s why we’re acting as thoroughly as possible to scan all the structures still standing. We film the camps from a drone, taking a thousand photos. We get a very accurate map, and we make 3D models of the camp buildings. Additionally, we photograph everything from the inside — the graffiti, the layout, and other details — for virtual tours, so people online can see everything in panoramas.
During the expedition, we obtained a memoir by a bulldozer operator, where he wrote about how in the 1960s he was instructed to destroy the remnants of the camp — to crush every last wooden board. I’d never seen evidence like this before. There's been speculation that the camps were demolished intentionally, but many people thought they collapsed on their own. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a wave of searches for nonferrous metals, and many people came to places that used to be prison camps. The old wooden buildings were burned, or they just gradually fell apart and disappeared. Even if you compare today’s ruins with what existed three or four years ago (when some buildings were still standing in reasonably good condition, and you could still find the inscriptions prisoners left on the walls), the situation now is much worse. Today, many of these structures are simply gone.
Another purpose of our expedition was to gather materials to win conservation status for these sites. There’s precedent for this: following an expedition to Chukotka in 2015, after we provided materials and scientific evidence, the areas we studied were added to a cultural-historical heritage list. This doesn’t protect the sites from natural disasters, but at least these areas with the last remnants of the camps won’t be leased to the Chinese or someone else, as sometimes happens. When that does occur, the lessees can do whatever they want with the ruins.
The climate near the Kolyma River is harsh, cold, and rarely sunny. The summer lasts a measly two months out of the year. Our team got very lucky with the weather, though we did all our preparation work at the camp in June in heavy rain. Without sunshine, everything is different. Prisoners worked in these utterly hopeless conditions for years on end. Even the trees there are tiny and thin, as if there isn’t enough life there for them. You still can’t enter some of the camp buildings, because of the radiation.
Visitors to Butugychag often photograph the large pile of worn-down shoes that belonged to the inmates. On some of the shoes, pieces of old tires are nailed to the soles. Instead of shoelaces, they used wires or ropes. Even the shoes make it clear what conditions people once endured here. Today, there are fewer shoes in the pile than there used to be. Tourists have taken home souvenirs.
On our expedition, we found several everyday objects and pieces of work equipment that also left no doubts about the difficulties of life in this camp, like what was either a pickaxe or a sledgehammer that had been flattened like a pancake. We found a spoon inscribed with an inmate’s surname and prisoner number. And we found another spoon — homemade — not unlike the kind on display at the Butyrka Museum. The director of this museum says these spoons were only made in that prison. Inmates tried to hold onto these spoons, bringing them along every time they were transferred somewhere new. These objects — homemade shovels, sledgehammers, crowbars, and picks — look like ancient tools. Everything we found will be presented at a new exhibition by the Gulag History Museum.
There’s no definitive date that marks the end of the Butugychag prison camp. We found an overgrown cemetery with 200-250 graves. According to memoirs written by inmates, the conditions at this camp were harsh, but prisoners here were fed better than most. The camp housed about 200 inmates at the start, and the prisoner population reached roughly 2,000 after the war, but the data is pretty speculative, because of the uranium mining and the fact that a lot of the information about Butugychag was classified. On many maps of the Gulag, the uranium enrichment plant here is identified as an agricultural base.
In 2015, the government adopted its “State Policy on Commemorating the Victims of Political Repression,” condemning attempts to justify mass Soviet oppression. In order for this to be more than a sheet of paper, however, the necessary political will first needs to materialize and take root in Russia.
Photographs presented by the Gulag History Museum. Authors: Evgeny Samarin, Alexander Solomin, and Pavel Zhdanov
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