Soviet Scars in Karaganda

in the continuing struggle against all odds to finish documenting my summer travels, I bring you the darkest chapter of our Kazakhstan odyssey: the requisite pilgrimage out to the heart of once the most massive Gulag system of the Soviet Union, in the villages outside of Karaganda. Also, a light-hearted (but painful) foray into Kazakh cuisine.

An old train car, abandoned in a village outside of Karaganda, a 15 minute walk from the main building of Karaganda’s gulag.

Nowadays, there are few reasons that would land you in Karaganda. A depressing, industrial, and very Soviet city in the heart of Kazakhstan, Karaganda is known to most people exclusively for being the center of the largest gulag camp system in the whole Soviet Union. As part of our plans around the country, we wanted to pay our respects to one of the most tragic episodes of Soviet history. We arrived late on a Thursday night, and luckily, our taxi driver took us straight to an adequate hotel, where we were able to get a much-needed late night snack before calling it a night. The next morning, after a bit of trial and error, we found ourselves on a bus to a bus to the small village of Dolinka, the administrative center of the Karaganda camp (Karlag). From there, we headed among the buildings, down a few streets, and suddenly found ourselves in front of the main administrative building, one of the few surviving relics of the camp.

We headed inside, disappointed but unsurprised that we would not be able to see the museum without a guide through each room, watching us along the way. This was a particularly frustrating experience in this case, as the lady who was assigned to us was clearly on a mission to take her lunch break as soon as possible — and made it manifestly clear that we were the only thing keeping her from it. We were rushed along every step of the way, and she hurriedly informed us, “There is not time to read everything. It’s not necessary.” Sigh. The museum, for the record, was incredibly well done. Until we got to the final room, which was a tribute to all the glories of Independent Kazakhstan, with little to suggest why it was included in a museum about Soviet repression. Oh well, it was a Kazakh museum, after all. There were no pictures inside, not surprisingly, so I can only leave this episode with a picture of the Lenin statue outside.

We headed from the museum to the local stolovaia, or canteen/cafeteria, where we were joined by a pair of brothers, half-Italian, half-Slovenian from Trieste who had gone through the museum with us. We chatted about the museum, about American politics, about the state of the European Union, and generally had a nice time of it before we found our way back to the bus stop to head back to Karaganda. This time, upon arriving in the city, Maki and I got out early to wander around with the remaining hour and a half we had before our final train of Kazakhstan. I think it would be hard to describe Karaganda as anything other than gloriously Soviet. Exhibit A, a local theatre.

Exhibit B. Mosaics on a building.

Exhibit C. More mosaics.

And exhibit D. Monuments. Also, in the right hand picture, some glorious post-Soviet-ness.

We ducked into the local park for relaxation, another gloriously Soviet institution, complete with the standard map that accompanies these things (obviously, specific to the site at hand, but a map that would not be out of place in Moscow):

But of course, not without some Central Asian flair.

With one outstanding item on Maki’s Kazakhstan culinary checklist, we were delighted to find kumys on the menu at a local stand. Kumys, for those not in the know, is fermented mare’s milk. Maki was especially delighted!

And, then he tried it. Let’s just say, things went downhill…

For the uninitiated  it has a sort of smoky, lemony flavor. It’s an extremely acquired taste. One I most certainly do not have. But our time, as ever, was fading, and we soon found ourselves bound for the train station, about to embark on the last ride of our two-week trip in Kazakhstan.

The train station in Karaganda.

And our last train.

Our traveling companions this time involved a lady who basically slept the whole way, and a very talkative man who was going to Almaty to pick up his 14-year old son from the Almaty airport after  a one-month exchange to England. We had a nice chat about politics and other subjects, and I have his name and number and a promise to take me to a Kazakh village, should I ever return to Kazakhstan. Here he is as we got out in Almaty.

But with that we were back in Almaty, with just under 24 hours to tie up loose ends, pick up our stuff, and head on to Ukraine. As always, a tale for another post.

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6 thoughts on “Soviet Scars in Karaganda

  1. ” Nowadays, there are few reasons that would land you in Karaganda. A depressing, industrial, and very Soviet city ”
    I was last Xmas in Karaganda; I went to restaurants bars and clubs, very modern and friendly
    There are trying to modernized the country but I won’t say is depressing.
    I think that we need to appreciate something different or s stay at home goes to
    mc donal”s & starbucks get fat like a pig ( many will say fast “ food” is pure shit )

    • Oh, I don’t find Kazakhstan depressing in the least. If you read my other posts, you will see I have a deep admiration for the country and the people from the nearly five months I’ve spent in the country, complete with two months of intensive Kazakh lessons. I will stand by my description of Karaganda, but I don’t think that means people are universally unhappy there. Here, “Soviet” recalls particular sorts of architecture. Regardless of Kazakhstan’s independent status, Karaganda is a Soviet city. By which I mean, it was built in the Soviet period, and that is manifestly evident throughout. Obviously it’s a post-Soviet city or formerly Soviet city in some senses, but not in the way I mean it.

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