Situated in the center of Kazakhstan, ALZHIR (Акмолинский лагерь жен изменников родины, “the Akmola camp of wives of traitors to the homeland”) was a notorious prison for thousands of women during its nearly two decades of operation. Behind the barbed wire, the women had to renounce their family and loved ones in order to submit to the will of the “leader of all nations.” But they remained unconquered, and they maintained spirits of love and loyalty that are still visible in the expositions of the ALZHIR Museum in today’s Kazakhstan.
ALZHIR and its daily life
Over 18,000 women were sent here in various years, and approximately 8,000 women served a full sentence at ALZHIR. These women’s only “crime” was that they were merely the wives of victims of the purges—executed “enemies of the people.” Very often, these were the wives of famous statesmen, political and public figures, and talented women themselves, such as singers, artists, actors, and writers. Among the most prominent names were women from the family of Stalin’s executed general, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the mother of poet Bulat Okudzhava, and the mother of ballerina Maya Plisetskaya.
The camp’s establishment dates back to August 15, 1937 when Order No. 00486 of the USSR’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) marked the beginning of mass repressions against the members of families of traitors to the motherland. This document enabled arrests without proof of guilt and started detentions in the camps for wives of men who were primarily persecuted for political reasons. In fall 1937, many women got sentenced to 5-8 years in prison.
Text and photos by Saya Mailibayeva and Anar Khassenova, ALZHIR Museum
The ALZHIR Museum and Memorial Complex is located at: Akmola region, Tselinograd district, a. Akmol, st. Linear, structure 2B.
In December 1937, in a village near today’s Nursultan (Astana), a small camp consisting of several clay huts, four towers, and barbed wire had been built and the first group of women—with children from one to three years old—arrived in Akmolinsk on January 6, 1938. The name “ALZHIR” – “Akmola camp of the wives of traitors to the motherland” – was actually coined by the prisoners themselves, while the official name was the Akmola special unit of the Karaganda camp system of the NKVD. During January and February, prisoners were supplied almost continuously. Sixteen hundred women arrived from Butyrka prison alone. Women were brought to ALZHIR from all over the country: from Moscow, Leningrad, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Central Asia.
There was not enough space for women prisoners. So the new prisoners had to build their huts themselves, whether it was a harsh steppe winter, heat, or rain. Instead of mattresses, straw was thrown onto a wooden floor. To heat the barracks, women cut reeds—which was the main type of fuel for two winters—and even then the temperature in the huts did not exceed 6-8 degrees Celsius.
Once in the camp, a person would lose their surname, nationality, and often their civilian profession as well. The title for all was the same: the enemy of the people, the traitor to the Motherland. People were distinguished by numbers sewn on special stripes on the clothing over their back, sleeves, or knees, and these numerals also served as targets in case of escape. But, despite all the tragedy and absurdity of the situation, the prisoners of the camp were young, beautiful women, many with children—some even with infants. Behind the barbed wire, they had to renounce their beloved and dear ones in order to submit to the will of the “leader of all nations.” But they remained unconquered, maintaining spirits of love and fidelity through it all.
The first years of the camp’s existence were the most difficult for the prisoners. Not only did the prisoners suffer from a lack of space and difficult life, but they were also considered by the authorities to be “especially dangerous” prisoners, which restricted their miserable lives even more. Only in May 1939 was the attack against the wives of the “traitors to the homeland” eased, and the camps were downgraded from “special restricted mode” to more general conditions. This meant some major changes in the life of the ALZHIR prisoners. First, they were allowed previously forbidden correspondence with the outside world. Many were able to learn of the fate of their husbands and their children. Some of these tearful letters are exhibited in the museum today, revealing the tragedy of individual lives.
The daily routine of the ALZHIR prisoners was depressing. They had to get up early in the morning for a general call out, and for breakfast they got a cup of watery oatmeal. Hunger was their constant companion. One serving of black bread, a scoop of plain soup, and a cup of oatmeal; this was their daily menu from month to month.
Women had to work hard during the day, producing clothing and other items for the soldiers during the war years, and for big cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov, Kiev, Novosibirsk, etc. Some women still applied their creativity in their work.
Artists Stepanova, Pokrovskaya, Isaeva, and Sitrina created various drawings. Some women also worked in agriculture, the selection of seeds, and general farming. They grew melons, apple orchards, and flowers but all that went to the needs of the outside world, and prisoners could hardly enjoy the taste of seasonal fruit.
As one of the prisoners, K. Maltseva, recalls: “First, we had to work on 18 hectares of land, we plowed and planted vegetables, and everything was done manually using shovels. I was the watering foreman, I got up at 4 in the morning when everyone was still sleeping, and I returned late in the evening. We worked in the garden for 14-15 hours a day. When the vegetables ripened, we would sneak carrots and tomatoes into the barracks and distribute them to children and sick women.”
Rather unexpectedly, they found support among local residents. Next to the camp, straight behind the lake, there was a Kazakh village called Zhanazhol. People were sympathetic to the women. They brought some fish, dairy, and bread in the wintertime. A story tells us about an incident when local people threw little white stones at the prisoners. Women were first deeply hurt with such an attitude, but then they discovered that the little white stones were kurt, or dry sour milk balls that are traditional in Kazakh diet and supply calcium and other nutrients to help the body sustain itself through the harsh winter.
Nonetheless, the camps still had a high mortality rate. Between 1940 and 1950, 10,000 prisoners died in KARLAG. In 1943, a peak mortality year, hundreds of people died every month. The extent of deaths can be judged by the number of cemeteries scattered in the Karaganda and Akmola regions—both places of mass detention and exile.
ALZHIR is a witness to one of the great human tragedies of the twentieth century. The women’s lives are commemorated by the “ALZHIR” museum-memorial complex of victims of political repression and totalitarianism, which opened on May 31, 2007 as part of an initiative of President Nazarbayev.
Designed by architect Saken Narinov, it is surrounded by steles and obelisks dedicated to the victims and martyrs of mass terror. While the camp itself was demolished in late Soviet times, the memorial complex consists of the following: the main building, a train car from Stalin’s time that was used to bring new prisoners, a monument called the “Arch of sorrow,” a watch-tower, two sculptural compositions (“Despair and Weakness” and “Fight and Hope”), and a memory wall.
The “Arch of sorrow” monument represents a woman grieving for her dead husband and lost children. The arch is made in the form of a helmet and an ‘ak zhaulik,’ or a woman’s headdress, together symbolizing male strength and female innocence and purity. The two colors, black and white, represent accord and harmony between peoples, religions, and cultures of different ethnic groups, as well as the permanent existence of both good and evil in our life.
The museum building is in the shape of a truncated cone. This is a custodian of sorrow. Notice that the building has no windows. But inside, the light spills over the exhibits, as though something secret were being made known. The museum begins with a tunnel to reflect the difficult time in the development of the life of Kazakh people during the years of repression. The exhibition poignantly evokes the camp’s horrors, displaying a transportation wagon, a replica guard post, and photos and possessions of the prisoners, as well as explanatory material on the Gulag system in Kazakhstan.
But the most touching displays are the personal belongings of the women that the museum shows: their neat dresses, white shawls, small leather handbags, love letters, beautiful drawings, and written stories for children to open up their hopes for better lives—hopes that never ceased to exist in this place.