The network of Stalinist-era labour camps known as KarLag stretched out over a huge area to the south and west of Karaganda. A museum at Dolinka and monuments at Spassk offer some sense of the appalling conditions faced by the thousands of people incarcerated there.
A somewhat depressed-looking village 36km southwest of Karaganda, Dolinkas claim to historical fame is as the administrative centre of the KarLag labour camp network. To get here, head out of Karaganda towards the mining town of Shakhtinsk and take the next turning on your left after passing a brightly painted sign on your right welcoming you to Novodolinsk village. This brings you into Dolinka. In a mark of continuity with its sad past, there's still a prison here.
Ask in the village to be directed to the Museum for the Victims of Political Repression. Housed in one of the wings of a single-storey cream-coloured building, which also accommodates a clinic, this offers a small but well-displayed collection of items relating to the KarLag system. The building itself was a local hospital while the labour camp system was in force. A stone statue of Lenin, clad in winter jacket, stands outside. The number of people incarcerated in the KarLag network reached 65,673 in 1949, spread across camps occupying a large territory. A wall painting, the work of a KarLag artist, depicts Lenin giving orders. Stalin, dutifully searching out a location on a map behind him, is among the lieutenants pictured with him. There is an iron hospital bed on display, complete with chunk of wooden floor underneath and a wooden side cupboard. The museum also displays objects produced by prisoners at local factories, including bricks and ceramic jugs. Personal items on display, including embroidery, a mirror, and a selection of books from the KarLag library, have the perhaps inadvertent effect of seeming to humanise the camps, though one wonders what was going through the mind of prisoners reading the biography of Stalin in the library. Many of those deported here were ethnic Germans, and the items on display include a photograph of the Krieger family as well as a framed inscription reading 'Der Herr ist Mein Hirte'.
Near the museum, the two-storey building beyond the trees with four blue- painted columns along the facade and bricked-up windows was the main administrative building of the KarLag. Locals will tell you that inmates of the camps were tortured in its basement. You can also enter the camp itself, though there is little to see, all interesting artefacts having been mewed to the museum.
At the side of the main road between Karaganda and Balkhash, 36km south of the regional capital, are a moving group of monuments to the many nationalities who died in the KarLag camps, erected by their respective governments. The first monument, in the form of a broken shanyrak, is dedicated to 'the victims of repression who found the eternal peace in Kazakh soil'. There then follow monuments to the victims of political repression and prisoners of war who died here from France, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Italy, Germany, Armenia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Japan, Belarus and Russia. Black crosses, grouped in threes, lie atop the otherwise unmarked graves adjacent to these.
Spassk was one of the most notorious of the KarLag camps. The monuments lie on the eastern side of the main road, clearly visible from it, opposite a turning marked with a sign to 'Spassk 0.1'.