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'What has enabled Russia to rise among the great powers of the world…has been the conquest of Siberia'
W.Bruce Lincoln

Monument to Stalin’s folly: relics of the Railroad of Death where ‘300,000 prisoners perished’

27 April 2018

Haunting images of this Railway to Nowhere, built by Gulag convicts in the cruellest of conditions on the cusp of the Arctic Circle.

Today all that survives here is abandoned machinery, empty barracks, and miles of barbed wire. Pictiure: The Siberian Times

Bent, contorted rails. Rusting steam engines. 

Fallen down bridges across permafrost rivers that each cost hundreds of lives to construct  in a region with winter temperates below 50C.

Around these twisted tracks lie the graves of unknown hundreds of thousands who expired here. 

So it is a vast unofficial necropolis, too.

Today this is all that is left of Josef Stalin’s most madcap scheme begun in 1947 before any detailed plans had been drawn up  - a venture his lieutenants knew was impossible, but dared not tell him. 

Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished
The Salekhard to Igarka route — seen here in these pictures —  was described as ‘outstandingly and deliberately senseless’. Pictiures: The Siberian Times


The track of Project 501 was supposed to run 1,263 kilometres through the tundra, connecting Salekhard, on the Arctic Circle and at the mouth of the giant Ob River, to a deep water port at desolate Igarka on the Yenisei River.

His ultimate aim was to extend this polar railway - far to the north of the Trans-Siberian route - some 3,474 kilometres to Chukotka in the extreme east of Russia.

In the other direction, Project 503,  it would be linked to European Russia. 

Even the Salekhard to Igarka route — seen here in these pictures —  was described as ‘outstandingly and deliberately senseless’, and this ‘Railway to Nowhere’ was built under a cloak of secrecy.

At any one time there were 120,000 prisoners working on the track, and in this hell on earth the slave labour was carried out by women as well as men. 

Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished
The track of Project 501 was supposed to run 1,263 kilometres through the tundra, connecting Salekhard, on the Arctic Circle and at the mouth of the giant Ob River, to a deep water port at desolate Igarka on the Yenisei River. Pictures: The Siberian Times


Immediately after Stalin died in 1953, it was shelved as a project-too-far by the Soviet authorities who abolished forced Gulag labour.

At this point, it was only some 65 kilometres short of completion, but the toll was staggering.  

Now, snaking through the Siberian tundra, it one of the most shocking museums in the world.

One account is that along its route there were Gulags every five or so kilometres, each holding 200 to 1,000 prisoners. 

Most have been destroyed by forest fires and the harshness of the ruthless  climate - but the rusting remains of the Soviet Union’s iron ruler remain. 

Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perishedMonument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished
Most of the work was done manually. Pictures: The Siberian Times


A survivor recalled 600 mainly young women prisoners - emaciated, half-naked and bald - jammed into the putrid hold of a ship, en route to the camps serving this railway. 

‘It was impossible to tell where one pair of buttocks ended and another set of breasts began,’ read the account.

It was like a Medieval painter’s evocation of the Last Judgement.

In some Gulags there was a ‘mother’s zone’ where children up to the age of three were kept separately. 

Women who failed to meet their labouring targets were forbidden to have visits from their toddlers. 

Other prisoners arrived in cattle trains. 

Some came from the recently claimed Baltic republics.

Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished

Estimates - and they can only be estimates - of the number who perished here vary in scale. Picture: The Siberian Times

Among those forced to live - and often die - here were talented engineers selected to find ways to build a railway on permafrost, across multiple streams and rivers, in a harsh Arctic climate. 

Most of the work was done manually. 

The ground - permafrost and dusty sands - was carried out in wheelbarrows. 

Often whole parts of a newly-built rail track sank into swamp in the summer heat.

To strengthen the ground, stone and coarse-grained sand was delivered from the Urals. 

In winter the threat to life was the severe, unyielding  cold.

It was ‘difficult to understand how they survived in 50 below zero,’ said one researcher pointing to the thin walls of their barracks.  

In summer - with 24 hour daylight -  a nightmare from which there was no escape was the incessant mosquitoes described by one inmate survivor as ‘a tortuous mob - there were more of those beasts in the air than raindrops in a thunderstorm. 

‘When you waved your hand in the air it would become bloody with dead mosquitoes.’

Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished
Among those forced to live - and often die - here were talented engineers selected to find ways to build a railway on permafrost, across multiple streams and rivers, in a harsh Arctic climate. Pictures: The Siberian Times


Estimates - and they can only be estimates - of the number who perished here vary in scale. 

The figure of 300,000 was highlighted by Lyudmila Lipatova, former director of the Salekhard city museum, and supported by historians.

‘We haven't really looked that hard,’ she admitted candidly. ‘Some things you don't want to know.’

At the time, in 1951, a report showed that 1% of forced labourers were lost in January.

Some Gulags had 30,000 to 50,000 so that is up to 500 a month in a single camp. 

'The main causes of death were working accidents, disease and illness,' said former inmate Lazar Shereshevsky.

Scurvy was a major killer; so was cold, exhaustion and overwork. 

Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished


Monument to Stalin’s folly: all that’s left of the Railroad of Death where 300,000 prisoners perished
Today all that survives here is abandoned machinery, empty barracks, and miles of barbed wire. Pictures: The Siberian Times


Most of the bodies were buried without coffins, only a number tag tied to their remains. 

Today all that survives here is abandoned machinery, empty barracks, and miles of barbed wire .

This is what intrepid travellers can see. 

Below the ground are the tens, no hundreds, of thousands of unnamed souls who gave their lives on this vast construction site along Stalin’s Railway to Nowhere.


Comments (8)

it was decades earlier, but Dostoevsky spent time in the Gulag and they too worked on the railroad. you can read about it in House of the Dead which was semi-fictional.
Gregor, USA
10/06/2018 17:17
1
0
I think your comment it too ironic Benedikt.
Jasen, NZ
10/06/2018 12:59
0
0
I wonder how many just walked into the forest and said to hell with this. I think I would have done that and at least die free.
Cody, USA
22/05/2018 03:14
3
0
Dont waste time cleaning it up. Leave everything as it is as a reminder of this time and people.
Cody, USA
22/05/2018 03:10
6
0
So very sad. I cannot imagine the anguish and pain they suffered. The poor children who lost their mothers while there. Overwhelming...heartbreaking.
Rose Beninger, United States
30/04/2018 14:40
6
2
Haunting, heartbreaking and soul-wrenching, it is hard to put words to it, but very important information to share with the world and thank you for doing so. I would like to walk this trail and feel the presence of the un-named souls as well as survivors. I would just suggest that it could be cleaned up to an extent to recover scrap metal but that enough of the railroad ties, bridges, gulag barracks be left as the Monument to those un-named souls.
Pamela K Tetarenko, League City, USA
29/04/2018 00:41
3
2
instead of the -life- prisoners just sitting in their cells and scheming and thinking all day long, why not get them up there to do some clean up work? i know logistics will be difficult. but it could be done once more?
Benedikt MORAK, Moscow
28/04/2018 21:00
5
9
so at 50c below were they buried or just dumped out in the woods for the wolves, etc?
JEFF E., USA
28/04/2018 07:44
4
1
1

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