Friday, 28 March 2014 | MYT 7:00 AM

Gulag with a view: Russia's labour camps as tourist attractions

Former Soviet nation plans to use ‘gulag’ sites to lure visitors.

Forget the majestic St Basil Cathedral in Moscow. Forget its rolling hills, snowy mountains and beautiful people. Russia has found a new and controversial way to promote tourism and invite people to learn about nation’s colourful background and history.

In a – what some might say – crazy bid, Russia’s Sakha Republic (Yakutia) Entrepreneurship and Tourism Development ministry has proposed the creation of “tourist camps” on the sites of former “gulags” in a remote region of eastern Siberia.

Now if you're wondering what in the world a gulag is, it refers to the government agency which administered the main Soviet forced labour camp systems in the 1930s – no, they're definitely not the happiest places on earth.

In the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of prisoners at the forced labour camps were made to work on the M56 Kolyma Highway in the Tomponsky district. In case you didn’t know, the M56 Kolyma Highway is also referred to as the “Road of Bones” as many prisoners died during its construction.

Defending the ministry’s suggestion is minister Yekaterina Kormilitsyna, who said, “Today the gulag has every chance of attracting tourists. This project will preserve the historical heritage not only of the region, but of the country as a whole.”

The proposal was made at a meeting of regional and local officials during a festival called “Travels to the Pole of Cold”, in reference to the village of Oymyakon near the M56, generally recognised as the coldest inhabited place on earth.

Officials agreed to cooperate in establishing tourist camps on the site of two labour camps, the M56 construction camp and another where the yellow mineral orpiment was mined.

But the human rights group Memorial, which works to preserve records of political repression including the gulag labour camp system, has questioned the tourist camp proposal. Memorial activist Yan Rachinsky said that projects to open up labour camps for commercial, rather than educational, purposes tend to create a “pseudo-historical fiction” and a “false sense of what happened”.

According to Rachinsky, tens of thousands of people died in labour camps in Yakutia, many of them from the cold. Located partially above the Arctic Circle, Yakutia is known for its severe climate and is covered with huge swaths of forests and barren tundra. “It’s not right,” Rachinsky said. “It’s the same as a German concentration camp becoming a calling card for Germany.”

Bolot Bochkaryov, who helps organise expeditions to Yakutia and runs the blog AskYakutia.com, said adventure travellers who braved the rugged highway were often interested in the history of the camps. “They like the road but at the same time, they want to visit the gulags.”

Most of the many dozens of gulag camps around Russia have fallen into disrepair since the system came to an end in 1960. – Guardian News & Media

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Travel , Europe , World , gulag , labour camps , forced labour , Russia , Soviet , human rights , tourist camps , historial heritage


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