The Vyatlag Archipelago

Ekaterina Loushnikova
11 June 2009

The Kirov Oblast is located about 1,000 km to the northeast of Moscow. It is the largest province in the Volga Federal District - 120,000 sq.km.   Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and a few Monaco principalities would easily fit in this area, but instead of principalities the entire north of the Oblast is occupied by camps. These camps were built under Stalin. However, they started sending people here much earlier - under the Tsar.

This is a poor country...

One of the first prisoners to be exiled to Vyatka was the young nobleman from Tver, Mikhail Saltykov, who was sent to the province for free-thinking and anti-government statements. However, the conditions in which he spent his exile were very comfortable: Saltykov served as an official on special orders at the gubernatorial chancellery, rented a house in the centre of town, held society evenings and wrote works of literature. He wrote about Vyatka and the inhabitants of Vyatka: "But I am particularly fond of the people who inhabit Vyatka, they are simple-minded, meek, somewhat melancholy, as if they were thinking about how to solve an insuperable task... This is a poor country - it needs to be loved". In this "poor country", the classic Russian writer spent seven and a half years, and he depicted the local mores and customs in his famous book "The Story of a Town", where Vyatka is "renamed" Glupov [from "glupy", stupid].

100 years went by, and Vyatka was renamed once more - this time not in literature, but in reality. In 1934, after the murder of Stalin's ally Sergei Kirov, a native of the Vyatka province, the city received a new name - Kirov, at the request of the local city party committee. With its new name, Vyatka entered Soviet history as the "capital" of the Stalinist camps. Political prisoners were brought here in their tens of thousands, and one of the largest "islands" of the Gulag Archipelago was located in the north of the Oblast - Vyatlag. It was an entire country - 12,000 sq.km fenced off with barbed wire. Germans, French, Poles, Italians, English and even Chinese were imprisoned here. A total of 80 nationalities in all.

Crosses at the camp's cemetery

At colony № 9 cemetery most of the graves have no name. 

No, there were no gas chambers here, people simply died from hunger, cold and bleeding diarrhoea. How many died? No one knows for certain, because no one counted... but according to some researchers, the death rate at Vyatlag was one and a half times higher than at Buchenwald. Corpses were simply carried away from the camp and thrown in a pit...  

This is how former prisoner, Latvian Artur Stradinš, recalls the Vyatka camps: "In the 40s, at least 10 people died every day. The prisoners carried the corpses away themselves. My brother-in-law Janis Pavars was buried in a common grave. They gave him an autopsy. It turned out that he'd had a heart attack, his arteries were clogged because he used to drink too much, and the tissues were damaged. His intestines were full of holes from avitaminous diarrhoea. So he stayed here forever. No one will come to his grave, unless with the rustle of their branches, the fir trees tell the people who come here about the horror they were forced to see.


Today in Vyatlag there are about 5,000 prisoners and 13 penal colonies of different types: minimum, high and maximum security. There may also be sub-divisions of these categories in at each colony. At colony № 9, which I visited, there are four sub-divisions:

The first of these sub-divisions is high security, but with concessions: prisoners live in a common barracks of up to 100 people, and sleep on double-decked bunks. They may work on the saw bench. They are entitled to several meetings with relatives and may receive up to 12 parcels every year.

The second is maximum security, with fewer concessions. The conditions are the same as for the first time, except with half the number of meetings and parcels.

The third is maximum security. This means a stuffy cell with 20 people in it, and a slop bucket.  The prisoners are not allowed to work. The exercise period is only one and a half hours each day.

The fourth, and worst of all, is solitary confinement for up to six months.

The first thing that strikes you at the camp is the silence. Every sound is heard particularly clearly here - the clank of a bolt, the rattling of bars, the shout of the jailers.

Before I go in, I give my mobile phone to the guard. Although these days, in any colony a mobile phone is not a problem, as the guard will bring you anything you want for a certain bribe, just as long as you have the money. But it's mainly the professionals of the criminal world, those who are being looked after from outside, who have money. Guards bring them alcohol, food and even a "girl" for the night. The heads of the prison turn a blind eye to all of this, and sometimes even join in the fun. But this mainly happens at "thieves'" colonies, where the prisons are controlled by "godfathers" - the authorities of the criminal world. The majority of prisons in the Kirov Oblast are "red", i.e. controlled by the jailers themselves.

There are also special "torture" colonies, where prisoners are sent for bad behaviour, for example for arguing with the jailers and demanding protection of their rights. In these prisons, they forget about "rights" very quickly - for any misdemeanour they may be beaten with truncheons, put in solitary confinement or even raped, which means buggered. In prison, a person who has been buggered has lost his human dignity. No one will sit next to him, talk to him, or eat with him out of the same dish. This is the lowest and most oppressed caste among prisoners.

Most of the prisoners are "mugs", who are in for petty crimes: hooliganism, domestic violence, theft. For example, prisoner Yury Lazarev stole 200 rubles, and before this he stole a pair of boots, so he is considered to be a dangerous recidivist. The first time (for the boots), he was given a conditional sentence, and the second time (for the 200 rubles) he was given four years in maximum security.... The prisoners in the next cell have similar stories - one stole a bag of animal fodder, one stole a piglet, and the third - which almost sounds like a joke - stole a typewriter. What was he planning to write with it? The story of his own misfortunes?

Camp orchestra

Some prisoners hope to have their terms reduced and play in the camp orchestra

"What if it had been 200,000 rubles instead of 200?" I ask Lazarev. "Then at least I wouldn't have minded going to jail for it so much," he admits.

A prisoner's upkeep costs around 2,000-3,000 rubles per month in the Kirov Oblast. Out of the taxpayer's pocket. Although Vyatlag now, as in the 1940s when Artur Stradinš was imprisoned here, is 40% self-sufficient. The prisoners earn their bread themselves, and they also bake it themselves. They sew their own clothes. They also chop down trees in the taiga. Although they only get 100 rubles a month, they are happy with this. They only entrust other people to guard them.

Work in a camp

The inmates earn their bread themselves chopping down the trees in taiga.

No freedom for a lifetime...

The neighbouring colony № 28 is considered a model "red" zone. It is a maximum-security prison, and the prisoners are here for especially grave crimes. They are called "stripies" - they all wear a stripy uniform, which for some reason immediately reminds me of films about concentration camps. 

I am taken to the "maximum security local section". As a lady, the head of the colony lets me go first. But in this case, this politeness seems completely out of place to me. There is turmoil in the small cell. The frightened prisoners huddle by the wall. All eyes look at me. They haven't seen a woman for several years. The major introduces the "contingent" not by their names, but by the article of their crimes.

"This is 105 - murder, and this is 162 - robbery, 228 - drugs. Do you want to talk to the correspondent?"

Embarrassed silence. Their faces are grey, and they frown at me gloomily. We don't seem to be able to strike up conversation.

"Can I talk to someone alone?" I ask.

"What!" the head jailer says in surprise. "What if you're taken hostage?!"

The conversation takes place in the presence of security guards in the office of the head jailer. The man I'm talking to is called Alexander Zaitsev. He's a murderer. He's  25 years old, and his sentence is also 25 years, or 9,122 days. No freedom for a lifetime - this applies to him..

"The first time I killed a guy on the dance floor," Alexander Zaitsev smiles bashfully. "I was defending a girl. I killed him accidentally, went over the top with the self-defence, but I was given a full sentence. Then I killed someone in the cell. The man was harassing the prisoners. He humiliated them. Everyone was afraid of him. The situation was: either I kill him, or he kills me... At the moment I'm writing a book about my life. There's one problem, I don't have enough paper. Can you send me some? I'll wait for it... As for being released, I don't know if I'll wait that long... I'll be 50, who will want me then?"

"Do you believe in God?" I ask.

"No, I believe in the devil."

"Have you thought of escaping?"

"You can't escape from here..."

Indeed, escaping from Vyatlag is hardly possible. There are forests and swamps all around. This is worse than barbed wire. Many years ago, one of the local residents was famous for his terrifying hunting. From out of the forest he brought... the ears of runaway prisoners. There was a famous tunnel escape fairly recently, in the spirit of Monte Cristo. Six people dug a passage through the soft swampy soil. No one even noticed. But that was the end of their luck. They only spent a few hours of freedom. They were caught when they were drunk, and given an additional sentence. From five to eight years.

The prisoners who escaped were cross-examined under torture, but were not able to explain why they had done it.   There are a lot of things in the colony which cannot be explained rationally.

Many people run away two months before their sentence is over. Why? Their nerves probably can't take it... Or their soul. It feels confined here. You can only gulp fresh air in the church.

"What has God given you?" I ask a prisoner who is carefully wiping a candlestick in the wooden church. The answer is in the spirit of Dostoevsky's heroine Sonya Marmeladova. "Everything!"

The camp is a like a large submarine. Everyone is chained together. The head jailer, the escort and the prisoner. They all dream of being released: the prisoners dream of freedom, and the officers dream of their pension. Even children in the neighbouring village of Lesnoi play the game of "unescorted prisoners". The very air seems steeped in camp dust. These are gloomy places...

At the end of the visit, I am taken to the camp cemetery, where prisoners have been buried since 1938. Most of the graves are nameless. On others there are weather-beaten plates and crooked wooden crosses. It's hard to call it a cemetery, it's more like a dump. A dump for the human waste, for the people thrown away by Vyatlag liked processed material. Recently the camp celebrated its anniversary. In 2008, it turned 70. To celebrate, there were amateur theatricals and a poetry competition. This is what the imprisoned poet Klushin wrote:

In Semyonovsky woods there is a graveyard

The most sorrowful place on this earth

The crosses there have numbers on them

Below them lie prisoners who died in the camps.

No flowers grow, no wreaths are laid

You hear no sound of bitter muffled sobs.

Here lie those torn from their shackles by death

And relieved of all torment forever.

You will not see a widow or mother

Or children crying by their father's grave,

They are the prisoners of the Russian camps

Who found the path to the camp of death...

Winter in camp


Over the 70 years that Vyatlag has been in existence, a great deal has changed in Russia, almost everything: presidents, governments and even the political system and the state itself - the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but the "death factory" of Vyatlag continues to exist  Only people no longer die of hunger here, although prisoners are still malnourished, and many suffer from dystrophy. They die of something else - tuberculosis. Survivors spread the terrible disease throughout the country. And it's not just tuberculosis they die of, but something much worse - despair.

All photos: Ekaterina Lushnikova. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without permission



Russia is not only Moscow politics and St. Petersburg's monuments. Read other Letters from provincial Russia:

Pskov: the Paratroopers' Town, My Town, by Anna Lipina, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/pskov-the-paratroopers-town-my-town

Nizhny Novgorod: Life in Nizhny Novgorod doesn't stand still, by Lira Valeyeva, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/life-in-nizhny-novgorod-doesn-t-stand-still

Samara: Notes from Samara, by Sergei Khazov, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/notes-of-a-samara-resident

Kazan: Life in Kazan: defying the crisis, by Oleg Pavlov, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/life-in-kazan-defying-the-crisis

Sakhalin Island: The Island of cyclones and abundant snows, by Ksenia Semenova, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/the-island-of-cyclones-and-abundant-snow

Khabarovsk: Far East is still far away, by Alexei Minin, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/Far-East-is-still-far-away

Saratov: Summer in Saratov, by Olga Bakutkina, http://www.opendemocracy.net/russia/article/summer-in-saratov

Lipetsk: You can get a life - in spite of everything! By Oksana Zagrebnyeva, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/you-can-get-a-life-in-spite-of-everything

Izhevsk: A Sunny Mayday in Izhevsk, by Nadezhda Gladysh, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/letter-from-izhevsk

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