Joseph Stalin's deadly railway to nowhere

By Lucy Ash
Radio 4's Crossing Continents

  • Published
Women building the Trans-Polar Mainline

In the Russian Arctic lies buried an unfinished railway built by prisoners of Stalin's gulags. For decades no-one talked about it. But one woman is now telling the story of the thousands who suffered there - and there is talk of bringing back to life the abandoned railway itself.

The snowdrifts come up to our waists and the wind stings my face, but Lyudmila Lipatova, a sturdy woman in her 70s, does not seem to notice and hands me a shovel.

"This is the place", she says. "Now let's start digging!"

After a bit, my spade hit something metallic. We scrape away the snow and examine the rusty rails. Along the side of one piece of track I notice some writing: the acronym ZIS followed by Zavod Imeni Stalina, Factory - named after Joseph Stalin.

We are in a nondescript neighbourhood on the outskirts of Salekhard, the capital of the Yamal Nenets Autonomous Region.

Founded in 1595 as a Cossack and missionary outpost, the city is one of the oldest in the Russian Far North. Apart from Rovaniemi in Finland, it is the only city in the world to straddle the Arctic Circle.

Image caption,
Lyudmila Lipatova: Guards would tie up a naked prisoner, and leave him for the mosquitoes

The city museum boasts a 10,000-year-old baby woolly mammoth, nicknamed Lyuba. She made headlines around the world when she was discovered in 2007 by a nomadic reindeer herder.

But Salekhard is notorious for another reason - its Gulag past.

Lyudmila and I had uncovered a tiny section of one of Joseph Stalin's cruellest and most ambitious projects - the Trans-Polar Mainline.

It was his attempt to conquer the Arctic - part of what he called his Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature.

The scheme was supposed to link the eastern and western parts of Siberia with a 1,000-mile (1,609km) railway stretching from the city of Inta, in Komi Autonomous Republic, through Salekhard to Igarka, on the Yenisei River.

Work on the western part started in the early 1940s but in Salekhard construction began after the end of World War II.

The labour force was almost entirely made up of "enemies of the people" - prisoners convicted of "political" offences.

Gulags 501 and 503 were created specially for the railway and every 6-8 miles (10-12km) along the track there were camps.

Prisoners built their own wooden barracks but the unlucky ones in the front units had to take shelter in canvas tents.

"You think it's cold now but it's spring," says Lyudmila.

"In winter the temperature can go down to -50 Celsius. Just imagine working in that. And in the summer the terrible heat, the mosquitoes."

Some guards used the insects to inflict merciless punishments.

"They'd undress the prisoner and tie him up for the mosquitoes and that was worse than any torture instrument."

Lyudmila added that one young man, enslaved on the railway because of his politically incorrect poetry, was stripped naked and tormented in this way after he refused to give the names of some prisoners who had escaped.

A 16-year-old girl, whose mother had died and whose father returned wounded from the front, was desperate to feed her four younger siblings. When she was caught stealing half a sack of beetroots she too was sent off to build the railway.

"She got 10 years hard labour for that supposedly political crime," explains Lyudmila, "but what did it have to do with politics?"

Image caption,
Nadezhda Kukushina (right) was sent to work on the railway after rats ate money in her employer's safe

Lyudmila has many such stories. At the Salekhard museum where she used to be the director and now a retired senior researcher, she shows me a picture of a young woman with dimpled cheeks and curly brown hair.

Nadezhda Kukushina was a book-keeper at a state enterprise in Ukraine. When rats got into the safe and chewed up some banknotes, she was accused of embezzlement and sent to work on the railway.

Other prisoners had already endured German prisoner-of-war camps. When they eventually returned home to the Soviet Union, the authorities branded them traitors and sent them to the Arctic.

According to some estimates 300,000 prisoners were enslaved on the project and nearly a third of them perished in the process.

But Lyudmila says that the real death toll and exact number of camps and prisoners are not known since no accurate records were kept.

By the time Stalin died in 1953, over 370 miles (600km) had been built but it was never completed. Cold War Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred responsibility for the construction from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Transport, which lacked money and workers to continue the project.

The tracks sank back into the tundra. The railway to nowhere, with its huge cost in human lives, became known as the Dead Road.

For decades nobody talked much about the ghostly barracks or the rusting rolling stock and rails.

Lyudmila once helped to unearth another baby mammoth preserved in the permafrost, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she began to dig up the area's more recent history.

With the help of some other local historians and volunteers, she began collecting letters, photographs and oral testimonies from survivors of the railway.

Image caption,
Lyuba, the mammoth discovered in 2007

Not far from the modernist sculpture marking the 66th latitude, there is another monument - a steam engine mounted on a plinth.

A plaque underneath says the tracks were put down ruthlessly, at the edge of the earth, between 1947 and 1953. It also says the victims will never be forgotten.

Salekhard is still home to people who were connected with the camps - either as administrators or guards, as well as prisoners.

Lyudmila says that some of the guards were young conscripts who had no more choice about where they were sent to work than the prisoners.

"Of course there were always the sadists, but there were normal decent guards too," she says.

"Some would allow prisoners time off in summer to pick berries and mushrooms to make sure they had some vitamins in the winter months."

Lyudmila sighs and wipes her glasses. "Of course it was wrong to build the railway with slave labour. But once they'd started it and there were so many victims, I think abandoning the project was also criminal."

"I lead excursions and tell people about what happened. One man, a former prisoner, made a special trip up here and he just started crying when he saw rusty engines and old tracks," she adds.

"Many of the prisoners believed they were fulfilling a useful and necessary deed, and all of that was just destroyed. It's heartbreaking."

I had to catch a plane from Salekhard to Noviy Urengoi, my next destination further east, because there is no other way to get there.

But now that Russia's energy frontier has moved north, the development of the Arctic is high on the Kremlin's list of priorities.

Today there are plans to rebuild the railway and work has already started on a parallel road to connect Salekhard with the cities of Nadym and Novyi Urengoi, and from there to the rest of Russia.

Almost 60 years after work ground to a halt, the Railway of Bones may finally be getting a new lease of life.

Archive photographs used with permission of I.S. Shemansky Yamalo-Nenets Regional Museum and from the archive of Lyudmila Lipatova.

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