KarLag, or the Karaganda Corrective Labour Camp to give it its nefarious full title, was one of the largest gulags in the USSR.
It was established in 1931 and operated until 1959, 6 years after Stalin’s death. Over 1,000,000 inmates passed through the gates, many of them political prisoners transported from elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
The Karlag complex covered a staggering 17,600 square kilometres (6,800 square miles). The site stretched across the vast Kazakhstan steppe and those unfortunate Kazakhs living in the area were forcibly relocated.
The Karaganda region is home to the largest coal deposits in Kazakhstan and the soviets exploited the free labour of prisoners to mine the fossil fuel.
The gulag was operated by the feared NKVD (soviet secret police and forerunners to the KGB). All administrative decisions regarding the camp came directly from Moscow.
Karlag During WWII
During the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War as it’s known in the Russian-speaking world) the camp was used to house prisoners of war. This led to Karaganda having a large German population during the latter part of the 20th Century.
The main administrative building of the Karlag complex is now a museum (the best museum in the whole of Kazakhstan according to Caravanistan) and features extensive exhibits as well as reconstructions of camp life.
The HQ building is located in the tiny village of Dolinka, 40km southwest of Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan.
About the Karlag Museum
The museum is located within the former administration building of the Karlag Gulag Complex; a grand looking piece of architecture that belies the dark nature of the place.
Inside there are 3 floors of exhibits, convict art, propaganda posters and dioramas showing what life was like within the gulag system. The basement houses a gruesome series of prison cells, torture rooms and execution sites complete with blood-spattered walls and mock torture scenes/executions.
The upper two floors contain recreated cells, barracks and other areas within the Kazakhstan gulag system as well as many interesting propaganda posters from the time along with the obligatory busts of Lenin.
There are signs in Kazakh, Russian and English, but to get the most out of a visit an English-speaking guide is recommended (unless of course you speak Kazakh or Russian)!
Entrance fee for KarLag
Adult Ticket: 500 Tenge
Camera Pass: 700 Tenge
English Speaking Guide: 1,000 Tenge
Shkolnaya Street, 15
Tel: +7 721 565 8222
Opening Times: Daily from 9am to 6pm.
Some websites say the museum is closed on Sundays, but I visited on a Sunday in August 2019 and it was open.
How to get to Karlag
Karlag is situated in the small village of Dolinka 40km southwest of Karaganda.
Bus 121 goes from Karaganda to Shakhtinsk every 20 minutes and stops 2km from Dolinka.
Go to the main bus station (in front of the railway station) and head out the back to the small ticket window. Ask for a ticket to stop Vtoroy Shakht (or just say Dolinka/Museum and they will know). Ticket costs 150 Tenge.
Tell the bus driver you want to go to Dolinka and they will tell you when to get off. From the bus stop at Vtoroy Shakht it’s a 2km walk to the museum (though you may be lucky like I was and get picked up by a passing car and whose driver wouldn’t accept any money – that wonderful Kazakh hospitality again).
Be aware that on the return journey the bus coming from Shakhtinsk can get very full and you may have to wait for the next one like I did, and just push into the crowd to get on.
You can arrange a guided tour of the museum with Indy Guide, the leading tour operator in Central Asia. 1 day tours start from $100 per person.
How to get to Karganda
Karaganda has excellent train connections to the rest of Kazakhstan.
From Nur Sultan (formerly Astana) the train takes 4 to 5 hours and prices start at 700 Tenge.
From Almaty you will need to take an overnight train and the journey time ranges from 10 to 15 hours depending on the train. Prices start at 4,000 Tenge.
See Kazakhstan Railways website for times, prices and to book tickets online.
About the Author
Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.
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