Guilt by Association – ALZHIR camp for Wives in 1937

We visited ALZHIR today which is about 20 kilometers southwest of the capital of Astana, Kazakhstan. The acronym of ALZHIR really meant “Akmolinskiy Camp for Wives of Parricides.” I’m not sure if that is a poor translation from Russian of “parasites” or “traitors of the people.” In any case, fear was invoked in the late 1930s with the idea that anyone potentially could be an “Enemy of the People,” even some of the Soviet Union’s most prized intelligentsia. As it turns out, famous ballerinas, singers, writers, poets, doctors, teachers and other notable women were sent to Akmola, Kazakhstan from all over the U.S.S.R. Many of these women were plunged into this punishment simply because they were married to those men who were considered suspect. What I especially appreciated was the symbolism of the ALZHIR artwork I observed in many different memorials, even though we had an English guide help us to understand the other artifacts behind the glassed in cases of memorabilia.

Imagine being a woman not knowing where your husband is simultaneous to being a mother separated from your children, stuck on a train in the middle of winter. These saddened figures of humanity were put in confinement which was desperately cold and ill suited for women used to the finer things in life. A third of the female population didn’t survive the harsh conditions at ALZHIR while others did by building their own barracks, brick by mud and straw-mulched brick. They planted gardens after a Ukrainian woman helped to irrigate water to the camp from the nearby lake. Others used their creative abilities to do simple artwork using bread dough or doing needlepoint and embroidery later sold in Moscow or Leningrad.

These women also sewed clothes for what they hoped would reach their husbands during the Great Patriotic War years, those whom they thought were fighting on the Front. Usually these women’s penalty at ALZHIR lasted 8-10 years. Our excursion through the newly built museum, which looked like a sawed off cylinder of a nuclear reactor, was really another symbol of something secret, ominous and mysterious. It looked like a round box but once inside this sepulcher, every hidden truth in unbearable grief was exposed. Before entering this newly built museum was a very symbolic “Arc of Grief” monument which captured the black, war-like helmet of hate covered over by a beautiful headpiece worn by brides in white steel that represented love. So feminine love, which is meant to nurture, trumped hate that was intended to annihilate families as God created them.

Symbolism continued once inside the museum where the “Memory Flower,” a black rose, burst through the four cracks that slanted up from hard rock. To me, the obvious meaning was that beauty can bloom and prevail even in the darkest, most difficult places to exist. ALZHIR was once one of those places of punishment for at least 20,000 women in the span from 1937 to 1946 and beyond. According to the wall that surrounds the museum, it has the names of 7,620 women who perished at this camp. It reminded me of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C. In a way, these women were engaged in a brutal war against good and evil and seemingly there was no way for them to win. However, their names are engraved and immortalized for future generations to know that they did NOT die in vain against the evils of totalitarianism.

On May 31, 2007, President Nazarbayev was at the dedication to this building called “Memorial-Museum Complex to the memory of Victims of Political Repressions and Totalitarianism.” He had very strong words to say against the oppressors of these women from other countries and what they endured, besides those Kazakh women who also died at ALZHIR. He repeated that it was NOT Kazakhstan’s fault that so many were sent to their deaths on this soil of his country. Nazarbayev said, “Victims of political repressions must not be forgotten. One can not impose humanity either prosperity or progress by force of violence and atrocity.”

In many cases, it was Kazakhs who helped those repressed such as in the case of Ivan Ivanovich Sharf as a young boy whose German father had been shot, his mother died during tree cutting at ALZHIR and consequently Ivan was deported to an orphanage. After he became a successful poultry businessman, he resurrected in the middle of the night in the small village close to the museum, a broken star about a meter in size and torn in half, called the “Akmola-Phoenix.” Symbolism again shows that the red, Soviet shining star was torn asunder and broken into two parts when it hit the ground at Akmola’s ALZHIR camp. To me, it means the soul of communism was destroyed when it tampered with the hearts of women by tearing them away from their loved ones.

For me, the most interesting art piece hung in the center of the museum from above as if a chandelier but instead a cage in the shape of a figure 8. It had 15 doves mostly inside but a few were out of the cage. The doves represented the 15 different republics of the U.S.S.R. that all were harmed by the rigid, over-control of people’s family lives. Some of the doves were in different stages of escape from the cage.

Finally, there were two notable lifesize figures outside the museum in statues depicting “Despair and Forcelessness,” the man’s posture dramatized his utter feeling of hopelessness of spirit and soul against evil incarnate. His hands were fallen useless to his sides, an abject creature of failure and misery. The other statue is a woman looking pensive and pondering up to the sky titled “Struggle and Hope.” The first floor showed the men and their positions and what was taken from them, the second floor of the museum portrayed what their wives’ lives were like without them and their families.

I believe it is Nazarbayev’s sincere hope that nothing of this magnitude ever happens again to his own people or people from other nations. This Kazakh president is a man of peace because he has witnessed too much heartache, as his fellow countrymen have. This is why I believe he is so highly respected, revered and beloved in this fledgling democracy and as a noble leader to a developing nation. Many have too many secrets in their own family of the repressions they suffered and finally with this memorial so close to the nation’s capital, the lies and deceit will be exposed to the rest of the world. Totalitarianism was a cancerous evil that maligned far too many talented and good women who just wanted to raise their families in the security of their own homes. Another way to conclude, the enemy should know by now, never mess with maternal love!!!

4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Signe said,

    In the words of my grandmother, who was an immigrant from Norway, “We have it so good”

  2. 2

    kazakhnomad said,

    And in the words of my Norwegian grandmother in her sing songy voice, she would likewise confirm: “We have so MUCH to be thankful for.” Yes, Americans have been very blessed and they comprise many different nationalities who came from such terrible hardships from the Old Country.

  3. 3

    Thank you or posting this, I have never heard of ALZHIR camp. There is so much to remember and learn from the past. This tragic story I hope never happened in vain.

    • 4

      kazaknomad said,

      MANY people have never heard of Kazakhstan before much less ALZHIR!!! I think there could be many movies made that would help depict the tragedies that were here in Kazakhstan during the Soviet period. The latest brave showing of former USSR prison life for politicals was a movie titled The Way Back with Ed Harris in it.
      Yes, I hope that this history does NOT repeat itself, though it might if people don’t know about how evil man can be against man (in this case, against women).


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