The “Arch of Sorrow” is quite a monument in front of the ALZHIR museum in tribute to those terrified voices and plaintive cries of desperate women that have long since been silenced due to forgetfulness by design or sheer neglect. However, the President of this fine country of Kazakhstan strongly believes it was NOT Kazakhstan’s fault that so many women were brought by train from all over the U.S.S.R. to this barren wilderness near Astana to work hard or to die due to the deprivation. Many of these women, who came were from the elite of the Soviet elite, their only problem was that they were married to Soviet men who were considered traitors to the communist cause.
One of my students commented that the train car in front of the “Arch of Sorrow” shows that the war against “Enemies of the People” did not play favorites even with the Soviet upper crust. The symbolism shows inside of the train car when you see two kinds of individuals. One that is clearly aristocratic in her bearing and clothes, another who is huddled in a weak mass in thin clothes and barely clad. [Actually both are not dressed appropriately for the sub zero weather we have been experiencing in Astana this past week. It will not let up until first of March.] For the women who survived ALZHIR prison life, it was one cold day after another especially without their loved ones to care for.
One of my former students from Almaty wrote about her grandmother living through this dreaded experience at ALZHIR. Please see her research paper from December of 2008 where she used different sources and also an interview of her grandma to reveal just how very difficult life was living in ALZHIR. Looking at all the displays inside the museum and hearing the stories behind the pictures from our guide, after an hour we were all weighted down with just how very desperate and dismal these women’s lives were.
One story still haunts me. Some of the Kazakh people in the nearby area of the ALZHIR camp knew that these women from all over the U.S.S.R. were innocent of any crimes or at least they knew they were not well fed and many were dying. In front of the guards, while the women were cutting reeds from the lake, there were Kazakh children holding bags of stones and throwing at the poor women. The guards laughed and taunted the women saying that even the young Kazakh children despised these prisoners. When one woman fell down she smelled the stone as if it were cheese. Yes, in fact, the neighboring Kazakh village had made balls of hardened, dried curd which was meant to feed the starving women. Many other acts of kindness were shown to these innocent women by the neighboring Kazakhs even at risk of being caught and killed.