Searching for the remains of prisoners at the site of the former Nidz’ Vychegodskaia concentration camp.

Mission: Siberia – Unearthing a Disappearing History



Throughout my trip, I saw and visited a great number of places and sights. The following article contains descriptions of experiences within the Komi Republic that stand out most in my mind for several reasons, most significant being historical importance and relevance to the expedition’s purpose. I hope that in describing these moments to you, the reader, I will be able to generate a greater awareness of this important history.

HIS PAST SUMMER THE LITHUANIAN COUNCIL OF Youth Organizations (LiJOT) planned four trips to regions throughout Russia where significant numbers of Lithuanians had been exiled or forced to work in the Soviet system of concentration camps known as the Gulag. These trips were collectively titled “Misija: Sibiras” (Mission: Siberia). Three of the four trips took place; what should have been the second trip to Krasnoyarsk was cancelled due to its participants not receiving visas.

from the Russian government. Traveling to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal, above the Arctic Circle in the Komi Republic, and through the dense forests of the Tomsk region, the purpose of this project was to honor Lithuanians who had died or suffered from Soviet oppression in these places, remind people of the price of freedom, and to generate awareness of this period in history among the youth of Lithuania. As a delegate of Lietuvių Bendruomenė (Lithuanian American Community, Inc.) in the United States, I was fortunate enough to be a participant in the third expedition to the Komi Republic. Members from each expedition included students, teachers, journalists, known Lithuanian personalities, and diplomats. The first expedition set off in June and the final one returned in September. The expedition I participated in, to the Komi Republic, lasted from August 7-17, 2006.

Some of the remains found.
Some of the remains found.

In Gulag: A History, Pulitzer Prize winning author Anne Applebaum estimates that from its initial expansion in 1929 to the beginning of its decline with Stalin’s death in 1953, approximately eighteen million people passed through the vast system of Soviet concentration camps known as the Gulag.This number does not include the six million exiles torn from their homelands and forcibly relocated to the remote and often harsh climates of regions across the Soviet Union.1 Of these eighteen million prisoners and six million exiles, there were a significant number of Lithuanians considering the country’s relatively small population over the course of the two Soviet occupations. From 1940-1941, approximately 46,000 Lithuanians were deported and exiled or placed in concentration camps (please keep in mind that this number is a conservative estimate drawn from a low of 30,000 to a high of 65,000).2 In the period from 1945 to 1953, another estimate (again conservative) of the number of Lithuanian victims would be approximately 220,000 people.2 While these are reliable estimates, the exact number of Lithuanians killed, imprisoned and exiled during the Soviet occupation may never be determined. These prisoners and exiles were scattered across the vast lands of the Soviet Union, and many found themselves in the Komi Republic.

The Komi Republic lies in the far north of the Russian Federation. It has two official languages, Russian and Komi, the latter being a native language related to Finnish. On a map, the Komi Republic would be northeast of St. Petersburg and west of the Ural Mountains. Part of it, including one of its larger cities, Vorkuta, lies within the Arctic Circle. Its landscape is largely taiga and tundra, and it is home to the virgin Komi forests (the largest virgin forests in Europe), designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is therefore unfortunate that its natural beauty conceals a dark history. The structures and elements of civilization in the Komi Republic today are all, either directly or indirectly, the result of forced labor done by prisoners. At a cost of immeasurable death and suffering, these men and women, of which a significant number were Lithuanian, were forced by a brutal regime to build something out of nothing, and today the memory of their existence is in danger of being forgotten. For this reason, our expedition left Lithuania on August 7, 2006 to travel to this region and make an effort to document and memorialize this dark period of history.

In total, we were eight, including our guide Gintautas Alekna. As a member of “Bendrija Lemtis” (Society Lemtis), he had participated in numerous previous expeditions throughout the Soviet Union where Lithuanians had been exiled and imprisoned. His experience proved invaluable to our trip, and without his contacts and knowledge, our trip certainly would have been more difficult. The rest of us, though less experienced in such matters, were eager to do what was possible in order to make the expedition a success. The names, ages, and occupations of our group were as follows: Audrius Bružas, 26 years old, actor; Irma Juškėnaitė, 22 years old, LiJOT delegate; Alma Linkevičiūtė, 21 years old, student; Vytis Mockus, 18 years old, student; Jovita Pranevičiūtė, 26 years old, diplomat; Austė Serapinaitė, 22 years old, journalist; and myself, a 23 year old graduate student at The University of Illinois at Chicago.

Syktyvkar: August 9-10, 2006

Our expedition began with a flight from Moscow to Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic, a city with a population of approximately 230,000 people. A statue of Lenin still adorns the square in front of the capitol building, evidence of its Soviet past amongst 24 hour casinos and night clubs. Unlike in Lithuania, obvious vestiges of the Soviet era such as this statue were evident everywhere we traveled, and served as reminders of what our group was here to accomplish.

After spending the night in a hotel, we woke early next morning to meet with representatives from a television station. One of them had worked with Gintautas in the past, and they were eager to learn more about what we were doing in the Komi Republic. As the only American, I proved to be an oddity, and was asked several questions (on and off camera) by the reporters and cameramen. Thankfully, one of the group members was able to translate from Lithuanian and English into Russian my answers to questions such as “How would you compare life in the United States to life in Russia?” and “How is World War II studied in American classrooms?” Later that day, the footage was broadcast on Komi National Television, and proved to be an interesting start to our expedition.

From the television station we made our way outside Syktyvkar to Kortkarosas*, a village along the Vychegda River, one of the major rivers of the Komi Republic that also runs through Syktyvkar. Now peaceful and scenic, in the first half of the twentieth century the Vychegda was a major route for transporting prisoners en masse via barges to the concentration camps where they would work. Our purpose for driving to Kortkarosas was to meet with a local Lithuanian, Anatolis Smilingis. As a young teenager in Lithuania, Anatolis, having completed the ninth grade, was exiled with his family to this region. He is a fascinating person, and with his wife (a native Komi) helps run a youth center that focuses on preserving native Komi culture. Anatolis’ efforts also extend to documenting and researching the history of the concentration camps once located in the area and making an attempt to discover the identities of people buried in individual and mass graves. His knowledge of camp locations and gravesites was invaluable to our efforts.

With Anatolis and his wife accompanying us, we continued on with the help of his directions. Driving atop neglected sandy roads that hardly seemed navigable, we slowly made our way to a location roughly sixty kilometers outside of Syktyvkar known as Nidz’ Vychegodskaia, designated by Anatolis to be a former camp site. Our destination was a sandy clearing not far from the banks of the Vychegda, surrounded by trees typical to the region, mainly birch and pine. Nearly seventy years ago, this area housed a concentration camp where thousands of prisoners were used in forced labor. To Nidz’ Vychegodskaia were sent invalid prisoners from other camps across the Komi Republic that were too sick or weak to perform labor efficiently. Here, tens of thousands of these invalid prisoners were worked to death, and all that remains of their existence is the sandy clearing where we now stood. Their suffering must have been great, something that I could not comprehend while gathering the remains in the place (now quiet and peaceful) where they had died.

The author with local dogs in Važaijolis.
The author with local dogs in Važaijolis.

The sand concealed the remains of prisoners who had died here, with periodic rain washing it away to reveal bits and pieces of bone on the ground’s surface. During previous visits to this area, Anatolis and others had gathered great numbers of remains and had buried them in marked, common graves. We too, found a significant amount during a search of only a half hour. It was a somber affair for the group. I tried to put the moment into perspective, and found it difficult to do. More than half a century separated me from the people who died here. Their suffering must have been great, something that I could not comprehend while gathering their remains in the place where they had died. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the moment was that these remains belonged to people who had once been brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. Their loved ones probably never found out what became of them, and they now rested in a mass grave known by only a handful of people. After gathering a quantity of remains, we stopped to document our findings and to tape record an interview with Anatolis. Later on, I had an opportunity to converse with him and ask some questions. I asked if he had ever been back to Lithuania, and he replied that he had, and that he had liked it very much and would like to live there. It is a testament to the man’s character that when I inquired as to why he does not return to his homeland, he replied that to leave now would be to leave behind unfinished work, especially concerning such places as Nidz’ Vychegodskaia. Before leaving, we placed the remains we had gathered within one of the common marked graves, upon which stood a large metal cross (erected by Anatolis) commemorating the victims buried at this site.

From Nidz’ Vychegodskaia, we traveled to another site, one in which remnants of camp structures still stood. One of the remaining structures was once a camp prison and guard quarters; in its yard, prisoners were once executed by shooting. Today, the structure is lived in, although its inhabitant was not present at the time of our arrival. Anatolis explained that he had once asked the man who lived there if he realized what had occurred in this place and in his yard. The man replied that he knew, and that the thought never came into his mind that he should live anywhere else on account of this history.

The following day, we again left Syktyvkar, this time traveling 140 kilometers to a village known as Va- žaijolis.* Nearing our destination after a four hour drive, we drove the last few kilometers atop a road consisting of two parallel rows of concrete blocks. Today, Važaijolis is a small village, serviced by a single store housed in a truck trailer. At the height of the camp system in the Komi Republic, however, it served as the living quarters for high ranking camp officials. An entire ghost town still remained, including a monument to local soldiers of the Red Army who had lost their lives in the Second World War. The region’s house of culture had once been considered the nicest in the Komi Republic, even including Syktyvkar, but after half a century now stood dilapidated in the center of this ghost town. After exploring the town, we trekked in the opposite direction, making our way to the remnants of an old concentration camp. Throughout our entire expedition, this camp was the most complete, including fallen fences, light post, and fragments of barbed wire. In his previous trip to Važaijolis a few years ago, Gintautas described how the camp had been more intact than it was now. Apparently, local inhabitants often dismantle its structures for use in other construction purposes. It is tragic, then, that in another ten years, it is likely that nothing or little will be left of this camp site.

Vorkuta: August 11-12

From Syktyvkar, we flew to Vorkuta. Founded in 1943, Vorkuta has its origins as a chain of forced labor camps created to exploit the great Pechora coal basin within the Arctic Circle. It was the largest center of Gulag camps in European Russia, and was the administrative center for a number of other camp systems throughout the Komi Republic. A great number of Lithuanians were sent to Vorkuta and its surrounding camps, possibly more than anywhere else in the Soviet Union. Later that day, we made contact with a local youth organization to see if they could help us.

Our help came in the form of Boris, a 28 year old local that was willing to show us historical sites in and around Vorkuta. His grandparents were Ukrainian Jews, arrested and brought to work in the labor camps. After serving out their sentences, they never left the region. Clad in a leather jacket and wingtips, Boris took us to the other side of the river, where the original city of Vorkuta, and the first coal mine, stood.

Vorkuta stands out in my mind; its crumbling buildings, weather, numerous coal mines make it hardly seem a hospitable place to live. Our first day created many unforgettable moments, mainly because what I saw there I have not seen anywhere else. Walking to the River Vorkuta, we passed by great cement apartment blocks so typical throughout all of the former Soviet Union. Built at the top of the river’s steep banks, there are signs warning that there is a danger of the structures falling into the river. Boris informed us that, although this danger exists and it is well known that the apartment buildings are falling into the river, the inhabitants continue to live there. At a point overlooking the river stood a Russian memorial to all those who suffered in these camps, a stone wrapped in barb wire atop a granite pedestal. Two men warmed themselves by a fire, down below, an abandoned car lay half buried in mud near the water. Combined with crumbling apartments, these happenings created a surreal atmosphere. They gave the impression that Vorkuta was falling to pieces.

We crossed the river via an abandoned bridge. At the other side, the original city of Vorkuta waited for us. In 1991, we were told, all the people living on this side of the river simply abandoned this area and either left the city or moved to the other side. Built on the side of a large hill, all the structures are still standing, a great ghost town complete with apartment buildings, a house of culture, and a coal mine. In all honesty, it resembled a war zone. Here, more than seventy years ago, the first coal mine in Vorkuta was established, thus securing the fate of hundreds of thousands of future prisoners. There stands today a Polish memorial, a large white cross dedicated to the victims of this first coal mine. With the coal mines and labor camps grew the city of Vorkuta, built in the tundra atop the permafrost.

Standing atop the hill above the ghost town, one could see the tall smokestacks of coal mines in all directions. Today, coal mining is still Vorkuta’s largest industry. Coal mining is a hazardous occupation, even more so, it seems, in Russia. This was obvious from the numerous memorials to the victims of mining disasters, some as recent as only a few years ago. Loved ones had left offerings of cigarettes, shots of vodka, and small plates of food before the graves of these miners. Tragically, many of these men were younger than I. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the prisoners who worked the same mines a more that a half century ago. Backs bent in dark, claustrophobic tunnels, enduring extremes of weather, and using crude, rudimentary tools, death and suffering was commonplace to these prisoners. Even if one survived the coal mines, the ordeal was so physically taxing due to a lack of food, brutal working conditions, and harsh weather, that a miner’s life span would be significantly shortened. After holding a pick more than fourteen hours a day, miners’ hands often were permanently frozen in a claw-like grip.

The next day Boris was again our guide. This time we were to travel by foot outside of the city following a main rail road line into the tundra. Our purpose was to explore the remains of several concentration camps that had been created to construct this rail line. These camps, like a great number of others of the Gulag, were often temporary. Once the purpose of their construction was accomplished, they would be abandoned and the prisoners taken to a new camp. Unfortunately, this leaves less evidence of their existence.

Amidst an overcast sky and a steady drizzle, we walked along a railroad built by prisoners, stopping periodically to follow Boris or Gintautas into the tundra to explore a former camp site. These camps consisted of piles of rotting wood, bricks, and other construction materials. It was difficult to make out what anything was. Boris provided a chilling explanation for a particular pile of bricks – it is guessed that they were once part of a crematorium. Other than such remnants and the occasional wood post covered in barbed wire, little remained of these camps. Like so much of what we had seen already, I fear that within a decade nothing will be left.

My experience in the tundra of Vorkuta was unforgettable. In the tundra, large trees are unable to grow due to the cold climate and long winter season. Blanketed with snow and ice for the majority of the year, large trees are unable to grow due to the cold climate and long winter season. A lack of trees, therefore, allows for an unhindered view in all directions. Local inhabitants warned that it is easy to get lost in the tundra, and had we no railroad track to follow, I could see why. The area we were in contained the same green rolling hills in all directions. Its uniformity and color made it beautiful and scenic, yet the idea that below it are buried thousands of victims of the Gulag made this view difficult to fully enjoy.

Vorkuta, to me, generated feelings of sadness. Built atop the misery of great numbers of prisoners, today, like the apartment buildings along the banks of the river, it appears to be crumbling. Coal mines, the main source of employment for inhabitants, are constantly closing due to the inability to maintain them efficiently and safely. Vorkuta’s past makes it an important resource for preserving Gulag history, but with a declining population it is difficult to say what the future will bring. Like the decaying remnants of camps in the tundra, perhaps the city too will start to disappear.

Abėzė and Inta: August 13-15

We traveled by train to Abėzė* from Vorkuta, and upon arriving went to meet with a representative of a local chapter of a national Russian organization aimed at memorializing victims of Soviet genocide. Abė- zė was significant to our purposes in that it is home to one of the largest known cemeteries for prisoners. Rows of metal and wooden markers memorialized victims, and like all other cemeteries we visited throughout the expedition, most of the graves were overgrown and neglected. Our efforts to clear the graves of grass and other obstructions were symbolic, as without constant care, they will always be overgrown.

While cutting the grass around Lithuanian graves, we were plagued by mosquitoes and gnats. It would appear that summer would offer prisoners a respite from the brutal conditions of winter. However, clouds of the same insects that now harassed us made the life of a prisoner in this region miserable, often causing swelling and painful discomfort. Upon leaving Abėzė, my hands were grotesquely covered in swelling marks, and I can only imagine the effects had I not been well covered and wearing work gloves.

From Abėzė we traveled by train to Inta, which was once, like Vorkuta, an administrative center for a significant number of camps. Today it is a city in which a good portion of inhabitants are descendants of either camp guards or prisoners. Inta seemed to embrace its Soviet past, and provided us with evidence to prove this notion. Our hotel, like all others, was Soviet built. This would not have merited any attention had it not been necessary for all guests to fill out three different forms giving personal information and their reason for staying there. On top of this, as foreigners, we were required to pay the highest price (lower ones being reserved for locals and ethnic Russians). It was obvious that Inta did not care for tourists; in a multi-floor hotel that could have probably accommodated more than a 150 people, there were only a handful staying there.

Another indicator of Inta’s Soviet mentality was its museum, in which we spent a short time visiting. There is no question regarding Inta’s Gulag affiliated past, yet this museum hardly made any mention of it. In all of its exhibits, including an entire series of rooms devoted to coal mining, no attention was given to the prisoners that built this city.

While in Inta we visited several different grave sites, one of which bordered on a number of small houses and gardens. Many of these houses were built on top of prisoners’ graves and inhabitants still unearth remains while digging in their gardens. During our visit we had an opportunity to talk with a local woman, who explained how in the Brezhnev era people were encourage to go into the wilderness and build on such land. Unbeknownst to these people, they were coming across former concentration camps, complete with buried victims.

Another grave site was unforgettable in that it was completely under water. Prisoners originally were buried atop a coal mine. In later years, the entire mine collapsed, creating a great depression that gradually filled with water from rain and snow, eventually creating an artificial lake.


Upon returning from the expedition, the main purpose of each participant was to generate awareness of the history that we were able to experience. This is the most important purpose of “Misija: Sibiras,” and must not be forgotten. There is a constant danger of allowing the past to fade into obscurity. The objective is not to assign blame, but to memorialize the tens of millions of Soviet victims. These men, women, and children must not be forgotten. For Lithuanians, like so many other ethnicities, this era is a dark chapter in history. Continuous efforts must be made to ensure that places like Nidz Vychegodskaia or Abėzė do not become meaningless and unknown.

In the spring of 2005 I had the opportunity of traveling to Munich, Germany for a short study abroad history course. One of our excursions was to Dachau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Well preserved and meticulously researched, Dachau made a deep impression upon me. I left with a more intimate knowledge of the history that I had studied beforehand, what was once written now was “brought to life” so to speak. The camps of the Gulag do not have a Dachau to inform others of this history. Students and tourists do not travel en masse to cities like Vorkuta to visit the sites of concentration camps like they do for Dachau or Auschwitz. This is why it is necessary for Lithuanians, and all other ethnicities affected by Soviet atrocities, to memorialize these victims by striving to generate awareness of this history.

As mentioned earlier, I saw and experienced much throughout this expedition. The above article highlights the moments that I believe were most memorable to me and most important to the purpose of the expedition. For those that read Lithuanian, a more detailed, day by day account, is available at http://www. under “dienoraščiai.” The website, created and maintained by LiJOT, includes an extensive database of photographs from all three expeditions, as well as the journal entries of all participants. I also encourage readers to visit http:/ /, the website of “Bendrija Lemtis,” which includes a wealth of interesting information concerning previous Lithuanian expeditions to important historical sites throughout the former Soviet Union (English version available).

Finally, as one of the two participants in “Misija: Sibiras” from the United States, I would like to sincerely thank Lietuvių Bendruomenė for funding my trip to Lithuania and allowing me to experience such an opportunity. I would also like to thank the Lithuanian Council of Youth Organizations for organizing “Misija: Sibiras,” and for allowing me to take part in such a wonderful project.