</Journey on the Death Road. Ghostology of the Past>
author: Denis Zeziukin

On October 30, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, ODRA publishes an essay by photographer Denis Zeziukin, who explored and captured the ghost-road that once led to the Gulag. He traveled to his homeland in a remote region of Russia, where he found traces and evidence of the past that invariably accompanies us in the present. Denis' photographs are documentation of the expedition and traces of historical memory that cannot be erased, his photographs depict harsh conditions in which people survived, the pictures give a sense of abandonment and forgetfulness, redefining the past and looking to the future.
As a child, I used to have a special interest in railroads. I dreamed that when I grew up, I would become a machinist. My family lived in a small town in the distant region of Western Siberia. There were no trains in our area, and I really wanted the railroad to appear someday. Once someone from adults told me about the abandoned rails and wooden barracks that had been seen in the woods outside the city. As an adult, I have learnt their story, and it formed the basis of this project.
From 1947 to 1953 one of Stalin's biggest construction projects took place in the post-war USSR. Gulag prisoners and freelancers were involved in the construction of the Chum-Salekhard-Igarka Trans-Polar Mainline. The future railroad was to stretch along the latitudes of the Arctic Circle from the Polar Urals to the Yenisei River. The reasons for the construction were the need for transport accessibility of the Norilsk industrial mineral-rich region, and access to the site of the new seaport near the village of Igarka.

The road was built in the Far North: harsh winters with forty-degree frosts lasting 7-8 months, and short summers, when the sun hardly ever sets and hordes of mosquitoes rise in the air. Endless swamps, rivers and lakes. Tundra and taiga. The track was pulled at both ends at once. Every 7-10 kilometers a camp was built: several barracks for prisoners, a punishment cell, a canteen, a bathhouse and other household buildings. The perimeter was covered with barbed wire and in the corners there were sentry towers. People lived in crowded quarters, with an area of 1.5 square meters per person. They slept on short bunks, often with several people on each bunk. Women worked on a par with men: there were eight-hour shifts and one day off a week, which was not always possible. According to the archival studies of historians, the number of prisoners who were involved in the construction during the entire period could reach up to 100 thousand people, taking into account the rotation.
Signs of construction are still left until today. Camp towers peek out of the forest, the remains of bridges sag above the rivers. The camp sites are gradually collapsing, and the rails are being stolen by black metal hunters. A number of sites are recognized as monuments of cultural heritage, but it is problematic to get to them. The interest in the place is shown mainly by tourists and a small number of enthusiasts who try to preserve history.
March 5th of 1953 is when Stalin died. By that time about 800 kilometers of the planned 1,500 kilometers had been built and operated. Soon after the death of its chief ideologist, the road itself fell asleep. The project was declared inexpedient and put on care and maintenance. The prisoners were transferred to other construction sites; some of them were granted amnesty. The movable property was taken away. Everything that was not to be taken away was simply abandoned.

For two and a half years I was working on the project. I twice went on expeditions to the construction sites. On one trip our rented UAZ Bukhanka [the title of Russian car – ed.] skidded on icy roads, we flew into the oncoming lane and overturned. Miraculously, everybody remained unharmed and no one was killed. In addition to field shooting I also worked with archival materials.

In the State Archive of the Russian Federation I found photo albums of the construction: the local bosses sent them to Moscow as progress illustration, and in the fonds of the Krasnoyarsk branch of 'Memorial' [recognized in Russia as a foreign agent – ed.] and in the Museum of Eternal Permafrost in Igarka a number of archival texts and photo evidence of witnesses were found.
More than a half century later, the repressive policy of the state and the terror against its own citizens have never received a proper legal assessment. Society has not learned the grim lessons of history, and their ghosts are becoming more and more apparent in the present.
At one moment I realized how the story becomes harmonic over time. And this consonance is so loud that it becomes uncomfortable. I think about the unfulfilled dreams and unresolved traumas of the Soviet past. The power in the Soviet Union was based on a beautiful myth of a bright future, the road to which was paved with the fates of many people and turned out to be a disaster.
What is also interesting to me in the process is the transition from the personal to the political. The original idea to visit my childhood town and the abandoned railroad led me to immerse myself in Soviet history and its darker pages, about which I knew almost nothing before. This ‘dispelling’ of gloom became one of the visual techniques I use in my work.
Denis Zeziukin