The Kengir Uprising: 70 years ago, tanks crushed a the Gulag prisoners´ rebellion

For forty days, the prisoners experienced euphoria, got rid of the guards, established their own prisoners' republic, connected the male and female zones, and experienced great love affairs for the first time in years. "Never before or since have I felt such a sense of freedom as I did then," one of them later recalled. And although the revolt foreshadowed the end of the Gulag system, the uprising itself was eventually brutally suppressed. Seventy years ago, on June 26, 1954, Soviet tanks entered the camp in Kengir and literally crushed the rebels, men and women alike, under their belts. According to survivors' testimonies, hundreds of prisoners were killed and the leaders of the rebellion executed. In the industrial zone of the city of Zhezkazgan in present-day Kazakhstan, a surprising number of remnants of the camp and the uprising itself have survived. They were recently mapped by our expedition team, which also captured a possible Czech trace in the legendary Kengir revolt.

"We ran between the barracks. Me, and another Lithuanian. We were running from a tank that was slowly moving behind us. Suddenly we heard a deafening bang - a shot. Something warm fell on me - blood. I looked back and there was still a headless man running behind me, " recalled years later one of the survivors, Sergei Dedyukin, about that fateful day.

Although it was neither the first nor the largest uprising in the history of the Gulag, the Kengir events of May and June 1954 have become one of the most intense and tragic in terms of the number of victims. The process of the Kengir Uprising and its aftermath became widely known thanks to the chapter The Forty Days of Kengir in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago. Later, especially in the 1990s, other memoirs were published in various sources, on the basis of which we reconstruct the whole event.

Steppe camp

The overwhelming majority of the participants in the uprising were political prisoners, including members of the Red Army who were taken prisoners by the Germans, as well as participants in the anti-Soviet resistance, such as the Forest Brothers - anti-communist partisans from the Baltic states active during and after World War II, and members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

For people of this type - from the Soviet point of view, extremely dangerous political prisoners - so-called "special camps" (osoblags) began to be established in 1948 within the Gulag system. One of these was the Steplag, or Steppe Camp, with its headquarters in the town of Zhezkazgan in the middle of the steppes of present-day Kazakhstan. Its third camp detachment was located in the settlement of Kengir (which is now a suburb of Zhezkazgan), and it was there that the uprising broke out. The regime in Steplag was much stricter than in the regular Gulag camps, with a ban on correspondence, greater isolation of prisoners, and more strenuous work. Prisoners also had only numbers on their backs instead of names.

Czech trace?

The investigative files of the Kengir Uprising show that as of 10 June 1954, a total of 20,698 people were imprisoned in the six camp wards of Steplag: 16,677 men and 4,021 women. In the third camp ward in Kengir, where the uprising itself took place, there were 5,617 prisoners, 3,203 men and 2,414 women, who were almost entirely involved in the revolt as well.

The composition of the prisoners was unusually varied. In total, 22 nationalities from the Soviet Union's regions were represented in Stěplag - Belarusians, Armenians, Moldovans, Kazakhs, Georgians, Tatars, Ingush or Turkmen. Other countries outside the Soviet Union were represented by 17 nationalities - Poles, English, Germans, Chinese or Americans. Most of the prisoners came from the Ukraine or the Baltic States. Russians were in the minority.

According to data from the Russian State Archive, the lists of prisoners in Kengir in early 1953 also show 31 people convicted of espionage for Czechoslovakia and 18 people with Czechoslovak nationality. Unfortunately, we do not yet know the specific names and fates of these people, so we cannot say with certainty that Czechs also rose up in Kengir. However, more and more archives have recently been opened in Kazakhstan, and we hope that in time we will be able to answer this question as well.

-The fate of some Czech prisoners in other Gulag camps in what is now Kazakhstan we managed to describe in more detail HERE.

Extremely short lifetime

Prisoners worked in slave-like conditions mainly in coal, copper and manganese mines, stone quarries, brickworks or in the construction of industrial, residential and agricultural buildings. Kengir was notorious among the prisoners as a place where appalling living conditions prevailed against the backdrop of a harsh climate. The lifespan of prisoners in the copper mines was extremely short. Newcomers often fell ill with various lung diseases within three to five months.

Vagharshak Batoyan, an Armenian who spent a total of 14 years in the camps, describes the 1952 Kengir camp, when he was arrested a second time, sentenced to 10 years, and transported to Kazakhstan: "The huge area of the camp was surrounded by massive stone walls about four meters high. Above them were several rows of barbed wire and towers from which the camp was constantly watched by armed guards. Walls of the same height divided the camp into four differently sized zones. In each were barracks, dug about a meter into the ground, with small barred windows under the roof. The floors were made of clay. Along the main axis of the zone were the mess hall, the baths, the infirmary and the office with the accounting department. "

The Death of Stalin - Hope for Freedom

But why did the uprising and its bloody suppression happen at the first place? After Stalin's death and Beria's execution in 1953, an amnesty for political prisoners or at least prison reform was eagerly awaited. Beria's fall changed a lot. A paranoid fear of losing privileged positions began to spread through the highest levels of Soviet structures.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn describes the atmosphere of uncertainty and questioning of previously unshakable truths and authorities that began to spread through the Gulag. "The guards did not know what was required of them. To make a mistake could have had fatal consequences. If they had shown too much zeal and started shooting prisoners, they could have ended up like Beria's henchmen. If they had not been active enough and forced the strikers to work, they could have met the same fate. " Everyone, guards and prisoners alike, clearly felt the crisis, which deepened the more it became apparent that the camp leadership was losing control in response to the riots, hunger strikes and prisoner protests. They desperately tried to maintain their dominant position by punishing prisoners in an exemplary manner.

The wall as a symbol of oppression

Already in 1953 and early 1954 there were several violent incidents in Steplag when the guards shot at prisoners. However, the immediate impetus for the uprising was an incident in which a guard killed 13 prisoners and seriously wounded more than 30 by machine gun fire. The riot occurred the very next day.

The individual accounts of witnesses often differ, but the basic course of events remains the same: on 16 May 1954, on a Sunday when the prisoners were not working but staying in the camp, the criminal prisoners decided to break into the food stores in the farm sector and from there into the women's zone. A group of criminals had been transferred among the political prisoners by the camp authorities not long before the events, thinking that this would reduce the growing discontent in the camp. Political prisoner Nikolai Kekushev recalls how things looked in the men's section at the time: "The criminals calmly and without shouting passed through our zone, broke down the gate of the farmyard to the surprise of all of us, and just as calmly began to break down the wall into the women's zone. " The political prisoners followed them so that they could protect the women from the criminals in case of trouble. But no violence occurred. "The criminal prisoners were quite scared, they wouldn't dare to do anything wrong, they behaved in such a way that we didn't even realize that they were criminals, " Ljubov Beršedská recalls the very beginning of the uprising.

Panoramic photograph of the contemporary state of the wall separating the women's zone. It has survived almost the entire original length of 300 metres (Photo:

"We noticed men jumping over the wall. Some had ropes, others had was a continuous stream. There were one hundred and seventy in all, one hundred were political and seventy were criminal. Women started running out of the barracks. The fact that men appeared in the women's section surprised them. " The hole in the wall between the camps gradually widened and hundreds of men streamed through it into the women's zone. Although the prisoners managed to connect the different parts of the camp for a few hours, the guards quickly restored order. At one point, the guards began firing from the guard towers. Thirteen people died on the spot, five from their wounds later, and dozens were injured. For a while, there was calmness.

On Monday, May 17, the prisoners left the camp to go to work. In the meantime, guards repaired the wall and declared firing areas between the camp zones because of alleged robberies and rapes. This angered the prisoners because it was not true. So in the evening another wave of men rolled over the repaired wall, this time about 400 of them.

The day after, on 18 May, more than 3,000 people refused to go to work and the prisoners took control of the zone. The guards had to flee and hide in the administrative buildings. The insurgents again tore down the wall, which had already been repaired once, and freed 252 prisoners held in the prison and in solitary confinement. The spark of rebellion spread rapidly and soon engulfed the entire camp.

Love breaking the walls

At this point, Yuri Grunin, who was captured by the Germans during the war and sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag as a "traitor" to his country, entered the women's zone. He published his recollections of the Kengir uprising in his 1999 book Spina Zemlyi. In Kengir he met Hanna Ramska, a 25-year-old from Western Ukraine, with whom he just exchanged letters until the beginning of the uprising. "On the other side of the wall, women stood looking at the men who came to them. In one of them, I recognised her - from the pencil portrait she had sent me a year earlier. " Like many others, Yuri and Hanna were finally able to be together.

Although men and women had been separated by walls and barbed wire in Kengir up to this point, they found ways to get acquainted. They threw notes over fences, hid letters in secret hiding places, or used the services of sympathizing guards. After the wall between the zones was torn down, the prisoners could express their amorous feelings. Many marriages were sealed, as clergymen of various churches served their sentences in the camp. The love stories that the revolt gave rise to are touching and romantic, but many of them did not have a happy ending.

The rebels were able to orient themselves and organize quickly. The work brigades turned into units overnight. For the sake of communication with the camp authorities, a self-governing prisoners' republic was established as early as May 19, and a commission was elected to negotiate with the camp administration. It consisted of six people - two from each camp section, i.e. four men and two women. Kapiton Kuznetsov eventually became its chairman. His first decision was to replace the anti-Soviet slogans with Communist ones. He believed that the revolt would only be successful if its ideological direction was framed by the need to respect the rights of prisoners, not by opposing the Soviet government. By formally adhering to the Soviet spirit and its slogans such as "Long live the Soviet Constitution " the prisoners hoped for the success of their actions.

What do slaves demand?

An important strategic moment of the uprising was the presentation of demands. The rebels did not act as enemies of the Soviet government, but as opponents of injustice and violation of the laws in force at the time. In addition to having their cases re-examined, they demanded, for example, an eight-hour work day, the lifting of the limit on the number of letters they could receive or send from the camp, the punishment of the guards responsible for shooting prisoners and the removal of the most hated ones from Kengir, and the abolition of the need to wear humiliating embroideries with numbers on their clothes. None of these demands were unconstitutional. On the contrary, everything they requested was reflected in the original regulations and rules. All they asked was that their rights be respected. And in order to gain time for negotiations, they stressed the need for the arrival of an authorized commission with the participation of representatives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And they waited for forty days.

During these days, life in the camp changed radically. There were many talented people in the camp - writers, engineers, military experts. And their talents had to be used. It was again Kuznetsov who was behind the creation of various specialized departments: economy, security, food or agitation and propaganda.

When the prisoners took full control of the camp, the military and technical departments began to produce weapons - knives, sabres, as well as grenades and pistols. Cultural life could also flourish within the camp walls - in addition to concerts, plays were staged and a photo studio operated, a wall newspaper was published and a camp radio was broadcast. This was also important for establishing contact with the outside world. The Soviet media remained silent about the rebellion on a national level, but the settlements near the camp were bombarded with fake news claiming rape and murder in Kengir. Under the direction of the propaganda department, the prisoners quickly responded to the lies: using shortwave radio as well as releasing kites and balloons with leaflets, they tried to give information about the ongoing events, explain their position and win over the people living in the immediate vicinity of the camp to their side.

Waking up to the fateful morning

On June 25, the prisoners were notified that their demands would be met. It seemed that they had won, and the euphoria of victory at hand caused them to let their guard down. Nor did they pay enough attention to the noise that had been coming to the camp for several days. The sound of the tractors actually masked the movement of the tanks.

At 3.30 a.m. on June 26, flares lit up the dawn sky. The Kengir uprising was about to be suppressed. Snipers had eliminated the patrols on the roofs of the barracks before they could sound the alarm. Five tanks breached the first fence. Behind them, five fire trucks drove into the camp and 1,700 soldiers in combat gear with 98 dogs entered. Chaos ensued.

Norma Shikman recalls how the tanks surprised them in the early dawn. "I ran out of the house and suddenly I see a tank entering the gate! We were standing by the wall and the tank came awfully close to us. I understood that the situation was very bad. "

When the war started in the Gulag

Ljubov Bershadskaya, a member of the Commission, watched in disbelief what was happening around her. "As the prisoners, completely confused and frightened, ran around the camp, the gate opened and four tanks appeared, driving straight into the people. "

Anna Grichanik-Vitt describes the moment when the tanks drove into the people. "A tank approached the barracks and started firing blanks. Everyone was standing along the walls... I've never seen anything so terrible... the tank was coming straight at us! My husband immediately understood that they could kill us, threw me aside and shouted to the others to run away. But it was too late. Mariya Montyka and Zenka from my husband's brigade fell under the tank's belt. They were both finishing their sentences, they wanted to start a family together, they loved each other... then they were buried in the same grave."

"The tank was heading straight at us, driving slowly but not stopping. Alla and I were in the front. Everyone was backing up and trying to hide in the barracks. But the tank started to push the women. It crashed into them and pushed them away. It's hard to describe what happens when a tank bites into a mass of people. It was a nightmare, " recalls Guri Cherepanov, who like many others during the uprising was experiencing a warm new relationship. *"Alla was lost to me in the crowd. I jumped on the tank and heard her voice. She was calling me. The tank drove on, and the ground behind it remained littered with people. The Soviet tank triumphantly left behind crushed bodies and mutilated women and men. I was looking for Alla, but it was not quite dawn yet, it was dark. Finally, I saw her sitting by the barrack. She was reaching out her arms to me. She was covered in blood, her flesh was torn from her back, she couldn't stand up. We carried her to the barrack. She was moaning and begging me to help her survive. One of her legs was completely torn out of her pelvis and was only holding onto skin. I froze in terror. I just prayed to God that I wouldn't pass out from the horror myself. When I pulled my hand out from under her, it was covered up to the elbow with small pieces of flesh - human flesh, the flesh of a young woman, the flesh of my beloved, innocent victim of Soviet injustice. I wiped my hand with a handkerchief. I still have it with me, parts of Alla still remain on it to this day. And the war went on. The soldiers attacked our barrack. I knew it was over. We put Alla on a stretcher. She put her cold arms around me and we kissed one last time. I walked over to her bed, where she used to live, sat down and cried out loud. I cried with terror and helplessness."

Bershadskaya stared in shock at the picture of destruction: "The whole camp had turned into ruins, and dead and wounded were lying everywhere. Tanks were crushing the living. Within seconds I could see the brains and entrails of my friends on the walls of the barracks. Friends with whom I had shared my grief for so many years... " As the tanks swept through the camp and the soldiers withdrew, medics were allowed into the zone. But often there was no one left to rescue.

"From all sides, prisoners began bringing in wounded, moaning and screaming fellow prisoners in blankets and in their arms, " Bershadskaya describes how she immediately began assisting the camp doctor in a futile effort to save as many people as possible. "Mostly they were dying right on the table, looking at us and saying, "Write to mother, husband, children... " In the end, even the experienced surgeon could not withstand the enormous mental and physical strain, and after thirteen hours he lost consciousness, and the operations ended.

After the attack

Correspondence between Sergei Yegorov, the head of the Main Directorate of Correctional Labour Camps and Colonies of theMinistry of the Internal Affairs of the USSR and the main architect of the suppression of the uprising, and the Minister of the Internal Affairs, Sergei Kruglov, shows that the prisoners actively defended themselves against the odds. "They used homemade grenades, pistols, spades, iron bars and stones... " But they had no chance against the professionally armed soldiers. They fired against the prisoners from tanks, although apparently only with blanks, fired rockets into the crowd, and shot with rifles and pistols.

The whole intervention lasted about an hour and a half. It left hundreds dead and wounded. According to historian Turganbek Alaniyazov, the exact number of casualties is unknown, with estimates ranging from 60 to 300. Daylight revealed the extent of the destruction. Hanna Boretska describes the horrific moments after the uprising: *"The zone was covered in blood. Soldiers loaded the mutilated bodies of the rebels onto trucks. We survivors were lined up and taken to the steppe." *Ilko Tafiychuk recalls that the dead were then taken out of the zone and buried in the steppe: *"The ground was soaked with blood. When the dust settled, trucks entered the zone. In the steppe, excavators dug mass graves. I saw not only the dead, but also the wounded, the mutilated, being placed on the trucks. They were still alive when they buried them with the dead." *

The prisoners who were not taken back to the camp remained in the hot steppe for several days. Grunin recalls how they found themselves back in the camp, where there was no trace of the uprising. "On the evening of the third day we were brought to the camp. All the walls were rebuilt, plastered and whitewashed. The trenches had been filled in, everything was cleaned up. Welcome, gentlemen! Quietly and peacefully we dispersed to our barracks and waited to be called to dinner - after all, we had to go to work at dawn the next day!"

The uprising that brought an end to the Gulag

A total of 436 rebel prisoners were arrested. Thirty-six of them - camp guards, resistance leaders and all active participants in the revolt - were brought to trial, six members of the prison commission were sentenced to death, and three were executed. The others - all the members of the camp's internal security service and those involved in guarding the camp - ended up in prison. One thousand people from those who had actively supported the rebels were transported to the other end of the giant Soviet empire and dispersed to other "special" camps, Berlag in the far eastern Kolyma and Ozerlag on the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline.

The events in Kengir became one of the most striking manifestations of the Gulag crisis. The uprising, though bloodily suppressed, eventually brought about major changes in the criminal justice system. A complete reorganisation of the system was carried out: within a few years, two-thirds of the prisoners were released. The Gulag was renamed and reorganised in 1960, and the huge network of camps was considerably reduced. More than 30 years still remained before the final collapse of the Soviet Union. But perhaps one of the first steps on that path was taken by the prisoners of Kengir.

Memory of Kengir

It has been 70 years since the suppression of the uprising in Kengir on June 26. However, there are still quite a lot of preserved remnants of the camp on the site of the former camp - the third camp detachment of Steplag. Thus, among the industrial buildings from a later period on the southeastern edge of Zhezkazgan, we find the remains of barracks, including the canteen and the camp club, the perimeter walls of the prison barracks, one surviving women's barrack, three camp headquarters buildings, and over three hundred metres of wall separating the originally industrial women's zone, the breaking of which actually started the whole uprising. The tragic events are now commemorated on the site by several new information boards around the former camp club, but most of the huge camp area is mostly covered with buildings and difficult to access. However, thanks to the help of local historian Turganbek Alanijazov, the team has managed to document many of these remnants.

Text: Judith Krulišová
Picture and photo credit: Štěpán Černoušek
June 2024

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