Horrors of Gulag still palpable, says photographer Pavel Blažek

Photo: Pavel Blažek

Pavel Blažek spent three weeks in September taking panoramic photographs of long abandoned Soviet labour camps in Siberia for the project Gulag.cz. His work now forms a unique “virtual museum” via which people around the world can view places where thousands of prisoners lost their lives on a never completed railway line. When he came into our studio, Blažek described the intense experiences he and his group had along the way. But he first described their journey to the Arctic Circle.

Photo: Pavel Blažek
“We flew to Krasnoyarsk and from there took a boat to a little settlement called Turukhansk – it’s just about 8,000 people.

“To get there it’s almost four days. It’s 1,400 kilometres on the Yenisei river, way up north. So you’re really up there, in Siberia.

“From there we rented a helicopter which took us another 200 kilometres deep into the taiga to a place which is called Yanov Stan. It used to be a big settlement – now there are just two people living there.

“From there we basically explored the surrounding area and were looking for Gulags.”

Did you have to get permission from the Russian authorities to go there?

“No, we didn’t. The reason is that there is no closed off or military area. We basically were kind of like tourists.

“We were not the only ones. It’s not that far. We know about a few other groups, from Switzerland and Germany, who visited that place. So you don’t need any special permission to go to these places.”

When you travel somewhere like that – and you were also telling me you crossed Lake Baikal – how is it being so far away from civilisation and being very much “offline”?

“Yes, that’s something you really, really look up to. It’s so much different compared to being here, where you are constantly bombarded by phone calls or emails.

“Actually at one point on this trip we were totally without any help. The motor on our boat just blew up and for five days we were basically at the mercy of the river.

Pavel Blažek,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It was such a strong, strong feeling that you will never forget in your life. It, like, marks you and is something to remember.

“I’m quite busy in my professional life and these five days – which I would consider really wasted here, because you have so much to do – I really look back at. I really did enjoy it. It was something. Really.”

Were there any dangers to you?

“Well, there’s always some danger. Just imagine how far it is to any civilisation. We didn’t even carry a satellite phone, because that requires some kind of permission and we didn’t want to attract any attention to our trip.

“We had a special beacon. It’s called a PLB: Personal Locator Beacon. When you activate it hell comes down upon your head. It calls over satellite…The army would come, and of course we didn’t want to use that.

“You have to be really careful. But I have to say, we were a group of four and I would go anywhere with these guys. They are highly experienced.

“We really watched our backs and took all kinds of precautions. Because there are a lot of bears. You don’t want to cut yourself or break your arm or leg. You just have to be careful and just eliminate any dangers.”

When you got to the former Gulag camps, what state were they in? What did you find there?

“It depends. We used Bing and Google satellite imagery before we went and we found a few camps which we thought might be really well preserved, especially one which was called Klyuch. You can find this info on maps, on topo maps.

“This camp we had to walk to, another 30 kilometres, through the taiga, which is really hard. The guys kept reminding me that I said it was harder than crossing Lake Baikal.

Photo: Pavel Blažek
“I really meant it, because the taiga basically just eats you. The mosquitoes, the water, the rivers. It’s cold. It’s raining all the time. So it’s tough. It’s really tough.

“Anyway, when we got to this place I mentioned at the beginning, Yanov Stan, we walked another 30 kilometres into the taiga.

“We had to carry all our stuff in our backpacks. We each carried about 30 kilogrammes, which is quite a lot.

“It took us a few days. To walk through the taiga you have to really hack your way through with machetes. It’s so overgrown. You don’t see two metres through it.

“So we got to this camp after two and a half days walking and we find out that it burned down just three weeks before us. We were really disappointed.

“From the remains of it, which were lying on the ground, you could see that it had been well preserved. You could see the doors, the windows.

“We were really sad and just documented it as much as we could. We drew blueprints so we could figure out how they built it, if there was a certain way, and the placement of each building.

“So we got back to Yanov Stan, got on the river, took a boat on the Turukhan which flows into the Yenisei, and got back to Turukhan the city, the settlement.

“We then managed to get to a place that was another 170 kilometres north named Yermakovo. From there we walked another six kilometers back into the taiga to a place called Barabanikha, which used to be a huge, huge prison camp.

“There we found a ghost town. It was just like frozen in time. You would just not believe how preserved it was.

Photo: Pavel Blažek
“We found all kinds of objects, things which the prisoners used. You could see the paintings on the walls, windows, beds; it was really well preserved.”

When one thinks about the Gulag, one thinks of the absolute horror of life in the Gulag. It was in the Arctic Circle, life was hell, people died at a terrible rate. Did you get any sense of that horror from being there?

“Of course, yes. I was basically invited on this expedition as a photographer, for what I know.

“But I kind of knew this might come – that somehow it might touch me. But I was, like, well, I’ll just do my job. I’ll take as many photographs as I can and I’ll just do it in a professional way. But it gets you.

“Some of the panoramic pictures we were taking too quite a long time, maybe three-quarters of an hour or an hour, because of the darkness inside the buildings – like in the solitary confinement buildings.

“If you stay for five hours straight in a solitary confinement building, you know this is a place where people suffered greatly. There’s no way you can come back not being touched

“I didn’t know anything about this subject. I look after my business, I’ve done my expeditions, I take care of my company.

“But now I’m 100 percent devoted to this subject. I did the design of the website, www.gulag.cz. I programme it.

“And together with Štěpán Černoušek, who was the organiser of the trip, we plan a lot of stuff in the future, basically to give other people a chance to know that there was such a dark history.”

Also those people really did suffer and die for no reason, because they were building a railway line that was never even completed [the Salekhard-Igarka line, abandoned in 1953].

Photo: Pavel Blažek
“Actually because of his work [recording testimonies for the group Post Bellum], Štěpán met a few people who went through the Gulags.

“He met two who had actually worked on this ‘dead road’, which was never finished. And besides the suffering, the many, many years they had to spend in places like that – because the sentences were for eight, 10, maybe 15 years – they were really disappointed that it never got finished. It never even got finished.”

I know that taking panoramic photographs is quite complicated and takes a lot of computer power. What were the logistical challenges?

“Yes. We spent some money on good quality equipment. We had a professional digital camera which takes high resolution photographs.

“Then you have to buy this pano head, which costs 1,000 dollars, but it was really worth it.

“Of course, we had solar panels to recharge the batteries. And we brought a little computer, a MacBook Air, which is really, tiny, doesn’t weigh much and doesn’t use much power. And of course a lot of memory cards.

“You do need some kind of experience to be able to operate such fine equipment in such a harsh place.

“We basically camped out for a whole month. We cooked our food on a fire and the only way to get around was on the river, on a boat. So you really have to take care of it.

“It’s complicated but if you know what you’re doing… You just kind of have to watch yourself and not make any mistakes.

“In my case I needed 95 pictures per one panorama. And you cannot miss one. Because if you do, you’re not going to be able to put the whole thing together.

“So there were times where the other guys were talking but I just wasn’t listening at all. I was just counting my pictures. Every time, every panorama I was reviewing the pictures and counting again if I got them all.

“Because I knew it’s very possible I’ll never have a chance to come back and shoot again. So I really felt that responsibility.

Photo: Pavel Blažek
“And we were so organised that I didn’t have to care about anything else, just the pictures. I didn’t have to take care of the food, I didn’t have to take care of the fire or tent or anything.

“I just minded my pictures, which, as I said, helped a lot.”

Pavel Blažek’s panoramic photographs from the Gulag can be viewed at www.gulag.cz