Stvor – Testimony to the Soviet Union’s forced labour system

The Stvor camp was part of the Soviet GULag system from the 1940s to 1972.

Europeana Foundation

Forced labour is an often marginalised aspect of labour history.

This blog looks at the Stvor (Створ) camp, which was part of the Soviet GULag system. The term GULag is an acronym for what is known as the Central Administration of Education and Labour Camps of the Soviet Union. In its colloquial use, ‘the Gulag’ is used for the overall system of repression in the era of Stalin’s rule.

Stvor was founded at the bank of the Chusovaya river (Чусовaя), following the decision by the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) from the 27 November 1942 to build a number of hydro-electric dams and small-scale power plants in the region. Stvor remained in operation until 1972, although the construction of the dam for which it was established was halted in 1944 and never finished.

The camp was situated far away from any settlements or infrastructure. The nearest city - Chusovoy (Чусовой) in the Cis-Ural region Perm (Пермь) - is  25 kilometres away. A railway station Vsesvjatskaja (Всесвятская), which served the camp during its operation, is 18 kilometres away. Stvor was part of an extensive network of smaller and bigger forced labour camps and prisons in the region.

Because of its remoteness, the inmates had to build the whole camp infrastructure from the ground up by themselves. Maintaining the camp was in itself an integral part of the forced labour system of Stvor. 

In the beginning, the prisoners – whose number quickly rose from around 1,300 in late 1942 to 6,700 people in 1943 – lived in tents, as the camp was supposed to only serve the temporary construction site. The prisoners had to fell and process trees, work the steep bank into terraces, build the camp infrastructures, and lay the groundwork of the dam.

When it became clear that the camp would be turned into a permanent forced labour camp, several wooden and brick buildings were set up. These buildings are the most visible remains that can be found today. 

Since the camp's closure in 1972, weather, vegetation, erosion and vandalism have changed the historical site. Scattered across the terrain are objects from different time periods of the camp: barbed wire, enamel cups, tools and even leather shoes. Nowadays, the former road between railway station and camp is only accessible for heavy all-terrain vehicles. Today, for most people, the former campsite can only be reached by travelling the Chusovaya river.

The history of the camp is tightly connected to the ideas in the Soviet Union to dominate nature and rapidly industrialise, after the civil war following the 1917 October Revolution. So-called ‘Great Construction Projects of Communism’ were launched in the 1930s and 1940s. They often relied on the use of forced labour and were therefore organised by the GULag. From 1917 until the death of Stalin in 1953, about 18 million people were detained. After 1953, the number of camps and prisoners decreased. Under the new leadership and the course of ‘de-Stalinization’, the GULag was officially dissolved and the repressive system changed its form.

As captured in the propaganda term ‘perekovka’ (перековка), hard labour was supposed to ‘re-forge’ the inmates into supporters of the Soviet system – creating the ‘New Soviet Person’. The Soviet theory of crime assumed that crime was rooted in social circumstances. By changing these circumstances and through working, people could accordingly be re-educated and transformed into the Soviet ideal. In criminological theory and everyday camp life, work and re-education were inseparably linked – yet with different inclinations for ‘criminal’ and ‘political’ prisoners. The Bolshevik idea of the fundamental changeability of nature, man and society was closely related to this.

During the 20th century, in many countries - and particularly in the USSR - large-scale hydro-technical constructions were important propaganda to show proposed accelerated industrialisation and all-encompassing transformation. An especially prestigious Soviet hydro-technical project of this era was the Volga-Kama cascade (Волжско-Камский каскад), the construction of various water reservoirs and power plants on the river courses of the Volga and its tributary river Kama. 

The first of the planned hydro-electric power plants was completed in 1937 near Ivankovo (Иваньково). To realise these projects, a camp complex with almost 200,000 camp prisoners and forced labourers was established. The ambitious goal of these undertakings was to transform the entire course of the Volga river into a cascade of power plants. Not all the hydro-technical construction projects of the 1930s and 40s, however, were of such gigantic dimensions. Various small-scale projects were planned in all regions of the Soviet Union.

colour photograph of a rusted metal sign

Since the Perm Region has a vast amount of water and rivers, three middle-sized hydro-electric dams and a number of smaller-sized dams were planned, with the respective establishment of a forced labour camp complex. The respective NKVD decision of 1942 also needs to be seen in the context of the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, the following evacuation of industries from the Western parts of the country and the related increase in energy demand in areas of the USSR that were less industrialized up to this point. The dam projects were named Ponyshstroy (Понышстрой), Vilukhstroy (Вилухстрой) and Shirokstroy (Широкстрой).

Stvor was established as part of the Ponyshlag camp complex (Понышлаг) for the Ponyshstroy project. Of the three launched building projects, only the Shirokovskaya dam (Широковская ГЭС) was completed and is still in use today.

The construction work at the Ponyshstroy was halted in 1944 to redirect the work and the materials to Shirokstroy. In 1948, the dam construction plans were finally abandoned. At the end of World War II, Stvor was temporarily used as a so-called ‘filtration camp’ for Red Army soldiers returning home from German prisoner of war-camps who were treated as alleged ‘traitors’ by Soviet authorities.

From 1948 until the closure in 1972, the official camp status changed several times, the number of prisoners decreased and the use of forced labour in the camp became more diversified. 

The prisoners had to build wooden furniture, harvest wood, do metal work and produce bricks. A workshop for disabled inmates was erected, as groups of ‘invalid’ prisoners were transferred to Stvor. Camp guards and staff lived with their families in a small settlement next to the campsite, which was also abandoned in the mid-1970s.

Over the following decades, nature reclaimed most of the site piece by piece. Dense vegetation and harsh climate conditions buried or erased many of the remaining traces of Stvor – yet nature also keeps bringing hidden remnants to light. 

Infrastructure materials and objects were carried away by the local population and people travelling the river during summer. The few visitors arriving at the site today may find it difficult to identify the remains as traces of a former labour camp.

In the 1990s, the human rights NGO Memorial began to work with the historic camp site. In order to visualise its history and to gain public attention for the in-today's- Russia marginalised topic of political repression, forced labour and state terror in Soviet history, they created a ‘Museum Without a Guide’ in the 2000s. 

Visitors – locals travelling the rivers or activists – are invited to participate in researching and shaping the places of memory of the Soviet repressive system along the rivers of the Perm Region. Memorial has named this activist form of remembrance ‘Along the rivers of memory’ (По рекам памяти). Self-made direction signs and information boards provide information on the site of Stvor.

EXPLORE MORE: Gallery with more images of Stvor

A deeper archaeological exploration and historiographical analysis of Stvor remains difficult due to the restricted accessibility of both the site itself and archival materials as well as lacking financial resources and government support. Hence the future of Stvor and its place in the national or regional culture of remembrance in post-Soviet Russia remains uncertain.

By: Larissa Borck, Melanie Hussinger, Hauke Jacobs, Julia Schulte-Werning, Johanna Werner, Gero Wollgarten
Photographs by: Benedikt Funke, Hauke Jacobs

The excursion to Stvor was part of the 2017 joint German-Russian summer school “Rekonstruktion eines Chronotops – Das ehemalige Straflager Stvor als Raum des sowjetischen Strafvollzugs” (“Reconstruction of a Chronotope – The Former Stvor Prison Camp as Space of the Soviet Penal System”). More information on the project available here.

Realised in co-operation with Memorial Perm and Tomsk State University, funded by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) GoEast Programme.

Feature image: The Museum without a guide at Stvor. Hauke Jacobs, CC BY-SA.

Soviet Union Russia social history forced labour Europeana