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Kengir Gulag Uprising

What is the Kengir Gulag Uprising?

Kengir is a village in Kazakhstan’s central region. A prison labor camp of the Steplag division of the Gulag in Kazakhstan was established adjacent to it during the Soviet era. The camp, which was located near the central-Kazakhstan city of Dzhezkazgan, near the Kara-Kengir River, held approximately 5,200 prisoners. But did you know that this village had experienced a prisoner uprising?

The Kengir Gulag Uprising was a revolt where inmates took control of the camp. The 40 days of freedom saw the creation of plays, an ex-noble arranging a café, clergymen organizing marriages, engineers making improvised radios, and a hydroelectric power station due to the significant number of educated inmates.

The Kengir Gulag Uprising

The Kengir uprising occurred between May and June 1954 in Kengir or Steplag, a Soviet labor camp for political prisoners.

Following the assassination of some of their fellow inmates by guards, the Kengir inmates rose and took control of the entire camp compound, retaining it for weeks and establishing a period of freedom for themselves unlike any other in the Gulag’s history. The convicts compelled the guards and camp administration to abandon the camp, essentially quarantining it from the outside, thanks to a unique cooperation between criminals and political prisoners. The inmates devised elaborate defenses to keep the authorities from invading their newly acquired land. This scenario lasted an unusually long time and resulted in unique activities like forming a provisional government by the inmates, prisoner marriages, religious ceremonies, and a propaganda campaign against the former rulers.

After 40 days of freedom within the camp walls, occasional dialogue, and mutual preparation for brutal war, the rebellion was defeated by Soviet military forces with tanks and weapons on the morning of June 26th. (Source: Alexander Yakovlev)

What Happened After the Uprising?

According to a number of camp survivors, five to seven hundred prisoners were killed and injured during the rebellion. Six of the highest-ranking prisoners were later executed, However, notes discovered in Soviet archives claim that only 37 people were killed, not including those who later died of their wounds or were executed, and that 106 prisoners and 40 soldiers were injured.

On the other hand, Kuznetsov had his death commuted to 25 years in prison and was released and fully rehabilitated after only in prison. Theories abound as to why, but most attribute it to his detailed 43-page confession, in which he denounced scores of fellow inmates. Although some question its integrity, this confession proved to be an invaluable source for many of the studies conducted on the Kengir rebellion.

In keeping with the prevailing theme of their story, the camp administration is said to have planted weapons on the corpses of those who didn’t already have them for the sake of the photographers, who were brought in specifically for this purpose.

Almost a thousand prisoners were shipped away to different camps the day after the raid. The remaining prisoners were tasked with rebuilding the destroyed wall, sealing themselves back into prison. (Source: Alexander Yakovlev)

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