The Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Tourism Development of Russia’s Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, has put forward a proposal to create “tourist camps” on the sites of former gulags in a remote region of eastern Siberia.
During the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of prisoners worked at forced labor camps in the Tomponsky district, building the M56 Kolyma Highway, often called the “Road of Bones,” as many workers died during construction and were interred in the roadway.
“Today the gulag has every chance of attracting tourists. This project will preserve the historical heritage not only of the region, but of the country as a whole,” Minister for Entrepreneurship and Tourism Development Yekaterina Kormilitsyna said.
The proposal was made at a meeting of regional and local officials during a festival called “travels to the pole of cold” in reference to the village of Oymyakon, near the M56, generally considered among the coldest inhabited places on Earth.
Officials agreed to cooperate in establishing tourist camps on the site of two labor camps, the M56 construction camp and another where the yellow mineral orpiment was mined.
However, the human rights group Memorial, which works to preserve records of political repression including the gulag labor camp system, has questioned the tourist camp proposal.
Memorial activist Yan Rachinsky said that projects to open up labor camps for commercial, rather than educational, purposes tend to create a “pseudo-historical fiction” and a “false sense of what happened.”
Tens of thousands of people died in labor camps in Yakutia, many of them from the cold, he said.
Located partially above the Arctic Circle, Yakutia is known for its severe climate and is covered with forests and barren tundra.
“It’s not right. It’s the same as a German concentration camp becoming a calling card for Germany,” Rachinsky said.
Bolot Bochkaryov, who helps organize expeditions to Yakutia and runs the blog AskYakutia.com, said adventure travelers who braved the rugged highway were often interested in the history of the camps.