Alzhir Memorial Complex near Nur-Sultan

Alzhir is a colloquial name that comes from the abbreviation АЛЖИР, which stands for “Akmola camp for the wives of traitors to the Motherland” (in Russian). The camp, which was the largest women’s camp in the Soviet Union, operated between 1938 and 1953 and was a place of human tragedy during the period of Stalinist repression. It is estimated that more than 18,000 prisoners passed through the camp, some of whom died there. Today, the site of the camp hosts a museum and memorial to these victims of political repression and totalitarianism. It is located 40km west of Nur-Sultan.

History of the Alzhir camp

The Alzhir camp was built on the site of Special Settlement No. 26, which had been operating since 1931. Many families had been expelled to the Special Settlement from the Saratov region of Russia, Belarus, the Crimea, and other regions of the Soviet Union; however, the living conditions there were relatively bearable.

The history of the Alzhir camp itself started on 8 June 1934, when a decree (abbreviated as CHSIR) imposed a penalty, on family members of traitors to the motherland, of 5 years in prison or a deprivation of liberty for 5 to 10 years. On 15 August 1937, the order of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) No. 00486 was issued. This allowed alleged traitors to be sent to CHSIR camps without court hearings. Based on this, Alzhir (officially called the P-17 Forced Labor Camp), was opened in December 1937 on the site of Special Settlement No. 26.

The first group of women, accompanied by their children aged 1-3 years, arrived at Alzhir by train on 10 January 1938. Within 6 months, the camp (which occupied a territory of 30 hectares) was overcrowded. Eight thousand female prisoners (of which 4,500 were registered as family members of traitors to the Motherland) lived at Alzhir for the entire duration of their imprisonment. Thousands more passed through the camp and were then sent to serve time in other camps on the territory of Kazakhstan. Alzhir’s first prisoners faced very difficult conditions, as the camp was not equipped for winter. In addition, the camp was on a “special regime” – under which prisoners were prohibited from working in their professions and from contacting or corresponding with outside parties.