Project 501

Photo by Amos Chapple

Photo by Amos Chapple

No matter how bad I think the Soviet Union was, it always turns out to have been worse:

These haunting photographs reveal the rotting carcasses of Soviet gulags and a partially built railway where up to 300,000 prisoners died, with their remains still buried in the soil.

The horrific camps were strewn across the Siberian wilderness, just below and above the Arctic Circle, and the prisoners in them were forced to work on a train line dreamt up by Joseph Stalin – the Salekhard-Igarka Railway. His aides knew it was a pointless scheme mapped out in terrain that was impossible to work with, but dared not tell him.

More background on Project 501, aka Death Road:

Stalin conceived of an 806-mile-long rail line to run between the Siberian cities Igarka and Salekhard. Between the years 1947 to 1953, political prisoners were tasked with turning two separate projects into one massive bad idea. Working from the banks on the River Ob prisoners constructing the 501 Railroad’s struggled to unite their project with that of a separate team of prisoners who were actively dying as they laid ties and rails on their 503 Railroad. On either side of the tracks, wooden barracks (also built by the very prisoners they once housed) can still be seen crumbling into the low brush of the tundra. As the years wore on, progress was made with ever increased sluggishness. Supervisors also started to realize that demand waiting on the other side for the completed railroad verged on nonexistent.

When word reached the camps of Stalin’s death in 1953, all work on the tyrant’s insane pet project was put to an end, leaving the railway a simple straight line through the sparsely populated Arctic.

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