SPB to Tver to Dubna to Moscow

The country side from SPB though Tver to Moscow is flat, open, and uneventful…..

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…except for the ubiquitous coniferous forests….

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….and the frequent interruption of the dilapidated and unremarkable traditional Russian villages lining the road….

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…indeed the only thing which focuses the mind and keeps the monotony at bay is the godawful state of the main highway…..

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As is so often the case the history of the area is probably the most interesting part of the region these days.


Firstly you notice that every village, town, or city has it memorial to the defenders of the Great Patriotic War whether it be large and ornate…

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Or modest and simple…

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Because this flat open landscape on which surrounds greater Moscow was not only the scene of intense and brutal fighting between the invading German Wermacht and the Red Army defenders but the location of some of the greatest tank battles ever witnessed, each village has it’s own story to tell.


In addition to the memorials each town has a sculpture or manufacture, surviving from Soviet times, which announces the township on the road and often denotes something the city is famous for or something in which it is involved.

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Here is one for the city of Dmitrov some 60km from downtown Moscow

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Recently Dmitrov was named a ‘City of Military Glory’ (the modern equivalent of ‘Hero City of the Soviet Union’) for the part the entire city played in repulsing the Germans assault on Moscow. The citizens and garrison of Dmitrov held the line in 1941 with some of the largest and most brutal tank battles ever.

Aiming somewhat ironically directly at the city cemetery

Aiming somewhat ironically directly at the city cemetery

In Western history it is often commented that the Russian winter defeated the German advances into the motherland…


Actually it was the millions of Red Army men and women, fighting in the harsh Russian winter which finally inflicted defeated upon the German war machine.


However there is another, less acknowledged bit of history regarding Dmitrov….that is Dmitlag.


With the perceived success of the White Sea Canal project in harnessing the labour of ‘state enemies’, Stalin sponsored the rapid expansion of the GULAG forced labour system.


Siblag (Siberia), Steplag (the Russian Steppe), Norillag (the Far North) any many others in other regions…including Dmitlag to service the region around Moscow. Stalin had decided that another canal project was to be undertaken…the Moscow-Volga Canal to aid transport links and channel water supplies to central Moscow.


The White Sea Canal required 47km of actual excavation to link the various existing lakes and waterways whereas the Moscow Canal would need 130km of excavation and construction, its entire length, thus there were 200,000 more GULAG labourers than on the earlier project.


No celebrations or grand titles for this part of Dmitrov history I should imagine.


And so behind this innocuous looking embankment of snow is another of Stalins crimes against humanity

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The Moscow-Volga Canal

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Indeed there were many canal projects in the West in the same epoch yet Russia would seem particularly ill suited to them one would think…the Moscow Canal is un-navigable for half the year due to ice. Yet Stalin seems to have had a mania for canal building, perhaps following (so he thought) in the footsteps of Peter the Great, the visionary behind the ‘Venice of the North’ St Petersburg.


The crossing point at Dubna… there is a ferry in the summer months and a pontoon bridge over the ice in winter

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And where the canal bisects a village… a simple footbridge over the ice is constructed every year

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Dubna was a pivotal town in the Dmitlag camp system where the labour camps were constructed and dismantled in a leap-frogging fashion to follow the progress of the canal work. These camps (called lagpunkts) consisted of wooden barracks, watchtowers and a fence and a few thousand slave labourers…so there is invariably no trace of them today


Ever metre of earth and rock excavated with wheelbarrow, pick, and shovel

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Yet the there was no need for the canal to look sparse or utilitarian. If the GULAG needed engineers, the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) simply arrested more engineers. If they needed architects, they simply arrested them. So if they wanted to beautify the canal and needed stonemasons, artists, and sculptors, well then, they simply arrested them too.

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remembering female aviators

remembering female aviators

children innocently playing a game of 'catch' across the canal

children innocently playing a game of 'catch' across the canal

How horrifically simple.


So as I drive the final kilometres to Moscow there is forest to my left and the canal parallel to the road on my right…. My eyes are distracted though, every time notice an empty uniform space in the forest, or a spot where the tree growth in obviously younger than the surrounding forest…..is that the remains of a Dmitlag langpunkt?…..or perhaps a mass grave of GULAG prisoners who didn’t survive a particularly harsh and deadly winter?….


Both exist here in the hinterlands of Moscow, in what was the administrative region of Dmitlag….forgotten, unrecorded, and ignored…


But here nonetheless.




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