June 26 – 70 years since the brutal suppression of the Kengir uprising

26 June 2024

The history of this heroic resistance begins on May 15, 1954. On this day, near the village of Kengir in Kazakhstan, a column of male prisoners crossed paths with a column of female prisoners. The men greeted: “Christ is Risen!” and the women answered: “Truly He is Risen!” After that, one of the guards opened fire with a machine gun.

13 people died on the spot, 33 were injured, and 5 died in the hospital. This brutal incident became the impetus for the Kengir Uprising, one of the largest in the history of the Gulag. More than 6,000 prisoners took part in it.

For 42 days — from May 16 to June 26, 1954 — the protesters kept the camp under their control. They put forward demands to the Soviet authorities, in particular regarding the abolition of the penal regime of detention in the camps, and later achieved the arrival of a commission from Moscow. The rebels maintained discipline, provided security, and even organised cultural events. They tried to promote their demands outside the camp as well, launching kites with leaflets explaining the reasons for the action of defiance.

On the morning of June 26, the Ministry of Internal Affairs commission radioed the rebels with a demand to surrender, announcing the introduction of troops. After that, 1,600 soldiers, 3 fire engines, and 5 tanks moved into the zone. It was the only suppression of camp uprisings with tanks in Soviet history.

The prisoners organized self-defence and barricaded themselves in 6 barracks. An eyewitness to the events, the Hungarian doctor Varkony recalls: “Seeing the tanks, the prisoners of the women’s camp, in order to save their friends, went out to meet the enemy. Almost all of them were dressed in embroidered shirts. About 200 Ukrainian women joined hands and marched against the tanks. But the tanks did not stop and one by one overcame the living phalanx. And the militia rushed to the barracks, shooting everyone they encountered…”

During the suppression of the uprising, about 700 prisoners were killed and wounded. According to Maria Haliatovska, a participant in the uprising, the killed were buried in the steppe: “Then those who could still walk were driven out of the zone into the steppe. Those who were killed on a dump truck – they dug a hole, they all left and wrapped them up.”

Thus, at the cost of spilt human blood, the first brick in the indestructible totalitarian wall was shaken. The misanthropic regime was forced to make concessions: in 1960, the Gulag system was disbanded, and the huge network of concentration camps was significantly reduced. It was the Kengir uprising that started the collapse of the Soviet Union. So today, we honour the memory of the brave people who died innocently, and who were not afraid to challenge the terrible system.