Remembering the notorious ‘Uranium Gulag’

Joachimsthal mine

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Soviet Gulag was the brutal slave labor camps located in the mountains of Czechoslovakia following World War II, where prisoners were exploited in order to provide uranium for the Soviets’ nascent atomic warfare program.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – recognizing the advantage the US had with its possession of atomic weaponry – sent the Red Army to capture one of the few areas then known to possess material that could be used in the construction of atomic bombs.

The Ore Mountains, which then marked the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, first gained fame in the late 15th century as the site of a major silver discovery, with the Bohemian town of Joachimsthal taking on special significance as a source of the metal.

Also discovered around this time was pitchblende, a radioactive, uranium-rich ore, which early miners discarded as a waste byproduct.

Only at the beginning of the 20th century was it learned that pitchblende was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Within pitchblende, a variety of uraninite, Marie Curie discovered the element radium, and until the First World War Joachimsthal pitchblende was the only known source of radium in the world.

Also found within pitchblende is uranium. Like other elements, uranium occurs in slightly differing forms known as isotopes. The most common form of uranium is U-238, which makes up more than 99 percent of natural uranium found in the Earth’s crust.

However, another uranium isotope, U-235, while it is makes up less than 1 percent of the Earth’s uranium, is important because under certain conditions it can readily be split, yielding a tremendous amount of energy.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 derived its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium-235.

In late 1945 Stalin pressured the Czechoslovak government to sign a confidential treaty that would give Moscow the rights to material from mine, according to Tom Zoellner’s outstanding 2009 work “Uranium.”

Stalin ordered the mines, which had ceased production during the war, rushed back into operation. However, there was no local labor force to speak of, as residents of German descent who hadn’t left earlier to serve in the German war effort had been driven away at the conflict’s end.

Map showing location of Joachimstal mines, denoted by pin near center.

Map showing location of Joachimsthal mines, denoted by pin near center.

Initially, the Soviets assigned German prisoners of war to begin digging out pitchblende, but when this proved too slow they turned to even more nefarious methods and began conscripting ordinary Czechoslovakian citizens into dangerous mine work.

“The minister of justice, an ardent Communist, told his subordinates that ‘we must concentrate all our attention’ on the labor problem and round up able-bodied men wherever they could be found,” Zoellner wrote in his book.

A directive was issued that called for the Soviets to dragoon an additional 3,000 individuals through whatever means were necessary.

“Neighbors were encouraged to inform upon one another for petty crimes,” according to Zoellner. “The state security bureau, the SNB, was also given latitude to detain suspects on vague ideological grounds and bring them in front of special committees that, if there was no genuine crime, declared them guilty of such things as ‘believing in bourgeois ideas’ or being a ‘product of a capitalist milieu.’ … They were the first residents of what would become a giant uranium gulag.”

Conditions, as elsewhere in the Soviet Gulag, were deplorable.

Prisoners were made to stand attention for roll call three times a day, in every kind of weather, and those who stepped out of line was beaten over the head, usually with a giant ring of keys. The victims’ bloodied heads served as a lesson to others, Zoellner wrote.

“The daily ration of food was four slices of bread and a few mushy vegetables,” he added. “Three times a week came watery ‘soup,’ which was lukewarm water added to dried vegetables.”

Some sentenced to long terms of labor were labeled with the Czech acronym “Muklů, which translates to mean men designated for liquidation. Quite simply, they were not expected to survive the camps and the Communist regime that took over Czechoslovakia in 1948 counted on their deaths long before the end of their sentences, according to the website Czechposition.com.

By the autumn of 1953, more than 16,000 inmates were being forced to dig, crush and load uranium at Joachimsthal, with more than half having been impressed on political charges.

At least 500 individuals, and likely more, were killed in accidents, and many more injured as the Communists provided no training or little safety equipment, and thousands died later from lung diseases and cancers contracted while working the mines.

The need for prisoners at the mines in the Czechoslovakian mountains only began to abate with Stalin’s death and the discovery of uranium in the Urals and Kazakhstan, but inmates continued to work, suffer and die at Joachimsthal into the 1960s.

The uranium ore dug out of Joachimsthal enabled the Soviets to develop more than 100 nuclear warheads.

Today, the site is little more than a toxic waste dump, a testament to Soviet brutality, the excesses of the Cold War and a world which still has not come to grips with the awesome responsibility of nuclear weapons.

(Top: Mine car used to transport uranium ore from Joachimsthal mines during 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.)

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4 thoughts on “Remembering the notorious ‘Uranium Gulag’

    • Yes, it was awful what happened and symptomatic of the entire Soviet forced labor system. It would have been nice if authorities had pursued Soviet leaders and those beneath them who made this abuse possible with the same enthusiasm that they went after Nazis (not that they did a particularly thorough job, mind you), instead of basically sweeping the entire thing under the rug.

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