With Russia’s ‘Road of Bones’, remnants of sorrow and despair

The Kolima Highway in the Russian Far East once transported thousands of prisoners to Stalin’s Gulag work camps. The ruins of that cruel era still appear today.


By photo and video

Prisoners hacked their way through insect-infected summer swamps and winter snow fields, bringing the road, and the road brought still more prisoners, a laborer of slave mines to the gold mines and Colima’s prison camps The most hardcore and deadly outpost of Stalin’s Gulag.

Their route is known as the “road of bones”, a track of gravel, mud and, for most of the year, snow that is 1,260 miles west of the Russian port city of Magadan on the Pacific Ocean inland from the capital of Yakutsk. Has spread. Yakutia region in eastern Siberia. Walking through the jungles of the Russian Far East, it slips through a vista of hardy, breathtaking beauty dotted with frozen, unmarked tombs and a rapidly fading trail of labor camps.

When a photographer, Emil Duck, and I dodged last winter on what is now the R504 Colama Highway, an improved version of the prisoner-built street. But some long-distance trucks and cars still trample through the barren landscape, oblivious to the remnants of past sorrows buried in snow – rusted barbed wire-hung wooden posts, mine splashes and former isolation Broken bricks of cells.

More than one million prisoners traveled on the road, both common criminals and those convicted of political crimes. He included some of Russia’s best minds – such as Stalin’s great terror victim. Sergey KovaliavA rocket scientist who survived the ordeal and helped bring the first man into space in 1961. or Varlam Shamlov, A poet who, 15 years later in the camps at Colima, concluded, “There are dogs and bears who behave more wisely and morally than humans.” His experiences are recorded in his book “Colima Tales,” Convinced him that “a man becomes an animal in three weeks, he is given heavy labor, cold, hunger and palpitations.”

But for many Russians, including some former prisoners, the horrors of Stalin’s Gulag are fading, the juicy mist of young memories and the status of Russia as a feared superpower before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Antonina Novosad, a 93-year-old who was arrested as a teenager in western Ukraine and sentenced to 10 years in Colima on trumped-up political charges in a tin mine near the “road of bones” Was located She vividly remembers how a fellow prisoner was shot and killed by a guard for wandering beyond the bar wire to pick berries. The prisoners buried him, Ms. Novosad said, but the corpse was then pulled by a bear. “It was how we worked, how we won. God forbid. A camp is a camp. “

Yet she tolerates Stalin without being ill, and also recalls how they cried when the prisoners gathered outside to listen to a special proclamation in March 1953, realizing that the tyrant was dead. “Stalin was God,” he said. “How to say? It was not Stalin’s fault. It was the party and all those people. Stalin just signed.”

Historian Rostislav Kuntsevich, who exhibited an exhibition on the camps at Magadan’s Regional Museum, said that a major factor hindering the preservation of more than memory snatching is the frequent disappearance of physical evidence of the Koilama camps. “Nature is doing its work, and soon nothing will be left,” he said.

When snow melts or mining work disturbs the frozen earth, the burial past sometimes rises to the surface along the road.

Vladimir Naiman, the owner of a gold mine off the Colima highway, whose father, an ethnic German and Nana, a Ukrainian, came to the area as prisoners, working in a messy coffin and a group of bones during a bag Time stumbled. Geologist in Yagodnoy District in the 1970s. Trying to reach the road-strapped gold, he hit the cemetery for the prisoners with his bulldozer and was trapped in the wire for five days.

He later placed eight wooden crosses on the site “in memory of those who made the sacrifice”. But as a firm believer that Russia cannot succeed without sacrifice, he respects Stalin today. “That Stalin was a great man is clear,” he noted the leader’s role in defeating Nazi Germany and transforming the nation of peasants into industrial power.

Compared to the countless Native Americans killed in the United States, Mr. Naiman said, “Nothing really terrible happened here.”

President Vladimir V. Under Putin, memories of the Stalin-era persecution are not erased, as funded by a large government Gulag History Museum Opened in 2018 in Moscow. But they often sank in World War II with Stalin’s victory over Hitler over Russia’s celebration of rival memories. Cheering on that victory, consecrated as a cornerstone of national pride, it overcame the horrors of the Gulag and raised Stalin’s popularity to its highest level in decades.

From Magadan to the other end of the country, in Karelia, next to Finland, amateur historian Yuri Dmitriek By Finnish soldiers allied with apartheid Germany, Stalin was challenged by digging up the graves of prisoners claimed by the secret police – not the “patriot” historians claim. In September, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison on the basis of whipping, and he and his supporters say, fabricated evidence of sexual assault on his adopted daughter.

A public opinion poll published in March indicated that 76 percent of Russians have a favorable view of the Soviet Union, with Stalin holding all other Soviet leaders out of public respect.

Upset by another poll, which found that nearly half of young Russians had never heard of the Stalin-era repression, Yuri Dude, a Moscow blogger with a huge youth, wrote the full length of the “road of bones” in 2018. Traveled to find that he said “the birthplace of our fear”.

After the online release of Video about the trip, His traveling companion, Mr. Kuntsevich, a Colima historian, faced abuse and physical threats from the stalwart Stalinists of death and others who resented the ending of the past.

Mr Kuntsevich said he initially tried to argue with his attackers, citing figures of more than 100,000 deaths in the Colima camps through mass executions and starvation and disease. But he quickly gave up.

“It is best not to argue with people about Stalin. Nothing will change his mind, ”he said, standing in his museum near a small statue of Shalamov, a writer whose accounts of life in the camps were regularly dismissed as imagined by fans of Stalin is.

Even some officers are remembered with reverence for a murdered dictator. André Colladin, who was dispatched to the Far East to serve as the Kremlin’s officer to the region’s deputy governor, which covers Colima, is recalled when a local man took his property A statue of Stalin was placed on it. Mr. Colladin ordered the police to take it down.

“Everything here is built on bones,” Mr. Colladin said.

President Boris Ann in the 1990s. Beginning of the coastal city of Magadan with a giant concrete statue led by Yeltsin called Mask of Sorro, called Mask of Soro. But local rights activists say officials and many residents now mostly want to turn the page on Colima’s bleak past.

“No one really wants to recognize past sins,” Sergei M. Raizman, local representative of the rights group Memorial said.

So difficult is the occasional but very frightening terror along the “road to the bones of the present” of those inhabited by settlements who had moved out in such a way, now rapidly shrinking and often in ruins Fall, whatever it is, is better, or at least more safe, remembered as time.

About 125 miles from Magadan, the road became the city of Attica in the early 1930s, with geologists, engineers and prisoners arriving a few years later by sea at Magadan, the coastal headquarters of the Northern Construction Trust, the Soviet secret. Police hand and builder of Colima Highway.

“Our whole life is connected to this road,” said 66-year-old Natalia Shevchuk as her severely ill husband, former road engineer, in Ataka, coughing and groaning in the next room.

One of his four sons died in an accident on the road, and he worries constantly about his youngest son, who recently began work as a long-distance truck driver on the highway.

A one-way road from the main highway leads to Oymyakon, the coldest permanent settlement in the world. Known as the Cold of Pole, Omaikon has an average January temperature of minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees Celsius). The coldest recorded temperature is minus 96 degrees Fahrenheit.

The weather is so prohibited that engine trouble or a flat tire can mean freezing to death, a fate that officials have tried to avoid by illegally asking drivers to pass a vehicle without getting stuck. Do its occupants need help.

With the separation of a few inhabited settlements across the road hundreds of miles away, shipping containers equipped with heaters and communications equipment are now placed in some of the most remote areas to help helpless motorists warm up and call for help.

Although Atka never hosted a major labor camp, it thrived for years as a toil, working as a transport hub and stopping and sleeping for a convoy of trucks carrying slave workers , Filled with mines and supplies camps for tin and uranium. Workers repaired roads and bridges and were swept away by avalanches and hurricanes.

In 1953, when the prison camps closed after Stalin’s death, the stagnation continued and grew, as forced laborers lured the region’s mines with promises of far higher salaries than the rest of the Soviet Union.

At its peak, the city had more than 5,000 residents, a large modern school, an auto-repair shop, a fuel depot, various stores and a large bakery. Today, it is just six residents, all of them pensioners.

The last school-age resident moved in last year with her mother. Her grandmother stayed behind and runs the only store, a small room standing on the ground floor of an otherwise empty wooden concrete block with groceries.

The natural forces that are erasing the physical traces of Gulal threaten to eliminate Ataka as well. Its largely abandoned apartment buildings are rotting as snow falls from broken windows, broken roofs and broken doors.

Until this year, Atka’s only employer, aside from a truck stop cafe and gas station on the edge of town, was a heating plant. The plant closed at the end of September after the district government, which over the years has been prompting residents to move to more viable settlements, cut funding.

It left the apartment without heat, forcing people to install their own devices to avoid freezing to death. Tap water has also been cut, causing residents to depend on the delivery of canisters filled with a well.

Ms. Shevchuk’s building has 30 apartments, but only three are occupied. She relies on the wood-burning stove she installed in her bathroom to keep warm.

Valentina Zakora, who was most recently the mayor of Ataka, said that she had tried to convince the few remaining residents to move away for some years. As a relative newcomer – she came to a mechanic with her husband 25 years ago – she could not understand why people did not want to take the government offer of money and free housing elsewhere.

“When I first saw this place I cried daily for three years,” she said. After raising a family there, she moved this past spring to a well-organized town close to Magadan.

He would love to see Atka alive, but “it is already too late for such places.”

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