boat was at pains to illustrate this. “We aren’t like them at all. We are the children of runaway serfs. We criticise the government—Putin and that short pretend-President he has!” said Captain Dima of the Yuri Alexsandrovich. He and his crew insulted and mocked the regime in a way I hadn’t seen working-class Russians do before. Baikal was freezing that night. Pillars of steam danced like ghosts on the water.
In the departure lounge for my flight to Yakutsk, I began to get the feeling I was in Asia. Pale Asiatic faces of the ethnic Yakut passengers outnumbered the Russians. European get-up was out; heavy, thick fur coats and traditional fur caps were in. For six hours, the rickety Soviet plane bounced above the emptiness. As I gazed down at a world of forests and white extending for the time it would take to fly from London to Damascus, the vastness of Russia truly hit home.
Built on stilts above the frozen ground that melts in summer, Yakutsk is, in a sense, a city that should not exist. Economists argue such places cost more than they could ever possibly make. These guzzling colonies have been dubbed “the Siberian curse”. Yakutsk is ugly—dingy malls, Soviet council estates and a few wooden Tsarist cabins deformed by the ground melting beneath them. Russians are the minority in Yakutia, a titular republic the size of India.
I went to the Permafrost Institute to ask scientist Leonid Gagarin what Siberia’s “potential” would be with global warming at work. He was stunned I had even asked. “The permafrost looks as if it is melting. We have evidence. Temperatures have risen by 1.5°C in the past decade and by 5°C in the past 50 years. If the permafrost melts completely, the forests will die, unleashing unknown amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. And what will we find below? A vast desert, the size of the Sahara.”
Later that evening, a local journalist, Aidar Dimitriyev, invited me for a drink. “Look,” he announced, “we all live here like one big family of Sopranos. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s exciting. All the politicians are businessmen, bureaucrats. They are members of United Russia, Putin’s party, but that’s just like wearing a hat for them.” When I asked him if he felt closer to Asia, he disagreed. “We are frightened of China here. But the young people have started wearing Japanese and Korean fashion—it looks good with their eyes.”
Equipped with a new Chinese puffajacket, I began to ask about the 2,012km “road of bones” to Magadan. A local blogger said he could get me on the next mini-van to a remote village 300km away. I boarded the vehicle, choking on its stink of harsh tobacco and gasoline, with three Yakut villagers. Asphalt gave way to a rugged ice-track within minutes. Within an hour, the mini-van lurched violently off the road, pushing through snowdrifts.
“What’s going on?” I yelped. “That’s the Lena River. There’s no road. We have to drive across frozen water,” the driver croaked back. As wide as the Amazon and almost as long as the Nile, these surging waters inspired the nom de guerre of Vladimir Ulyanov: Lenin. “Is it dangerous?” I asked rather Englishly. The driver had opened the door and was looking at a track through the snow. “It’s very dangerous.” He was not being ironic. “How dangerous?” Nerves were rising like uncorked beer through my spine. “It isn’t frozen deeply everywhere. Yesterday, somebody dropped, so I don’t know…I’ve not done this route before.” We reached Khandygea just before dawn. A smoke-stack filled the sky with a pillar of steam. The odd deformed wooden house, wild dogs roaming in thick snow. Khandygea had the feel of a place being swallowed by a desert of strange sand. The place seemed more like the remnant of a settlement. I was introduced by the local Tadjik cigarette vendor to Vladimir. “Are you a driver?” I asked. “I can be…” His face was savaged by smallpox and he had grown a long, stringy red beard to cover the pockmarks. He wore the thick, functional clothes of a stocky peasant. To describe his smell would be to insert a venom into this account that I in no way hold towards him. “I’m looking for the nearest Gulag,” I explained. “Englishman, you’re already here. Khandygea was a camp that turned into a town for us too poor to leave.” Vladimir ushered me along a path strewn with machine parts and empty oilcans. “My parents were deported from Leningrad. They sent Balts, Finns, Germans, Ukrainians, so many nationalities, here to work on the road and fill the mines. My parents were thrown in there.” His cataracted eyes were alive as he pointed at a dilapidated long wooden shed. He threw open the door and marched in. “Look at this—the walls are just wood and a thin layer of plaster. The temperature here reaches -50°C. There were dozens of people in this hut, freezing, infested with lice and silent from hunger.” A pile of Soviet magazines from the 1980s rotted in the corner. Vladimir stood under the torn rafters, silent. It’s not what the barracks said, it’s what it did not say which was so chilling. “Come to my cottage. We need to discuss how to organise this drive.”
It was only a few metres away. He explained, “This is actually where the guards lived, in the Stalin times.” It was like entering that other Russia, before the Revolution. He had a pit with a fire stove, icons of Christ and the Virgin, a small wooden table and a tiny bunk. “The road is not always safe. And the nearest settlement from here is a 22-hour drive. I’ll take you, but only halfway. Then you’re on your own.” I tried to piece together a question sensitively: how could he live in the hut of his parents’ tormentors? “Go back where? When the camps opened, my parents stayed.” Vladimir speaks slowly and precisely. “This is the only place warm enough
25 September 2007
Standpoint Khandygea: Like the remnant of a penal settlement to live. This is my home where I can live a traditional life. I remember being happy here.” Vladimir took me to speak to Aida, a history teacher at the local school. A Yakut, she had bright eyes that hid her age. “It was as though the Devil had come to Khandygea. There are around 1,000 of us here today, but back then there were over 7,500.” Like any teacher, she stops to make sure I am listening. “They died digging the road and they were not buried but thrown under it. That’s why it is called the road of bones. They dug it with their hands and simple shovels. They wore rags. It was built in Ancient Egyptian style.” Aida took a piece of paper out of her bag but did not give it to me. “But they were not all innocent. There were Nazis here too, Russians who had fought with the Nazis, other fascists and a few Japanese.” She passed me the paper. Two long columns on both sides listed Gulag locations on the 1,000km stretch where Vladimir had agreed to take me. “Give this to Vladimir. He’ll know what to look for. The taiga has eaten them away. There is almost nothing left to see. In a few decades it will all be gone.” As she prepared to leave, I asked her where I could meet a survivor of the camps. “I’m sorry, they’re all dead. The last one I knew died a few months ago. Please watch out on the road, there are bears, wolves and wild gold miners out there.”
We set off at daybreak, critically low on supplies for the 1,000km drive across uninhabited territory. Vladimir had a smallish piece of lard and half a stale loaf of black bread. I had two Coca-Colas, a litre of Fanta and a box of Twiglets. “Aida was wrong to worry you. The bears are sleeping,” he complained. An hour beyond Khandygea we began to pass the occasional small cross. “Those are not for the Gulag. They’re for guys whose cars break in snowstorms and get frozen to death.” The road began to slope. I tried to imagine one dead zek for every metre, but began to feel carsick and stopped.
Everything was blue. It is the colour of the ice, the sky and the mountains. “The other planet,” as Stalin’s slaves would say. “Why did he do this?” I mumbled. Vladimir knew exactly what he thought. “Before Stalin ruled, he was a common thief. He was greedy. Djugashvili, Saakashvili, he was a Caucasian king of thieves.” He was almost shouting now. “Hitler and Stalin emptied Russia. They say 30 million died in the war. They say Stalin killed 20 million. There would be maybe 300 million Russians by now if they hadn’t ever been born.” Every 30 or so kilometres, empty square clearings flashed by. “Camps,” Vladimir said. It was dusk when we reached the Gulag which Aida had suggested. The sky had turned a bruised purple and it was falling below -35°C. My hands stung, my nose was numb. A barracks half devoured by the taiga sat by the roadside. Vladimir sat in the car,
announcing matter-of-factly how “in the summer, you can see bones. The animals dig them up.” I pushed the door open. Solzhenitsyn declared these lands would be sacred to Russians, but the dank planks felt forsaken by any God.
“Some say there are ghosts on the road, but I don’t believe them,” Vladimir mused. The road sloped and bent. Still more than 12 hours from the nearest town, we had reached a place of broad valleys, some of the coldest lands outside Antarctica. In 1926, as the Gulag was growing, Soviet scientists calculated that the tiny settlement of Oimyakon had touched -72°C, with nearby valleys at -82°C. These are the valleys Solzhenitsyn called “the pole of cold and suffering of the archipelago”. The other great author from the archipelago, Varlam Shalamov, who wrote graphic stories of hunger and cannibalism, had been imprisoned here. As I sat shivering in the front seat that long night, one of Shalamov’s passages kept dancing in my head:
“The north resisted with all its strength this work of man, not accepting the corpses into its bowels. Defeated, humbled, retreating, stone promised to forget nothing, to wait and preserve its secret. The severe winters, the hot summers, the winds, the six years of rain had not wrenched the dead men from the stone. The earth opened, baring its subterranean storerooms, for they contained not only gold and lead, tungsten and uranium, but also undecaying human bodies.”
We reached the settlement of Ust-Nera at 6am. I said goodbye to Vladimir and fell asleep in a truckers’ hostel where a long bloodstain adorned the ceiling. The next day, I was told nobody would drive to Magadan until tomorrow. Or the next day. Growing desperate, I asked an official, the governor of a district the size of Germany, to help me. “We don’t have cars either, this isn’t the mainland,” he replied politely. “I’m sorry. Find a gold miner, they might be able to help.”
That evening, I met Victor. Bald and with a smile crooked from harelip surgery, the 40-year-old semi-legal miner gave me a lift in his truck. He swore constantly, speaking in the prison slang that’s almost a language of its own. “I’m just going to drive straight,” he said. “It’s 35 hours. No stops.”
He drank five Red Bulls in succession. Perhaps because of this, he monologued all the way to Magadan. “It isn’t like Germans and Jews. Russians don’t have the victim complex. My grandmother was on the road. I think of her sometimes when I’m driving.” I asked him if he felt anger at the Stalinists. “No, Granny was a Bolshevik from Yekaterinburg. She always believed. My grandfather was an NKVD guard. They met on the road.” Abandoned settlements lined the final 1,000km. Victor’s running commentary did not abate. “You see decay, but I see my first kiss, my childhood, my motherland. That’s why I stay in Kolyma.”
When I finally reached Magadan, I hunted for days for a survivor. “I’m sorry, they are all dead,” was the refrain. With male life-expectancy in Russia a mere 58, I should not have been surprised, but I was devastated. Only hours before my flight back to Moscow, I called Miron Etlis, the rector of the local university. With an unmistakable Yiddish accent, he croaked: “The survivors are almost all dead—but I was in the Gulag. I can try and explain.” I rushed round. He was little and 80. His eyes were dark-brown pools. This was my last chance. He pointed at a photocopied picture of himself embracing Solzhenitsyn. “I was in the same camp as him. I was in 555, between 1953 and 1956. He described the camp perfectly in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. That was my life.”
Like many survivors, the energy that pulled him through had yet to burn out. “I had good friends there, in the Gulag, only now are we dying. I was arrested on the day Stalin died. Ironically, people were crying for him but I felt resigned. I was accused of ‘Jewish Terrorism against Soviet Power’.” He chuckled. “I was transported by train, and left, like many of my generation, with a belief that a universal morality exists, but also with a deep fatalism.” He drifted off into a discourse on Jewish intellectualism and his friends in Alaska. I pulled him back. “You see…I think about it, but I can’t every day. I can’t live like that, even now.” I pushed him to talk, asking a question I would never dare ask my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor: “How does it feel, knowing that you were a slave?” He averted his eyes, went quiet. I had gone too far. An angel passed. “Mr Etlis…?”
He was no longer really talking to me. “It will pass…It will not be forever. It will pass away, pass away.” His face tensed, a quiver almost of anger. “But the most dramatic moment in the camp was not what you’d expect. The camp was full of Germans, of Nazis, and I worked every day next to one. He asked me, ‘Why don’t you come to the West and speak of this horror?’ At that moment I wanted to destroy him. I hated him. I would never betray my country—the Soviet Union—my country that defeated fascism at the cost of 28 million. The German was in rags. Not everyone in that camp was innocent. He then began to shout, ‘We have bases in the Andes and the Amazon, Hitler is in Argentina. We will return to annihilate you, maybe in ten, maybe in 50 years.’” Etlis smiled. He felt I had understood how a Gulag victim could be proud of the USSR.
I struggled for synthesis on the long flight back to Moscow. But for me, as for every Russian, there were no easy conclusions, only lasting shock. The Kremlin is the insurgent power in a global poker game, skilfully playing a weak hand with a touch of vengeance. Yet we should never forget that in the courtyards of that “magic mountain” of power lie those two absurd symbols of Russia: the world’s largest bell, that was never rung, and the world’s largest cannon, that was never fired. Behind the bravado of the secret police and the oil magnates, Russia is a pained nation. Not at peace with itself.
25 September 2007