Siberia: In Search of the Gulag

‘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’

Dispatches History Russia
The start of the long journey eastwards: Train at Yaroslavl Station

This is Moscow. You are being pushed around. The tunnels of Stalin’s Metro are heaving. The sleazy hoardings are glinting. Policemen in long coats pace the platforms. Leather-jacketed immigrants from the Caucasus push towards the exits. Young women in furs adjust their iPods. 

Below the surface, the symbols of Bolshevism are as ubiquitous, as present and ignored as those of royalty in England. To remove every hammer and sickle in Russia would be impossible. It could take a century. 

Old women are on their knees begging on the sides of the escalator. They look like survivors. Because they are. Survivors of collectivisation, of the Nazi invasion, of totalitarianism and the economic collapse of the 1990s. You are trying to leave the station. Then you see it. 

“Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism.” The gilt slogan was painstakingly removed during the de-Stalinisation drives of the late 1950s. Now it is back. The kiosks on the street hawk the tabloids. Simple news. What Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has done, what President Dmitry Medvedev has said. Putin says the purges were in the past and Russians have nothing “to be ashamed of”, Medvedev says more memorials should be erected to their victims and they “should never be forgotten.” The history wars have come to Russia.

The Kremlin is trying to build a superpower. It needs a simple story. It wants the record straight. So it has set up a “History Commission” to clear things up. Human rights activists say a History Commission without historians is a Soviet-style absurdity. The superstate seems to be drifting towards accepting Stalinism. New textbooks downplay Stalin’s murderousness. Then, confusingly, the drive of the superstate shifted gear. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was suddenly placed on the school curriculum. I phoned the pro-Kremlin politician Sergei Markov, who sits on the Commission, to ask him to explain why it seemed the state hasn’t made up its mind.

“There are lots of debates in our party, United Russia. Debates about the economy and debates about the past.” He paused. “Regarding Stalinism, there are some things we are very proud of, like victory in the war, whilst other things we are very ashamed of.” Then he added with the pedagogic charm of the authoritarian, “How do we explain this difficult history…to the people?” 

Russia has a population of 140 million — just a third larger than Germany — and a Muslim population of roughly 14 per cent, a few points higher than France. What makes Russia different is Siberia, “the jewel in the crown of the Russian Empire”, as the historian Dominic Lieven describes it. Her riches lie there but more importantly so does her sense of self and the darkest side of Russia’s history. There I hoped I could find out what Russians really feel about their past. 

I told my Russian friends I was going to Siberia and was met with shock and incomprehension. “It’s boring and poor!” ”It’s dangerous and criminal!” What struck me as I stuffed a suitcase with clothes woefully unsuited to -40°C temperatures, was just how remote Russia beyond the Urals or deep in the hinterlands seems to the people I hang out with in Moscow. As I left my newsroom for the last time, a Russian colleague gave me a look as if I had told him I planned to paddle the Congo River. “Just follow the local tradition and look at yourself in the mirror first,” were his parting words.

I think all children do this — take a pen and race across a map, thinking, “One day I’ll go there.” My childhood Biro always went east, past Stettin on the Baltic, along the Volga and over the Urals, into Siberia. I would stare at those strange names: “Krasnoyarsk, Khabarovsk, Kamchatka.” Just to read them aloud was a frightening chant.

I thought of that little boy as I pushed through the crowds of hunched Chinese peddlers, squatting Uzbek migrants and hurrying Slavic travellers into Yaroslavl Station, eerily reminiscent of the great transcontinental stations Albert Speer had planned for Berlin. On the platform, a group of teenage conscripts were slipping on the blackened ice. Orange lights shone over trains. The stench of the engines rose like gunpowder.

It was these rails that zeks, as Gulag inmates were known, had ridden eastwards to camps. Those destined for Kolyma were boarded up in cattle-trucks to Vladivostok, a week from Moscow, with scarce rations or none at all. Peasants who had never travelled, never seen the sea, were shipped to Magadan in the far north to be slaves. Some thought they were being taken to a different planet. I sat in the restaurant carriage staring at the scenery. Carpets of snow. Boundless miles of birch-tree forests.

Russians feel great pride that theirs is the largest country in the world, radiating in all directions across 11 time zones. As Solzhenitsyn said, it was these lands beyond the Urals that would forge Russia’s destiny — they were “awaiting our love”. For centuries, the dream of colonising these expanses has driven the beat of Russian history. It was Siberia that made ”Socialism in One Country” a possibility. The temptation to exploit it inspired planners to draw up diagrams of the Gulag. It is often said that Russia is always “becoming”, because Siberia is forever yet to yield — the etymology of the word stems from ancient Turkic for the sleeping land”.

A day later I arrived in Yekaterinburg. I was looking for the borders in people’s heads. Situated in the foothills of the Urals, Russia’s first city in Asia is where the Cossacks set out to bring Siberia under the writ of the Tsars. Here I met Ivan. Fifty and fat, he was to drive me to Ganina Yama, a monastery deep in the forest which marks the shallow grave where Nicholas II and his family were secretly buried by the Bolsheviks. “My city is where the ruptures are,” Ivan said as we drove out of town. He crossed himself ostentatiously, almost slamming into a mini-van, as we passed the Church on the Blood, where the “House of Special Purposes”, scene of the murders, once stood. “That’s where they shot the Tsar and his beautiful children. And Yeltsin came from here — the apparatchik who brought the whole thing down.” 

Russian forests are dizzying. Under enamel winter skies, snow and bone-like birch trees flood out any horizon. It’s claustrophobic, blisteringly white. The road turned to dirt before we pulled out of the city, the houses to wood. It was here Hitler had planned to stop and draw a defensive line across the Urals. Ivan only wanted to talk about that war. “We lost 28 million people and now the Balts tear down our statues. That’s why these lands are empty. And then Stalin killed a whole lot more. We took the blow that saved Europe from the Mongols, from the Germans and we never got any thanks.” Only the Jews have been more profoundly scarred by the war than the Russians. The USSR lost 14 per cent of its population (Britain lost 0.8 per cent). But the endless documentaries, conversations and celebrations mark something more tragic: Russians have nothing else to be proud of.

“This is it. This is the spot where they buried them. Get out and take a picture or whatever…” A young man called Dmitri approached. “Are you here for the miracles?” He worked in the monastery’s kiosk selling key rings of Nicholas II. ”This is the history border. Come and meet Father
Vyacheslav. He will explain.”

I stepped into the nearest chapel. The smell of pine and the glint of golden icons filled deep shadows. Vyacheslav was praying. “Do you have a present for the holy family?” he asked softly. I apologised and asked him to explain. “The Tsar is like the Christ. He died for our coming sins. His blood was spilt so that Russia could live for what came after.” He had the eyes of the illuminated. 

The huge snow-filled pit outside marks the start of the arc of accelerating Bolshevik killing: the road to Magadan.

Fifty miles west lies that other border in Russian heads. The Europe-Asia column, a Greco-Roman edifice, sits on the old road to the east. The idea of being between two continents is fundamental in Russian cultural history. Since Peter the Great, the superstate has been in search of its lasting place in the world. Anton Surikov, a former military intelligence agent, explained how this debate continues inside the Kremlin. “Putin wants integration with the West, but on his own terms. That’s why he created Medvedev. He says the things Putin cannot for fear of ruining his relationship with the hardliners. They want Russia to be European — a second Japan, linked to the West, but not part of it.”

But the real border of Europe is on the shores of Lake Baikal, the pearl of Siberia. Halfway to the Pacific and due north of Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, this is where the mainland ends. Between the Urals and Baikal live around 34 million people in a thick belt along the Kazakh border. The cities are large and industrial, closely controlled by the Kremlin and almost exclusively Russian. Beyond Baikal the population is just 6 million and a mixture of races. To the north and into the emptiness, Russians mix with indigenous peoples. The map is a patchwork quilt of titular republics and autonomies. Politics are less under the government’s grip. Things are much more corrupt and there have been mass demonstrations against the regime.

Not long after I had stepped off the train from Yekaterinburg on to the icy platform at Irkutsk, the nearest city to Baikal, after a three-day journey, I began to notice things were different. The temperature was bitingly cold. A wall of steam rose on both sides of the bridge. “It’s freezing. It’s warmer than the air,” was the explanation. I started to notice Chinese characters seeping in, ideograms nestling on the marks of most wrappers and brands.

Siberia has not only been a land of slavery for the Russians but one of opportunity and escape. In the late 19th century, millions of peasants fled overcrowding and serfdom in Europe to fill the lands between Baikal and the Urals. In the 20th century, idealistic pioneers — as well as those lured by higher wages and subsidies — took the train further east to the outer reaches. Siberians think of themselves as different. A group of drunken sailors on a clapped-out 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 puffa-jacket, 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.” 


Khandygea: Like the remnant of a penal settlement 

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 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.