GULAG TRAIL – Part 2
Workuta, Abez, Uhta, Sosnogorsk
Churga, Arkhangelsk, Murmansk,
At thirty five thousand feet up in the air, a pink tinge appeared on the horizon to my right; it was expanding perceptibly; delicate, soft colours turning deeper and richer begun to envelop the plane. I was mesmerised. The noise of the engines, the lights, the passengers didn’t exist; I was being caressed by the most delicate ostrich feathers of the most delicate pinks. This metamorphosis of the sky continued into deeper, richer, denser, pinks; I was floating somewhere deep within a heavenly marshmallow, at peace with all, detached from all, perhaps buried somewhere in the bosom of the angels. Was this heaven then? The colours of this heavenly environment deepened into richer reds transiting into violets then transiting quickly into deeper, darker, ominous shades. But my state of total oblivion persisted and I must have closed my eyes for a moment or two for, when I opened them next, I was shocked to find myself being rapidly enveloped by a black purga. I have read and heard of white purga in Siberia and the Arctic, of total “whiteout”, of howling winds and snow, of total loss of spatial orientation, of sure death to anyone who ventures out while it rages… and now I was in its black equivalent! If this is Hell, I was in it! A little later I could see lights way below, inviting me in, ready for me… Hell! I had a glimpse of what heaven could be and I was brutally expelled from it; I was being taken back to Earth, to Mankind… and I stepped out on to the land of the GULAG.
- 0 -
Workuta, Abez, Inta, Pechora, Uhta… Arkhangelsk, Murmansk… the venues for the “end game” played out in GULAG camps. NKVD set the rules, and they were stacked against you; the stakes were high – lives, your life too.
If you had the physical strength and mental resilience, you might have lasted a month, a year, five, ten or even longer in the camp, but if you could play out the game to the mid 1950’s you could well have won and found yourself going home, or have become a “free” man on a six-kilometre leash… if not, you lost – your life.
The fore-game was much shorter but even more destructive, a brutal mental and physical torture: a month, a year, perhaps three in the cells and interrogation rooms of NKVD prisons in Wilno or Lwow or Bialystok, then Moscow or Harkow, or in other prisons only known to them. They would call you out at night, over and over again; no sleep, beatings, threats and questions, questions and questions: give us names, names and names – your name… that of your friends, colleagues, associates in the AK, in your subversive activities… You have become an enemy of the people, anti Communist, anti Soviet Union and, finally, in their eyes, you have become a traitor!!! Admit! Admit! Sign here! Admit your guilt and you live… to die in a GULAG camp repenting for your sins, or you die, now! What? You won’t admit; you won’t sign?! No? And blood streams from your face, your legs give under you, faces of your family flash through your brain, your mind blanks out… You barely hear the judge pronounce the verdict – Section 58! You know the penalty – execution! You have no lawyers, no media to take up your cause, no Amnesty International… you are not even on the map of the living; what chance do you have? So you wait in the death cell, and wait, and wait… your turn.
But what do I know of what goes through a man’s mind held in a death cell awaiting execution? Our fathers and grandfathers knew; my father wouldn’t speak of it, many others cease up at the mention of it; some still remember…
You rot for days in a death-cell, a subterranean pit, damp, cold; the spy-hole is the only source of light when it opens. You are alone, your mind swings wildly from thoughts about your dear ones to a state of bottomless depression, for you know your future, the question is only when… With sheer willpower you muster a semblance of calmness, of rationality but just then… you hear muffled shots in the night; you hear boots stamping in the corridor; the steps are getting closer and closer… your hair rises, you cringe like a dog fearing a kick… they don’t stop, they pass your cell… Thank God… not me, not tonight! And you sink to the floor exhausted by the sudden relief that it’s not you, not tonight, not yet… Then you hear them again… nearer and nearer… they stop… at the door to your cell; keys jingle and grate in the lock; door opens! They have come… it must be that they came for you… for there’s nobody else in the cell… it’s your turn… You don’t have the strength to get up; the guard pulls you up… and you hear: get up! Get up! Take your things!
Did you hear right? Take your things… take your things… reverberate in your mind. So it’s not to be; no execution… not just yet, for if they were going to shoot you now they would have said leave your things… and fresh hope flashes in you mind.
You are led away in the middle of the night under escort, dumped into a truck, then they unload you into waiting wagons. You are oblivious to the snow, wind and freezing cold penetrating you to the bone for your death sentence has been commuted! You live! You are still healthy enough, strong and resilient enough to work for the glory of the Soviets, to spend the next 5, 10 or 15 years or more in a GULAG camp; that’s a more profitable way for the Soviets to dispose of you.
The train jerks, the wheels begin to turn… Moscow, Vologda, Kotlas… One week, two, three… and the wheels still turn, but there are moments when you forget your misery, your hunger, thirst and absolute exhaustion. Casually, you look up at the sky through the bars in the windows of the Stolypin wagon and you are stunned by the beauty of the mass of diamonds sparkling in the deep, black sky. The Northern Star, like a magnet, pulls the train north, further and further north; distances extend into infinity, the night extends into infinity… and the further north you go, the brighter the stars sparkle. But that awe-inspiring beauty exists only there, in the heavens; suddenly you become painfully aware that you are still on earth, amongst Mankind. The train slows down to walking pace; the white walls of snow piled high along the rail tracks are ready to engulf you; temperature of -40oC is ready to freeze you, yet there in the clearing, a group of men stand aside to let the train pass; covered in rugs beyond recognition, some stand aimlessly, others rest on their tools or huddle by the raging bonfire, they return your look with unseeing, uncomprehending eyes… For them it’s a brief moment of respite; for you it’s a live snapshot of your future. A little further, the train stops – it’s your turn. Is it Uhta, Pechora, Inga, Abez, Workuta..? Arkhangelsk or Murmansk perhaps- they won’t even tell you.
- 0 -
Stolypin wagons have long gone from Russian railways but the rail tracks heading north are as endless as those in the 1940’s, only the snow has gone and those sparkling diamonds in the sky have gone too, for the days are endless in mid June 2011. I am following in the footsteps of the thousands of prisoners - Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and of many other nationalities – taken north to build this railway line and to fell trees in the endless Russian taiga.
Day one, two, three… and the train still rolls along the green toboggan route. Trees, trees and trees line the track on both sides of the rails; what’s hidden behind them is hard to say – boundless taiga or open plains? At times one can almost feel the impenetrable density of fir, pine and birch, but only a little further up the track, the sun shines through the trees and heats the carriage to discomfort. Gradually, imperceptibly, the world changes – claustrophobia eases, rivers cross our way, water-logged terrain creates illusions of lakes, trees become smaller, sparser - dwarves in comparison with the proud firs earlier… the terrain expands into wide, extensive, barren horizon. Nothing to excite, shock or to entertain the eye or mind… if only Russia wasn’t so huge, if only distances weren’t so huge, if only this train would move faster. Boring, boring and dull, lifeless…
Lifeless? Now I knew what was bothering me, so painful, depressing… All the way north of Kozhwa, the rail tracks follow a line of crosses, some still upright, others prostrate on the ground, or at odd angles, or totally overgrown by birch, or with their feet rotting in swampy terrain… Yet another veritable “Via Calvarias” of the Soviet era! A cross every fifty metres, some still linked by copper wires strung on the arms; dead bodies have been taken off, buried somewhere along the track or dumped in the swamps, but bits of bone, like porcelain stayed attached… Now it’s easy to put two-and-two together; it’s obvious why in an open and barren terrain that particular copse of birch stands strong, erect, its bark perfectly white in the sun; or why that or that cross still stands upright firmly held by strong and healthy clump of trees. True, these “crosses” were put up by prisoners to carry telephone and electricity wires, but is that important? It’s common knowledge today that thousands of prisoners died along these railway tracks - one life for every cross - or more or less, who would have counted or worried about the numbers back in the 1940’s?
And as if to prove me wrong, the view from the carriage window startles my consciousness, brings a smile to my face, makes me wonder what century I am in. There is life here, after all, even in this forgotten outback: two women in colourful attire squatting by a running stream launder clothes on a boulder and look at the passing train with equal surprise… here’s a dwelling almost on top of the tracks - a lean brownish pig rummages in the front garden while a dog looks unperturbed by the passing train, a chicken scurries away in fright and a small child crawls happily in their midst… there, a shirtless man fills two large buckets from a common standpipe in the street and staggers with them back to his abode… and again, there, a station administrator with a lollipop in her hand stands to attention as the train pulls away, her face solemn, eyes focused on some point beyond this world, mind focused on her pension, her job… oblivious to the anachronism of her job.
But in between these touching snapshots from the Soviet era, industrial and social dinosaurs lie dead along the tracks brought down by the Capitalist disease transmitted from the West in the early 1990’s. Cadavers of massive industrial plant, their eyeballs gouged out, teeth pulled or smashed, skin covered in leprosy, their flesh now rots in the Russian climate. Or those long barracks of a kolkhoz like the skull of prehistoric man, low and heavy brow over a row of empty eye sockets… the maggots have been led out to be fattened, then eaten. Or that impressive residence labelled “Dwor” on the portico - it could well have been a “Manor House” of Polish gentry - now abandoned and crumbling, eyes gaping open, mouth contorted in a grimace, dandruff falling of its roof… all left in place to show Communists’ contempt for the “Gentry” or perhaps simply missed in the heat of the Revolution.
How can it be boring; the moment my eyelids start drooping, I am again startled by the view from the window. There… quite plainly… hundreds of white masts on a large lake appear in the distance. Why here, in the outback of nowhere? Sailing boats? It can’t be… surely not… every single hull under water as if a tempest had flooded and sunk them all leaving only the masts still upright as their marker..! The train rolls past… and the dead and bare, perfectly white trunks of silver birch stand rigid in the brown pool of water as they must have stood for years… perhaps even in the 1940’s. And then comes the tundra: limitless, open, flat, cut by rivers, lakes, swampy terrain… Boring? Try crossing it; battle the mosquitoes and mites in summer, and if that’s not enough of a challenge, challenge the white purga in winter! Eventually all things come to an end; the train pulls up at a station… your station? Your destination, your destiny, your life, your end..?
Workuta! One of the blackest and biggest warts on Mankind! Well beyond the Arctic Circle at 67o latitude north, set in bleak and barren tundra where only carbuncles made by man challenge the skies - slag heaps, like monumental mole hills thrown up by tens of thousands of human moles burrowing the coal seams. In the land of the white purga, of -50oC temperatures in winter and 30oC in summer, where the sun never sets during its two summer months, and never rises during its long winters, the land of black coal, coal mines, GULAG camps, prisoners, death... Work-u-t-a! The acronym for “work you to annihilation”.
Close my eyes… and I am instantly enveloped in whiteness; I cringe and shiver from bitter cold; walk bent double against the howling wind along narrow channels gouged deep in snow from one camp barrack to another; hold onto a guide-rope to lead me to the entrance of the canteen or the hospital; give not a thought to that pile of cadavers frozen stiff under a cover of snow… And if I let my imagination blossom, the Nenets or Komi people are here, their herds of reindeer, tepees, children, men, women all a bundle of furs. All is hazy, enveloped in total or semi-darkness as if viewed through a soot-covered glass. Only further, much further North, I see that brilliant sunshine, brilliant blue skies, pure whiteness, Polar bears, Scott and others… but all that is a long, long way from Workuta.
Close my eyes… and an old slide projector instantly comes on. Photographs from the album “GULAG – Life and Death inside the Soviet Concentration Camps” compiled by Thomas Kizney pop up and reluctantly turn from one to the next. Workuta looms big and black set in a hazy white background as in a poorly-focused black and white photograph; try to flick off the specs of red, and you can’t… they are part of the setting. The slag-heaps are the hall mark; at their feet lie the coal mines, the maze of railway tracks and… the camps! The watch towers stare back at you, barbed wire encloses you, the mass of barracks overwhelms and testifies to the huge number of prisoners – 2000, 10000, 20000, 60000! And all embedded in what was once pure white snow now churned into ugly, wet, black, frozen mush. Wherever you look, and beyond the reach of your eyes - a slag heap, a mine, a camp, rail tracks fade into the distance. Workuta - the eye of an octopus, its tentacles, each with a mine as its sucker, reach out thirty kilometres.
Next come photos from “Okreg Workuta” by Bernard Grzywacz - the slag heaps, the acres and acres of barracks set in barbed wire enclosures, the ubiquitous wyshka - the watch tower, three-legged electricity distribution poles as if soldiers from outer space come down to earth to bestow power on the NKVD, all in the shabby-brown colour of fascism contrasting sharply with the purity of snow where it had not yet been touched by human foot or hand. A town built by the prisoners, for the prisoners, presided over by the watchful and brutal eye of the NKVD. The immensity of this place is staggering: the Kapitalnaya - mine #1 – camp for 6,000 prisoners; mine #9/10 – camp for 10,000 prisoners!
And then come the brickworks in “Moje Powojenne Lagry” by Teresa Pawlowska. The furnace in the shape of a dome so hot inside that the pile of bricks stacked in it glows translucent red and… a team of six women, mottled in layers and layers of clothes, knock down the bricked-up access openings, rush in, shovel aside red-hot coals to get at the incandescent bricks… load them onto a trolley and pull the lot out – by hand! Imagine… by hand! They have three and half minutes - three and half minutes of burning hell… any longer and they themselves burn in it! Facial hair singed, hands covered in heat blisters, the whole body burning hot; they rush out, drink litres of water from a barrel, throw themselves onto the snow, mud or whatever is wet, to get rid of the heat inside them… How long could one survive? How long before one goes crazy..? Some survived a month! Work…u…t…a!
And then this! It’s unbelievable, so incongruous to see the prison guards pose smiling for the camera, or the NKVD bosses sitting in family circles, or the prisoners engaging in intellectual pursuits in the library, in the common room, or the theatre; or prisoners ice skating, enjoying the spring, flowers, sunshine; or couples getting married… but these photos were taken later, after Stalin’s death, after the 1948 strikes, after the 1953 strikes, after 1956… when the hope of release and freedom and return to their homeland lit up prisoners hearts and faces.
How can you miss the black in the photographs from the private album of Margarita Krochik: the black of the coal mines as they were in 1946, the black in the lives of men, the black trains embedded in snow; or the expedition into the northern abyss, or the indigenous Nenets in their tents… everything suspended in grey opaqueness.
I step out of my train onto this wart one Sunday early in June and instantly “freeze” from the heat! 24oC! The sun beats down on me, dust bites into my eyes – where am I? What of the snow, the blizzards, the purga of the Arctic? A bus takes me into town; a pinhead on a massive blue globe placed at crossroads announces: Workuta, 67o latitude north. The bus trundles on… past some rail tracks here, and there, and there - some lead to nowhere, others to mines already dead and buried; no trains, no whistles, no lights at the crossings; then the Metalovcy Square dedicated to metal bashers; Moskovskaya street – for shopping and finance; past a magnificent façade of what was, incredibly, the theatre, the intellectual centre of the lagier-town! Down the long, wide road lined with shops and non-descript buildings on both sides - nothing extraordinary, nothing that sets it apart - no barracks, no huge red star, no monuments to Stalin or Lenin; its origin and history are not flaunted in your eyes - a “normal” town… and there’s Hotel Vorkuta! The attempt by Soviets to impress the proletariat by the size and magnificence of Soviet architecture still remains in place – a dry fountain or “something” stands in the shaded approach to the huge hotel, but the only impression that remains in one’s memory is that of a group of youths lounging at its foot and already full of spirits by noontime, a mass of empty bottles and broken glass on the pavement around it… and at night?
Rudnik? Mine #8..? Just turn left as you exit the hotel, left again, walk down to the end, follow the promenade till you come to the monument… it’s there, across the river. So I walk… street after street of residential blocks; five storeys, seven storeys high, all almost identical - grey, drab concrete, facia peeling off. They were built on stilts to prevent the building sinking into the permafrost but that ventilation space has now been bricked up to keep away vandalism and drug abuse.
All the way down the slope to the river entire families and groups of people stripped naked to the minimum are picnicking, grills burning, obviously enjoying this moment. On the promenade by the river, groups of youths drink beer, sing, peaceful, relaxed… Oh yes, we have work… in the mines… a young man assures me with an obvious lack of conviction. Is this - Workuta? Am I really north of the Arctic Circle? Not quite the south of France, not quite rural England… but 24oC first week of June?
On my side of the promenade lies the new Workuta: a maze of blocks dating to the nineties – dense and congested – so it’s not surprising that its inhabitants seek relaxation on the green banks of the Workuta river, or congregate on the promenade, or just sit and gaze at recent history. Two elderly women sitting on a concrete block gaze wistfully to the far side of the river… yes, we are local, we used to live just across, in that large block… now we all live here; the other place wasn’t safe… no we don’t remember the GULAG years…
I too look across the river for the hallmarks of Workuta – the slag heaps, the mines, the maze of barracks, watch towers and barbed wire… The Rudnik has vanished, and so has its history - no slag heaps anywhere on the horizon, no barracks, no barbed wire, not a single wyshka in sight, no hint of its dreadful origins and its past. Only the cadavers of Rudnik as it was in the 1990’s face me from across the river: a massive residential block that was to be the pride of the new Rudnik - now its eyes gouged out let daylight pass right through its skull, its teeth pulled, brows singed, it stares at me and the people on the promenade… and they stare back wistfully. A little higher up, a magnificent façade of the administration building surveys its decayed dominion, itself taken from the pages of Greek history, it now crumbles in front of my eyes. Here and there other cadavers discretely covered by shrubs or grass protrude from the ground, and further out, on the crest of the raised terrain stand the remnants of the now-dead Kapitalnaya mine – the one million TPY pride of Workuta. No trace of mines 2, 3… 6… that once “adorned” the terrain opposite. Only the municipal thermal station is still alive and proudly belches volumes of smoke as black as the coal that feeds it. Beyond the borders of the Rudnik, far to my right, the angular shapes of Vorkutinskaya mine cut sharply through the haze.
A young man and his girl walk me across the suspension bridge. In the 1940’s and 50’s it was the Rubicon… cross it, and you leave your life in Rudnik. Crossing it to-day is hair-raising too: if you walk on legs – you will break them; if you wear loose shoes – you will lose them; if you are slim enough – you will slip through the gaps; if you think of safety – you wouldn’t put your foot on it. Evidently, Workuta wants to keep you off it and out of Rudnik. Yet people, young and old, stream across it, for that’s where they were born, where they lived, went to school, had better life there than they have now… for then, there was work, community, camaraderie… and now?
We walk amongst the cadavers of Rudnik; everything that’s man-made crumbles – the buildings, roads and pavements, peoples’ memories. This was my school, that was the hospital, the canteen… here stands what’s left of the very first monument… there’s a small graveyard for the geologists who lived, worked and died here… that white monument in the shape of a cross or open arms is for the Poles who worked and died here… if you follow the railway tracks for about half-hour you will find Polish graves in a neglected cemetery on the embankment… and here, right on the river bank was the entrance to the first mine… now a crevice in the river bank overgrown with vegetation. We are not alone here, quite a few other people walk through this history; youths congregate in small groups, bottles and broken glass at their feet but no rowdiness, no swearing. It’s almost un-natural… are they doped by drugs or just good kids? It’s quiet – it’s still daylight.
Where am I, subconsciously I ask myself again and again? Sunday, June 5th 11 pm, 24oC in the open, the sun still shines, only the cloudless sky somehow lacks clarity, grey, humourless. People sit under marquees drinking beer, ordering shashlyk; provocatively dressed teenage girls act to catch the eye of youths, people parade along the main street… Workuta? North of the Arctic Circle? Really?
The defunct Kapitalnaya mine, once the pride of Soviet enterprise – one million tonnes of coal annually - now stands in isolation. It’s easy enough to drive up the disintegrating concrete avenue leading to the mine and slip in through the main gate - no guards and no life here now. The buildings stand empty but still carry their blue name tags: 1/3 Stancyonarnaya Ul. Above the entrance to the imposing main building a mural shows a miner, drill in hand, at work at the coal face, and below him, at the side of the main entrance the blue plate announces: Clinic for Lung Tuberculosis! Its door is flung fully open but no queues here. The Clinic must have run out of medicines or out of doctors and forgot to close the door… while people in the train and around me in the street still cough that deep worrying cough… of TB.
The rear of the mine complex looks out onto open terrain – yes, now it’s an open vista but barren and bleak, criss-crossed by tracks. A tall, slim metal tower bedecked with Soviet emblems: hammer & sickle, blazing red star, laurels of sheaves of wheat - still welcomes all that will come. And not that many years ago many were forced to come; this open foreground was fenced in, barb-wired in, congested with barracks, watched over by the wyshka and machine guns. Columns of prisoners walked past the guard house and into the bowels of the mine. And if you look, you will see the stumps of the perimeter fence and strands of barbed wire at your feet; the cadaver of the guard house looks down upon you - a fascinating subject for an “autopsy”.
But it’s Monday morning now and the weather has flipped overnight from 24oC to just 4oC, and tomorrow’s forecast is -4oC! All memories of the midnight sun, the beer & shashlyk under marquees, short sleeves and promenading youth… have been wiped out by the cold drizzle and penetrating cold. That “Monday morning feeling” we speak of going to work in London… what a painful joke in comparison with what the army of workers must have felt passing this spot just fifty years ago.
Mr Gorbachov what have you done! Now… capitalist economics rule in Workuta. Before you, 250,000 lived here - now 85,000! Before you 20, 30, 40 mines operated here - now seven! The buildings you have constructed - crumble in front of our eyes. True… you have given us Glasnost so we can speak about it, but we can’t live off it, can’t eat it! Yeltsin gave away our wealth to the Mafia, but you, you have ruined our lives… I have heard this many times before.
Glasnost – it’s so easy. Put up a monument, put up two, three… like the one in the elbow of the promenade dedicated to the memory of those that perished in the lagiers here, or the monument across the river dedicated to the memory of Polish political prisoners, or the monument where the leaders of the 1953 strike were executed… and the sixty years of Soviet labour camps and the GULAG has been relegated to history! Like Genghis Khan, it’s no longer us… The slag heaps have been levelled - the slag put back into defunct mines and into road surfacing; barbed wire removed, fencing removed, barracks knocked down and gone. Soon the incriminating cadavers will be buried too. The place where the brickworks stood could well be marked on the map now as a place of outstanding beauty with a magnificent view over the surrounding land. People may well soon ask: what..? Labour camps, GULAG, NKVD, unmarked burial grounds… really, where, when? And who will know if no one from the Memorial Foundation will be there to tell.
There is another monument to the Soviet era. Perm-36, one of the GULAG camps near Perm has been reinstated to its original condition and turned into “Museum of the GULAG”. The perimeter fence, barbed wire, guard towers and death zones, barracks with tiered wooden banks, administrative buildings… are all there for posterity to see, all clean and sanitized. But what good is that? Will you see life as it really was - in a real barrack? Can you smell the sweat, the urine and excrement rising from prisoners’ sodden rags; will you see the filth and the rats scurrying across the floor? Will you ever know how you would react if in the night you were drenched by a cascade from the bank above where a man has just expired? Would you freeze from fright when in the middle of the night you suddenly feel a cold blade against your throat and a thief taking all that’s precious to you? How long would it take you to begin to sleep comfortably with lice sucking you dry in bed, or bedbugs falling onto your face from above, or men sitting naked on wooden bunks sanitizing their rags by crushing lice between their fingernails? What would you do when you realized that the thugs on the bunk opposite are playing cards - for your rags or your eyes, or your life? Would you not lick the soup bowls left by others, or suck the bones of fish rejected by others, or rummage in the filth outside the kitchen or canteen when you’ve been assigned to kociol #1 - the lowest level of nourishment - for you can no longer do the norm? And when your health is gone, your strength is gone and you are amongst the living-dead, would you still struggle, still want to live, still clutch onto life… when you have been told many times over that you have been brought here to work and to die here? And why would you still let yourself be kicked out of your bunk at 04.00 and drag yourself to work for your executioner, in the mines, on the railway line, or at felling trees when you well know he brought you here to die…?
Of course there’s much more to Workuta than met my eye. There are statistics, cemeteries and burial grounds I have not yet seen, but what I have already seen is quite enough. Mention Workuta to me and the slide projector instantly comes on again… No, no, I will get off at the next stop along the railway line.
My only chance of getting to Abez is on the 05.00 hrs workmen’s train from Vorkuta to Inta - if they will take me for, officially, no passengers are allowed. The conductress is the boss on the train, takes 200 Roubles off me and welcomes me on board. Five hours later and some 200 kilometres down the line the train slows down to a stop… somewhere in this world.
It’s hard to imagine that any train would want to stop here but the conductress is adamant - yes, yes… this is where you get off… yes, this is Abez! There’s nothing here but one long concrete block for platform along the rails and I can’t even see the name of this place. Two or three workmen get off the train and quickly disappear. On the other side of the rails three or four motorbikes with side cars roar in, pull up, churn the ground, and go away – local taxis but no takers. I am left standing alone.
A few yards beyond the rail track a board-walk leads to some buildings in the distance. I plod the half-kilometre cautiously for the spring mire has not yet quite dried out and the “cat-walk” is unstable; a tall military communication tower on my left, several three-storey brick barracks, more motor bikes ploughing unpaved pathways, adolescents eyeing me with curiosity…
Is this Abez… the Abez… the centre of the ABEZ group of lagiers that sent fear into the soul of prisoners throughout the entire GULAG system in the Komi Republic? Where in the summer of 1938, 20,000 prisoners were brought in to work on rail road construction and two years later less than 4,000 were still alive? Where prisoner death rate was so high that even Stalin was shocked; and when the railway was done he had GULAG bosses put on trial for the high mortality amongst prisoners; the executioners of only yesterday were themselves sentenced to 15-10 years imprisonment?
A woman striding purposefully in my direction assures me: yes, yes… this is Abez; Victor is the school teacher, just there, in that building, he’s the historian; you can leave your rucksack in my shop, it’s O.K… I am happy to take up her offer for I have been told in Workuta that there is nothing to buy in Abez, so my rucksack is heavy with food and water.
Victor was born and bred in Abez, and now at the age of sixty in 2011 he is retiring - the only teacher at the village school. Ever since “Glasnost” came in with Gorbachev, Victor dedicated his life, time and physical effort to the preservation of history of GULAG camps in and around Abez. With perseverance and help from the Memorial Foundation he succeeded in obtaining NKVD lists of persons buried in three cemeteries around Abez, and was then able to correlate the numbers on the graves with names and dates. Slowly, painstakingly, and almost single-handedly, he transformed the largest cemetery from one buried and forgotten in the shrubbery to one worthy of the memory of those buried here; now 1,296 graves have name-plates, not just numbers as if attached to the toe of a cadaver. And now people can, and do come here, to pray, or meditate, or write the history of the generals, the bishops or the ordinary “enemies of the people” buried here… Thirteen more cemeteries lie along the railway line between here and Workuta but who knows their exact location now lost in the growth, and all documentation lost somewhere in KGB files.
Damn these mosquitoes. There were none on the way up to Workuta, none on the way down, and hardly any in Abez itself, but right here… Victor is just a step or two ahead walking me around the cemetery; I can see mosquitoes landing on the bald-patch of his head, on his neck and shoulders, yet he pays them no heed and, only now and then, just swipes them away; but they love my sweet blood and I hate every one of them. Victor explains that mosquitoes suddenly appear with the first green shoots; and the cemetery is normally the first to “bloom”. Is it not perhaps that, even after some 60-70 years, the abundant new growth, and the mosquitoes, still live off the nourishment under the posts with number plates… for Abez is in the region of permafrost and the graves would have been dug shallow. 1,296 numbered graves around me and two smaller cemeteries near by… all in the neighbourhood of a settlement of 750 people!
A strange fellow appears as if from nowhere and tags along for a while saying nothing, an empty sack slung over his shoulder, his distinctly Japanese features contrast incongruously with his white complexion – a descendant of Japanese prisoners, perhaps? We came across him again later, his sack was already partly full; his crime obvious: he was skimming the lichen off the cemetery grounds leaving ugly eczema on the surface that will take time to recover. Angry Victor sent him off packing; his anger at the man is not really surprising for, you could say, the cemetery is “his” – after twenty years dedicated to the preservation of history of this place.
On the way back to the village we pass several barracks dating to the 1930-40’s lying along what must have been the main road – Polyarnaya 1… Polyarnaya 6… Victor points to the ramshackle barrack he and his family had lived in till 1990 and, even now, people live in it. In those early days Abez was a thriving town built on the foundation of forced labour; it had shops, communal refectory, baths, social amenities including a theatre, well maintained tracks and, of course, the ubiquitous tiurma - the prison - the largest building in any town. By 1948 the Kozhva-Workuta railway was fully operational and Abez lost its preeminent status as the centre for railway construction, its population dwindled to 6,000 but the lagier remained. By 1958 most of the facilities were dismantled, the lagier closed down and any remaining prisoners transferred.
Over the years, Victor assembled an important collection of memorabilia from the Abez camps, much too large to display in its entirety at the school so the Museum from Inta offered to take them and undertook to display the entire collection in an appropriate setting; naturally, Victor was delighted and signed his collection over to the museum. The Museum took the collection some five years ago and… nothing! Where is it, who’s got it, it’s hard to know. Now he keeps the remainder of his collection safely under lock and key in two large metal containers rarely open to view by the public.
Next to them stand more recent housing blocks. They were hastily put up on flat foundations laid directly onto the permafrost and not on stilts, as is the normal practice in the arctic region, to provide ventilation under them; as the permafrost warms and gives way, houses begin to sink and walls crack. The village council wants to move people to Inta and knock the barracks down, but the occupants resist - they have lived in much worse conditions. But sooner or later people will have to move, these barracks will then be knocked down, and with them the 27-year history of Abez lagiers will sink into the permafrost for, once Victor is gone, who will speak for the cemeteries; who will want to come to an outpost on a railway line lost somewhere between Russian tundra and taiga; what will remain here to remind us of the “pit”… perhaps the bridge?
It’s there, just ahead of us - seven segments of the bridge span the river. The bridge looks impressive from distance, solid and everlasting from close up. A small concrete marker gives its date of birth – 1940; a broken wheel of a wheelbarrow lies nearby, but nowhere will you find any numbers for the broken lives of prisoners who built it. River Usa flows unperturbed by history, gleaming proudly in the northern sunshine; true, it did bring the prisoners here but eventually it did get rid of the jetties and rail terminals biting into its side like vermin. The bridge is no impediment to its freedom; it will squeeze it with ice in winter, flood it in spring… who knows how long the bridge will last, but Usa will flow as ever.
The rail track runs straight as an arrow over the bridge and on the high embankment to the stop at Abez, but on the river bank and on low ground there is plenty of evidence of earlier activity. Narrow-gauge rail tracks had ran from the river to the village, an abandoned power line lies along the rail tracks; a skeleton of railway carriage rests in the middle of nowhere... Back in 1938-1941 all construction was done with pick and shovel and prisoners’ muscles; the tempo of construction was set by Stalin and it was murderous – no cost and no lives were to be spared. And so the rail track followed the path of least resistance: follow the lay of the land, no embankments, no viaducts, no concern for safety… anything to meet the deadline for the first delivery of coal from Workuta – December 1941. Later, repairs would be done, track layout straightened, bridges built, embankments raised, more men die…
But at the end of the day of tramping around Abez, I still find it impossible to imagine the scale of misery, pain, death and the destruction of human life where people died like flies. I have seen the cemetery; with Google I can clearly see the perimeter of one of the lagiers - as always, 200x200 metres square - but it’s still not enough, for out in the open the sun shines, meadows bloom with a multitude of flowers, peace and silence surrounds. And then Victor shows me photographs - how it was then, in winter… and suddenly I knew, and you too would feel those atrocious conditions; you too would believe that prisoners did die like flies in this Abez, that this was their valley of tears, of death, that it was the pit… and that in the life of our fathers this Abez was their Abyss…
Time for me to catch the train to Uhta; Victor and I walk the board-walk to the train stop. A primitive building is set a little way on the other side of the tracks – one dark room with a bench, no windows… no thank you, I will rather wait outside even if it rains, but it’s a lovely sunset and the train is coming. Will it stop, will it? Back in the house I left Victor a 1000 rouble note – for his Memorial work – and now he gives me such a grateful hug… for a miserable £22! Surely he deserves and needs 10 and 100 times more; I hope I can see to that… The train does stop! I race as fast as the rucksack will allow me; a carriage door opens; half a minute and the train is off – I was the only man to get out of this Abyss.
Oil! Heavy and viscous, almost like tar - but oil! Discovered in 1932 in the upper reaches of Yarega – a small river in the taiga – it gave life to Uhtpechlag with the remit to develop mineral resources in this region utilizing forced labour. By the time it was reorganized in January 1938 it had some 54,000 prisoners working in the Pechora basin. Its successor, Uhta-Izhemsky ITL started life in Chibyu, a small village by the river Uhta. In January 1940 it had 20,000 prisoners and their numbers escalated rapidly to 39,000 by July 1941. Prisoners worked on oil, gas, asphalt, chemicals, brickworks and supporting infrastructure projects in lagiers scattered over a wide area in the Uhta- Sosnogorsk region. Chibyu expanded and in1939 acquired the status of town - Uhta (Ukhta). It’s a big town now, a thriving city really - 100,000 population.
Follow Leninski Prospect north-west and you come to an abrupt end of town; a small chapel and monument just across the boundary road cuts off any further development in this direction. Who would have guessed that this is the place where the Zabalotny (beyond the mud banks) lagier once stood; nothing remains of it but open land covered by grass - you could walk your dog there. Drive south-east through Chibyu, the old town, turn right at the roundabout and there’s river Uhta – people picnicking, bathing, splashing, sunning themselves joyously on the shingly river bank; no trace of GULAG history here; heavy industry visible further up on the opposite bank.
Take a bus south-west to Yarega - the “oil city” - or rather a cluster of three oil mines in the taiga. The slag heap and the wheels above the shaft of mine #1 visible from afar will come as an incongruous surprise, for who and where in this world mines for oil. I have seen “nodding donkeys” bringing oil up from the ground; I have seen “christmas trees” holding back oil and gas gushing from below ground, but actually mining oil like in our coal mines..? Perhaps the name “Uhta” is a very appropriate acronym for what’s going on here: the exploitation of “Underground Heavy Tar Accumulations”.
Father Albin Janocha, a Polish monk sentenced to twelve years labour, worked here in 1944-48. Shaft #1 and #3 were already operational at the time and shaft #2 was under construction. A large-diameter vertical shaft was being dug by the prisoners, and horizontal underground corridors then radiated from it ending in large chambers; long bore holes were then drilled into the walls releasing very viscous oil into open channels flushed out with water for processing above ground. The redundant mining spoils were carted out to above ground and disposed off as land fill to provide a drier and firmer ground around the mines. Life at mine #3 was easier, especially in winter, for the lagier was right next to the mine and the posiolek – the settlement where the free workers lived - was also adjacent.
Sixty five years later, in 2011, all three mines are still operational. A young woman at mine #1 offers to take me to meet an old resident who may be able to tell me something about life as it had been here in the days of the GULAG. Elena remembers those days well; now retired, she lives in two rooms and kitchen that looks out onto the mine. With sun shine streaming in, and a visitor from England to listen to her story, a contented smile enlightens her face.
Back in those days they were recruiting for work in the mines; Elena came here in 1952 and worked in the mine all her life. Women worked underground on equal terms with men: they were cutting corridors, boring holes in the walls and injecting hot water to flush out the oil… work was hard and dangerous so they (the free people) could retire at 50. After 1953, women worked above ground only. Mining spoils were removed in carts drawn by ponies; these poor animals were specially bred for this work, they lived and worked underground and never left the mine. It was good work; everyone was happy, good camaraderie, almost like a family… the bosses were very good, very considerate… You know, all the bosses were “represyonovany” like most of the workers here - they were prisoners… There was a big fire in the mine here in 1953; many people died: our chief engineer, the gas technologist, thirteen others died but it was all hushed up at the time… You know, if you want to see a lagier, there is one at shaft #3 in Domannik, but the old posiolek is in ruins. There are still some barracks here from those days: one is just behind the magazine and two more just across the road… Oh yes there were Polish prisoners here too.
Indeed, on the other side of the road nicely shaded by mature trees stands a long barrack constructed from wooden planks, and a board walk runs along its length; all in a surprisingly good condition. A neatly dressed woman coming out of the barrack assures me - it was built in 1941, certainly not later than early ‘40s; three families live in this barrack now, there’s one more behind this and another behind the shop…
But it’s the thought of seeing a lagier close up that has excited my imagination. It’s a long walk to shaft #3 in Domannik - three miles of concreted road, and the sun is beating down. The posiolek? Just follow the road and take the first turn left… And so I do - past the boiler house with a flourishing fountain in front of the administrative block and along the pavement shaded by trees on both sides; I turn left and… unbelievably, I can see what looks like a lagier! I can touch it! Solid wooden fence some six-eight feet high, coils of barbed wire, watch towers… I follow the wall cautiously - junk, disintegrating shacks strewn in the grass as if the lagier had been under siege. As I approach the corner, guard dogs pick up my scent and burst out of their sheds… big, vicious-looking brutes, chill runs up my spine but their leash held. I manage to get past them, round the corner, face the main entrance, and… nothing! No one in their right mind would expect a foreigner to be loitering around here with the intent of taking photographs, but I do… A soldier comes out of the main entrance so I saunter up to him to pre-empt him, but he’s not interested – go and see the nachalnik if you want to see the lagier; the building is over there - and walks away for a smoke.
A young officer happens to be standing by the building - sleek black hair, impeccable uniform. His face lights up and I can see amazement in his eyes as I tell him my story. He calls over the nachalnik – listen, this man is from England, his uncle was imprisoned here in 1941… he would like to see the lagier… would you believe it! The nachalnik, big and strong like a bull, looks at me coolly not sure how to respond, but the young officer continues: can you come tomorrow? We will give you a lift to your hotel now. Come tomorrow at 10.30 promptly, it will be very interesting for us to hear your story, perhaps I can arrange for you to look inside the lagier from the first floor… but no photographs. He writes down his name, exact address of this place so a taxi will know where to bring me. The board by the main entrance to the building reads:
Official Establishment of the Republic of Komi
10.30 hrs next day I am there and walk into the proverbial lion’s den. The officer is not available and the meeting is likely to last a long time! Surely he would have known about it yesterday at the end of his working day. Evidently, old NKVD habits die hard. How many times have I read this, heard about it – you may be there, outside nachalnik’s office, standing, waiting, perhaps to plead help for your dying child, but nachalnik is busy, or not there – not for you! But I don’t need to plead; I have what I want; I have taken photographs and video… so I wait half an hour and leave. After all, it is a lagier - a prison - in Russia. Certainly, I would have been nicely surprised if they had let me in.
The old Yarega posiolek is just a few yards away. It is in complete ruin. Here and there grey, weathered and disintegrating timber dwellings lie prostrate while grass and shrubs penetrating their carcass add to an eerie ambience even in bright sunlight. Death of a posiolek, death of its people, but no cemeteries in the neighbourhood… A little further out by what’s left of the perimeter road, a more recent building in brick gapes at me as if begging for help, its windows smashed, doors wrenched out, floor strewn with glass, boarding and… books! I flick through the pages of several books – damp, the language is Russian, naturally; surely, I can save one book and take it home with me. A passer-by woman tells me gaily: oh this was our village store, shop, library… it was built in 1983… why, you want to rent it?
Back at the shaft, a little to the side, hidden amongst slim silver birch, I find an altogether different world. Several barracks, obviously old but perfectly maintained, their exterior timber walls in delicate milk-chocolate colours; all windows solidly in place. A ditch runs along side, its banks covered in grass and mass of lovely yellow flowers – a perfect setting except… I can smell oil. The water in the ditch is black, hardly flowing; surprising to see that mass of flowers blooming so happily in such oily environment.
Walking back along the road to Yarega I can admire the forest from close up – tall, slim, silver birch in pale green leaves contrast sharply with the dark density of whatever lies behind them. But not for long, for automobiles coming towards me zigzag and sway in a frightening way as if they were challenging me to miss a collision with them; one look at the road surface gives the reason – huge, frequent pot holes and shoals of loose gravel are the real challenge!
Further along the road I can smell oil again - black, thick oil burps in a pothole at the side of the road and flows sluggishly in the ditch. But oil has value, and further ahead, men are laying a pipeline – hey, you! Shpion? (Spy) shouts a worker good-humorously at the sight of my camera; I wave back – tourist, tourist!
The last-of-the-day workmen’s bus gives me a lift to Uhta. Misha, a young mechanic is the only other passenger. He invites me to his home so I can phone the UK; his parents are preparing their evening meal and are surprised but happy to see a visitor from the UK. Try once, try twice… but the phone doesn’t accept calls - they are in arrears with payments. The young man takes me round to his relatives across the corridor; and here the phone does work, so I make the call and leave a 100 rouble note as thanks – the relief on their faces is obvious.
Of course Misha’s parents insist on my having a meal with them. They place a large helping of scrambled eggs and potatoes on my plate but it’s obvious that this is about all there is to eat tonight so, of course, I am not hungry, and return most of what’s on my plate to them – it’s gone in an instant. As we drink tea, they sympathise with my search for the “footprints of our fathers”. Misha’s family originates from Molodechno in Ukraine; his grandfather was also represyonovany and died in some lagier, but Russia is their home now and, they too, are thinking of writing down their family’s history – so children will know.
On the way to the bus stop Misha and his father show me the new settlement - see these blocks… we moved in just in time, for when Gorbachov came to power, all work stopped and look what we have now: empty shells of buildings, no doors or windows... no one lives there, only rubbish and drugs and delinquents… OK I won’t spend much on beer - says the father to Misha in a quiet voice…
Follow the river Uhta downstream, past the petroleum refinery, past the industrial zone, to Dezhnevo; talk to anyone, and they will tell you this area was full of represyonovany people - someone had to lay down the railway tracks, build the rail bridge across river Uhta, work in the building materials plant - but all lagiers have been demolished and no trace of them remains today. But I discover that one lagier is still very much in use; a little beyond the village and right next to the road, its boundary wall, barbed wire and watch towers are all clearly visible as if on public display. There was another lagier nearby - Vetlosyan - on the opposite side of the river and the cemetery was up on mount Vetlosya, but the airport is there now.
It would have been a long wait in the mid-day heat for the bus to take me back to Uhta but, thankfully, Yurij pulls up at the bus stop and gives me a lift in his delivery van. Sangaradok? Of course I know it – I was born there, my mother still lives there! It’s no longer called Sangaradok – it’s Shadgaradok now – the hospital is still there, but there’s nothing left of the lagier.
The only respite from murderous conditions in any lagier a prisoner could hope for was a few days in hospital, and Sangaradok, even today, is the “lungs” of Uhta. The old hospital buildings have been knocked down in 1976 and replaced by more modern facilities, but the disintegrating carcass of one or two of the original wooden houses still lying in the lovely wooded park give a hint of how it had been. The nearby lagier in which women worked is also long gone but, amazingly, an entire street of houses dating from the 1940’s still exists; they were built by the prisoners for the bosses and officers, and they are still occupied today – a remarkable piece of history. Yurij shows me around the house he had built – three rooms, refrigerator, carpets, garden full of flowers and vegetables, and introduces me to his mother… A photograph? No, no… I am not dressed properly… my hair… But Yurij has no such inhibitions and poses proudly for the record. On the way out, we stop at the municipal cemetery by the road, but the guardian at its entrance tells me that graves from the 1940’s would be hard to find now.
On the way back from Sosnogorsk to Ukhta I had a memorable glimpse of another live lagier from the widow of my train carriage. As the train was passing the lagier wedged in between the rail tracks and the river Izhma, I could see right inside the perimeter walls - the death zones, the watch towers, barbed wire and search lights. At night, the search lights mounted on the watch towers were blindingly strong.
Back in Uhta, Vladimir, Nikolayewich Bublichenko, professor of history at Uhta University, is happy to talk about local history but there is really nothing left to see of the GULAG lagiers now - possibly something at Syrochayskaya colonia, Camp #13 is now Kirpichny posiolek, but they are all quite far from Uhta and roads are very bad so even taxi drivers will be reluctant to go there. But he does have some old photographs on an undeveloped film which may be of interest, so he will take a look.
Eugenia Anatolivna looks after the Memorial museum of the GULAG at the University – perhaps the most important item here is the thick volume of names and details of people executed in Stalin’s time, photographs and life-summaries of scientist are also displayed but there is very little to depict the life and conditions in a GULAG lagier.
At the end of the day I leave with the impression of Uhta being completely detached from its history of the first half of the 20th century, as if everything was normal, as if there was no pain, no fear, no brutality and cruelty, no work beyond endurance, no hunger, no death… The slate has been wiped clean; a forsaken monument here, another there… nothing left to understand or to make you cringe. Yet Uhta was the centre of the Uht-Izhemskyi ITL, one of the largest GULAGs in the Komi Republic. Some facts extracted from official sources show just how fickle life under Stalin had been:-
Back in1936 a group of Russian oil industry professionals was sent for six months to the United States to study the search, exploration and exploitation of oil and gas fields. A detailed report was published in the book "American Oil Industry." By the end of the 30-ies, two consecutive 5-year plans failed to meet the commitments of planned oil production in the whole of USSR so the entire group that travelled to study in the USA were shot, only A. Ya. Krems was spared.
The 17th International Geological Congress was held in Moscow in July 1937. From amongst Russian Geologist participating in the Congress, 11 were shot, 42 arrested, 4 repressed, 2 exiled, 1 suicide, 1escaped.
Typical death rate in all GULAG lagiers over the years was in the range 2-4% but some periods were truly shocking:
1933 deaths 6,729 15.0% of total prisoners in GULAG
1942 352,560 24.9%
1943 267,826 22.4%
1946 30,715 2.2%
1956 3,164 0.4%
In the light of these facts, the scene of people sunning themselves on the bank of river Uhta, or Elena with contented smile on her face, or fr. Albin writing about his four years in the oil mines of Yarega as if it was a normal assignment in the service of God… all so incongruous with Uhta of today. To the people I met here - GULAG - is distant history now; it’s no longer any part of their lives. Perhaps only with Misha and his father this history is just under their skin, still touchable. Perhaps it’s just life; that’s how it is…
VELSK – CHURGA
If you can forget the sand and dust blowing in your face, the pavements entrapping your feet, the pot-holed asphalted roads, the carbuncles of modern living… then you will have pleasant memories, as I do, of Velsk. True, back in the early1940’s, it was a staging point for many Polish, Ukrainian and other deportees on the way to a future masterminded by Stalin and neatly implemented by the NKVD - a future of hard labour and starvation to which many had succumbed. They would start here and trek thirty-forty kilometres through the taiga to their destination. But if for a moment you can set this history aside, Velsk becomes a remarkable little town.
A young man volunteers to show me around. A black kerchief on his head and hair done in a horse-tail made him look Ukrainian, but no, he is local; he comes from an “intellectual home” so he should, and does, know the history of this place. These remarkable old wooden houses, superficially still in an immaculate condition, date to pre-Bolshevik Revolution times! Several are of two-storeys and stand proudly in deep gardens lining one side of the street; but as if to prove the true age of its colleagues, one house, with a huge dormer for its second floor, lists noticeably to one side. The entire Ulitsa Pushkina is lined with remarkably well preserved timber houses.
One might think this town had escaped the ravages of the 1917 Revolution and the last War but, no, the young man assures me. Before the war, there were four orthodox churches here - all but one had been destroyed by Communists; the old town hall and many other buildings were destroyed too; the cemetery escaped the communist venom and even the graves of the burzhuys – of the rich and famous – from the mid 1800’s have been left intact.
The large, imposing building on the main street is the school, as it was then, only the ridiculous modern canopy over the main entrance spoils its classical lines. Another solid and imposing building stands hidden among trees – I thought this night have been a synagogue but, no, my guide tells me, look carefully, and you will see the copula and solid walls of what once was an Orthodox Church. This large building in front has been added post-war and is the local social centre now. Back in 1940 the Orthodox Church was converted into a warehouse and some of the Polish deportees in transit through Velsk had stayed in it while waiting for trains.
It’s strangely quiet in town today – more police on the streets than people at the moment; not surprising, perhaps, for it’s the 9th of June, Sunday, the one day in a year when, traditionally, people visit graves of those dear to them. I am here in the evening and, by now, the entrance to the cemetery has become a veritable rubbish dump of paper, packaging, cellophane and other rejects; inside the cemetery I am alone. Peace has descended on the graves hidden amongst the prolific growth of grass, shrubs and trees; some are inaccessible. I am used to the grey and dark colours predominating in cemeteries, and to the blue colours of the fencing around graves in Belarus, but here it is red - the Red of Communism, blood-red. Red Stars, monuments painted red, the whole statue of some dearly loved deceased young man is painted red. Evidently, on this day people take good care of their dear ones: some biscuits placed on this grave, pretzels or crumbs of bread on another, two perfectly parallel sweets on a biscuit laid tenderly on this one… dry flowers here, there; it’s a day the squirrels appreciate too.
Not a single Catholic grave amongst the sea of Orthodox crosses… but, finally, here’s one! A sturdy cross of wood stands forlorn in a totally overgrown spot – no sweets or biscuits here – and the name on the metal plate? 4506. I stumble on another sturdy but abandoned cross - Orthodox this time - and the name? 3196! And look as much as I can in the fading light, I find only one more Catholic cross – a befitting testimony to peace and love amongst people of all nationalities and all faiths. A Catholic and an Orthodox cross standing side by side mark two graves in an enclosure. The enamelled miniature of a woman’s sympathetic face is still attached to the Catholic cross - 1946 is clearly marked but the memorial of love cut by hand into the arm of the cross has faded away. Next to it stands the Orthodox cross with a fresh-looking enamelled portrait of Diedukin – his first name no longer readable. With a black cap cockily sitting on his head, drooping black moustache and a twinkle in his eyes he has taken his smile and good humour, his love of life and love of his wife to beyond the grave… gone in 1976.
Like the Polish deportees in 1940, I too am waiting for my train at the railway station. The old station is gone and now replaced by a new building in glass, pillars and marble; am I the only traveller? But the original water-tower still stands forlorn with memories of better days, and a loyal old brick building still sits at its foot. All steam locomotives are long-retired too, so there’s not much demand for the services of the water-tower now, and a large “dressing” on its forehead makes sure that you know it’s - FOR RENT.
- 0 –
Nadiezhda Vasilevna Lukinskaya was quite happy to have to get out of bed for she rarely gets an opportunity to reminisce - who wants to listen now- and today, quite unexpectedly, here’s someone from abroad. At 85, she still remembers it all so well; just ask, and flash-backs unroll non-stop.
…They came late in the autumn, just before the onset of winter. They were taken and deported here just as they stood - no winter clothing, no food, nothing. Women were wearing summer shoes! They had to build their own cabins and work in the forest cutting lumber. It was very hard work for them. They built their settlement in the forest on the edge of river Bolshaya Churga; we used to walk along the river bank to their place.
They were put in quarantine for the first month, and we had no contact with them. Then for the next three months we were not allowed to contact them, but later, it became easier and we tried to help as much as we could. They had very little food and we didn’t have any nice clothes so we bartered – food for clothes and other things they brought. In the spring and summer women could work in the kolkhoz and get some food; they also helped us in the fields and garden and were able to get some food that way. But many died. We liked them and we were on very friendly terms.
I remember a girl called Rozia; she was very beautiful and single. Then there was a man called Gorian - very tall. He used to come round to our home asking for food. Our dog didn’t like him, I think the dog was scared; one day Gorian came and the dog disappeared. Gorian died of TB.
Then one day, after the war broke out, many Poles just packed their things and left. The others who couldn’t leave stayed… you know… stayed here forever… (she points to the floor) When they were all gone, the barracks were pulled down and moved to another place where Banderowcy had a camp; they were a bad lot. The cemetery is not far from here, perhaps three kilometres, but I don’t think there’s much of it left now. There was another settlement and cemetery about six kilometres from here – Sholosh – but nothing remains of that; it’s all overgrown now. Some Polish people lived there too, and Ukrainians. There were other posiolki nearby: Shoksha, Ladochnoye, Ivanskoy…
Her son, now fifty plus, sits near by and listens with equal interest. He’s injured his back and doesn’t work while waiting for his pension, and… doesn’t drink! But he has no difficulty in making tea. A huge whitewashed stove sits in the middle of the room – we used to bake our own bread in it before, but now it’s cheaper and simpler to buy bread. The log cabin is solidly built from tree trunks; a large window gives plenty of light; they feel comfortable here. We used to have a cow, a pig, goats and chickens, our own orchard and fruit and grow all the vegetables and potatoes we needed, … but we don’t have the strength now, so we live off my mother’s pension, and I will have mine soon…
Nadiezhda’s nephew… well that’s a different story. He doesn’t work – what work is there in this place; and who would want to work, anyway? He “works” as a poacher… and he knows this territory like the palm of his hand. Ask him, and he will guide you anywhere you like, but his goodwill needs some lubrication, and the further to go, the more vodka it takes. His brother can also drink as much, but he’s not up to the task. Churga? Of course he knows it! He could walk there blindfold! Ask any poacher around here where they “work” and they will all tell you: where Polaki used to be; there, hidden by trees and shrubs amongst the graves they can drink happily, and no one will find them.
My driver friend, Nikolay, knows local poachers’ tradition – so, 200gms. for the guide, and 200gms. for himself from a bottle in the boot of his jeep, and we are off to meet those “that stayed”. Quite evidently, the 200gms. (perhaps a good deal more unobserved), gave Nikolay courage, for nothing impedes the jeep - neither the dead or live saplings flaying the windscreen, nor the ruts and mud-pits along the forest track, but eventually, dry sense takes over, the jeep stops, and we walk the last half-mile of the obstacle course – a mass of self-seeded saplings, decaying logs, undergrowth, and wet, mushy forest floor under our feet. Suddenly the guide exclaims: what’s happened here! The loggers have been at work again! I was here three years ago poaching and drinking with my mates, and some crosses were still standing. Now this whole area is covered with logs. But look… here’s a grave, see? There’s another, and there too! Indeed, the clearing is strewn with felled birch and fir trees, but burial mounds are discernible on the forest floor; he can easily pick them out - I wouldn’t have guessed.
A second dose of 200gms. and we are heading back - not so fast now, subdued a little. All around us are visible signs of wanton logging in the past: high tree stumps, uprooted trees, logs felled, abandoned and decaying, forest tracks overgrown with thicket running in all directions, bare patches of forest here, denser growth there, the entire forest floor covered with a soft carpet of moss and lichen… and yet, it all adds up to an ambience of mysticism and great natural beauty I have never seen in any of the forests in the UK. A unique, unforgettable world seemingly reminiscing quietly the bygone years, contemplating the mysticism of “greyness” where the white and the black in Mankind meet, of the mellow shades of brown, green and white, of the softness of sunlight filtering through the trees, of the life of the millions of microbes forming the delicate carpet at its feet, of the purpose of the life and death of those that “stayed behind”... It draws you to it, in silence, in peace, to eternity.
The next morning we start with an ambitious plan: Churga and Sholosh. It’s a day free from work so Nikolay brings his wife, Nastia, their little boy, Yaroslaw, and Nastia’s younger sister. On the way we stop for breakfast on a bluff overlooking Piezhma – a small river, rippling happily in a lovely setting. And what breakfast! Would I like a drink? I look at what’s in the bottle – no thank you; I try not to drink when travelling… Nicholay looks at me with understanding, and downs a 200gms. You know, we like to start an outing in a traditional, Russian way… Nastia looks at him with tender understanding. Pickled cucumbers, pork belly, vegetable salad, genuine hot tea in a thermos flask; only the bread remains to be cut… But that’s a job for Nicholay so he gets his ubiquitous axe out! I can do better; I have my ubiquitous Swiss knife!
The guide is waiting for us; the same Sunday-best on him, and the accumulation of the 200’s he had already consumed this morning mellowed him noticeably; is he up to the trip - I wonder? And so we start our trip in the “traditional Russian way”. The jeep pushes its way forcefully; nothing stands in its way; only I am picking up bumps on my head and wonder what’s in the tank – petrol or that 200gms. stuff? Are you sure this is the way – we have been here yesterday..? Yes, yes... go, go! The jeep loves it and lurches forward! Wait, wait… we overshot, go back… That’s it, turn here… The jeep runs carelessly over my lovely carpet of lichen and moss, pushes aside everything in its way, and ploughs through the young thicket invading this forest track but, eventually, it too, has to stop. We will have to walk from here… Nicholay decides to stay behind; I look at his feet and am not surprised - he is wearing light trainers!
Some very heavy tractors or trucks have cut two deep parallel ruts in the soft terrain here; and obviously, nothing passed this way for years now. The ruts act as drainage channels now totally overgrown with exuberant grass; a few healthy trees enmeshed in a thicket of dead undergrowth surround us… all grey, all covered in lichen, a three-dimensional ticks’ web. Only dull light penetrates here; water begins to squelch in my boots... Remember the swamps in Florida? No crocodiles here… but ticks! I have been warned so many times! In my excitement I forgot to bring my mosquito net, and anti-tick spray, and, and… and something has just bitten into my scalp! There should be an opening ahead of us; that’s where Churga was, the barracks stood… the guide mutters, not very convincingly. Indeed, more sunlight is getting through the thicket now and lovely yellow flowers bloom in the tall grass and… there it is!
A large open field bounded by a solid border of green; I could run for joy, throw my arms up in jubilation for having finally reached it, if I were not quite so tired; but I can still stand, walk in the grass, kneel and admire the mass of wild flowers. This is, this was – Churga! They came here in pantofelki, hungry, exhausted, and dumped into a future of labour, hunger, sickness, death… On the far side, standing at the edge of a steep bank, I can just hear a whisper and see the glint of reflected light - surely, there at the bottom, “lies” Bolshaya Churga; “lies” for how can it flow when its river bed is so overgrown by self seeded trees and bush?
I am looking round for some signs of habitation, and - nothing! Well, almost nothing, for lost in the tall grass lie the remnants of a large metal stove; and why is that large rectangle overgrown with such healthy shrubs, or that other patch in the midst of an open plain – are they not the signs of habitation? Nadiezhda Vasilevna did say the barracks were knocked down and removed; surely the guide knows; surely this must be the place of the Churga settlement?
See that trestle table? We brought it here; after poaching, we can sit, talk and drink here… Shall we go back now? Can you give me another 200 - asks the guide hesitantly. It’s in the jeep; let’s get there first. The guide looks somewhat perplexed and wobbly on his legs, but we set out – that way. He leads and I follow… and follow… and it’s beginning to look, well… not quite right. I think I may be lost… admits the guide; has he really run out of fuel? He shouts once, twice… but neither Nicholay nor the echo will answer, only deathly silence, no birds live or sing here, the trees and vegetation absorb all sound and life... I look at my GPS - unbelievable, we are going in the opposite direction! The guide, visibly resigned, follows meekly. Slowly we make our way through thick undergrowth… at last, we are back on track; back to Florida swamps… At last we can see Nicholay and the jeep. He too has that strange, befuddled air about him; I wonder how many 200’s he has had while waiting for our return; has he been calling out for us? But we do get back to Nadiezhda safely, and after drinks to everlasting friendship, and future visits, Nicholay, his family and I leave Churga.
By now Nicholay is in expansive mood and promises to show me something special. The doorway to Rostovskaya Cerkiev has been left wide open for posterity to see the fingerprints and footprints of Communism. Step inside and you will be riveted in place, slowly and in silence taking it all in – the world of our fathers destroyed; the world of God stripped of all its symbols, defaced, abandoned, and yet, it remains full of light and compelling beauty. In the pervading air of mysticism here, surprisingly, one feels no anger or sadness… only forgiveness. Is it not strange that when God’s house is dripping with ornate gold, when candles are burning, when the faithful, in prayer, are bowing and making the sign of cross… you are praying and thinking of yourself, of your own salvation, thinking only of you, you, You… but here, all your thoughts are with “them” who once prayed here; thoughts about their life, their death, their fate - thoughts about them, Them?
All internal doors are perfectly lined up and have been left flung open, the path is straight and lit up with sunrays streaming in from the external world, so have faith, walk these waves of broken floor slabs, broken glass, bottles and rubbish, and you will emerge into a truly God’s world. A serene, tranquil view welcomes us - an expanse of green, open landscape just for the four of us; the little boy runs down the slope to wash his feet in the clean, quiet waters of the river Vel. Behind us now, we can see what Man-of-faith has created and what Man-of-Communist doctrine ruined. The cerkiev, perhaps through its evident age and modesty, and its soul exposed for all to see, elicits a feeling of tenderness as if it was an injured and suffering child… and what Man no longer loves or wants, Mother Nature is willingly taking over. Next to the Cerkiev stands its inspiration – a remarkable little church well over a century old, if not much older, constructed entirely from wood now grey from age. It is listing noticeably now but it still stands, abandoned, neglected, left to die and be forgotten. In contrast, the graveyard, still in use today, is almost manicured in its looks and so incongruous in the setting of the abandoned Cerkiev that it makes you wonder where is the rationality in Man?
- 0 -
The coach from Velsk to Arkhangelsk takes the rough and the potholes in its stride, and the shakes and rattle keep me awake and enliven my thoughts with what I have experienced here. How lucky I have been! For when I struck up a conversation with two women when passing on my train through Velsk two weeks earlier, by sheer coincidence, one of them was Nastya - Nicholay’s wife. They listened to my story and went out of their way to help me; without them, and without Nicholay and his jeep, how could I ever have found and reached Churga?
What is it about the forest here that pulls me so? I have seen the forests along the “Anders Trail” in Poland – there the forest stood tall and big and strong, and proud… proud of having embraced and sheltered men and women fighting the Nazi and the Soviet invader, proud of the blood and lives sacrificed for freedom, proud of the bunkers, the monuments and cemeteries in its midst, proud of its history. And here? The forest stands subdued and contemplative - no battles, no revolts, no blood shed here… only hunger and sickness and death of many. Now, the only surviving witness and monument to history here is the forest itself left untouched for the past seventy years. For those who were forcibly brought here, the forest provided sustenance; for those that stayed here forever it is weaving a wonderful carpet of moss and lichen. The weathered tree stumps and abandoned logs in its midst provide testimony to the work of those it embraced, and to the mute suffering of the forest itself. And for the visitor in search of history this forest provides a remarkable and memorable blend of the beauty in Nature and the beast in Man…
And if Jozef – now 82 - stood here in place of me… what emotions would be troubling his heart and mind? For he may well have been standing on the spot where his grandmother, his aunt and uncle have been laid to rest for ever, yet there is no name plate, no cross, not even a mound to mark the place. Where could he kneel, where to pray, to lay a flower? Would he be consoled by the sombre beauty of the forest, or would his thoughts be full of anger at the beast in Man? Or is it all a long-gone history now – he was only nine at the time?
KOLA PENINSULA – MURMANSK
Valley of Death… Valley of Tears… keeps ringing in my ears, yet no one in Murmansk knows anything about it. Aleksandrow… no one has heard about it! But my father knew; 1,000 and possibly as many as 4,000 other Polish prisoners knew – their path led through this valley of tears - valley of death in Murmansk.
The Director of the Museum of Regional History in Murmansk is perplexed – Aleksandrow? The museum is truly impressive; you can see a huge print of Murmansk bombed out and burnt out by the Germans, but Aleksandrow, lagiers..? Not around here… indeed there is an Aleksandrow, and there might have been a GULAG lagier there, but that’s a long way from here… lagiers in, or within 9 kilometres of Murmansk..? peresylny lagier-346, or punkt-55..? And yet there are testimonies of Polish prisoners who were held there. The Director is truly perplexed now and, at my casual mention of Memorial, immediately puts me in touch with its representative.
Irina is perplexed too… a lagier 9 Km. from Murmansk station..? I was hoping Irina would know; she represents the Memorial Foundation in Murmansk and has been fighting for the acknowledgement of the fate of the represyonovany people – the repressed, imprisoned, tortured, executed… in Soviet times.
Irina walks me along some of the main streets of Murmansk and points out buildings with “history” - that’s where NKVD had their HQ, that’s where so and so was imprisoned, executed… she knows these places well… she was the Deputat - Councillor - to the City of Murmansk for six years before she was ousted. It has been a hard fight but finally she has something to show for it – here in the main square, almost side by side with the official war memorial, stands Irina’s memorial to the “VICTIMS OF POLITICAL REPRESSION”. The City had promised to fund the GULAG Museum in Murmansk, but these turned out to be empty promises and the project died. Has all knowledge of the lagiers died too; the slate of history wiped clean? But a number of even official sources show a cluster of GULAG lagiers around Murmansk – where are they?
There is a lagier - prison in Murmansk, up on the hill, overlooking railway tracks and the northern end of the port - perhaps this is one of the lagiers? The light is fading but I want a photograph, and as the camera clicks, the guard in the watch tower sees me and sounds the alarm; immediately three guards rush towards me standing by the main gate… To forestall their wrath and possibly unpleasant consequences, I shout: O.K, O.K… I have come all the way from England… my father was imprisoned here by the Soviets back in 1941… I want to show my grandchildren where it was… Perhaps taken aback by this frankness, the officer calms down and shouts: no more photographs… get lost! Of course I am happy to “get lost” now; I have a photo of the watch tower, the walls and barbed wire!
My frustration makes me take another look at the map of Murmansk published just this year, and there, to my amazement, marked in small but clear letters I see dolyna uiyuta - valley of homely comfort, valley of welcome – 9 Km. north of the station on the main road; it can’t be missed. It’s there! Just as it was described in the memoirs of those who had been there: 9 Km from Murmansk, lying in the large rift in the granite rocks falling away to the Bay of Murmansk to the west and swampy terrain to the east! The valley of death and tears has been renamed as the “valley of homely comfort - valley of welcome”!
A steep descent leads to the base of the rift - now levelled, covered in tarmac, stocked with trees, walkways and benches… Indeed, it welcomes you now - come, sit, relax, read a book, look around… To the west - black rocks of granite; to the east – a high ridge opening onto flat, green terrain. I am standing on the floor of a natural amphitheatre - up above, like in the Coliseum, the windows and balconies of modern blocks of apartments look down upon me; traffic and the populace look down on the amphitheatre floor from the opposite side. What prisoner could have escaped from this kettle surrounded by natural walls of sheer rock topped with barbed wire? Here, the imprisoned Christians were not faced by lions; here they were facing hunger, sickness and work beyond endurance; facing machine guns and bayonets of the godless …
An elderly woman, very neatly dressed as if for special occasion, was coming down the steps leading down to the floor of the amphitheatre. Oh yes, she is local, she has lived here from early childhood; no she doesn’t remember any lagiers here… And Aleksandrow? Why yes – Aleksandrow, that’s here; it’s the old name of my town, now it’s all Murmansk. Surely, this must be the place Polish prisoners wrote about in their memoirs, where my father was held – only the name has changed from the valley of tears or the valley of death to the “Valley of Welcome” Welcome indeed! I wonder what lies under the tarmac of this amphitheatre; there are no cemeteries in the neighbourhood yet so many prisoners perished here. I wonder who of those people sitting in the shade reading books, or basking in the autumnal sun knows what was taking place here back in 1941..?
But people in Murmansk have other very good reason to remember 1941 and the War – and rightly so – for the town was completely destroyed and burnt out by German bombing; casualties must have been horrendous. The photographic mural in the Museum of Regional History shows Murmansk after the bombing – shocking and unforgettable sight – nothing but rubble and skeletal remnants of buildings! Today, Murmansk is impressive and its sea port extends several kilometres along the Kolsky Zalyv. On the highest point overlooking Murmansk, stands a huge statue of a soldier facing west from whence the enemy came; not a particularly attractive statue, coarse and grey, but memorable for what it represents. The magnificent view from this point over the city and the port, and the open country melting into an infinite horizon to the west, attracts many visitors and wedding parties. The port presents a fascinating mass of infrastructure, ships and activity.
There were many more GULAG lagiers on the Kola Peninsula but little, if anything, of them remains in people’s memories – in Ponoy, Kandelaksha, Monchegorsk, Krasnoshelye and, later in Kirowsk; who knows where else. More and more lumber, minerals, quarries and railway tracks were required to support the war effort and the industrialization of the Soviet Union; and for all that, more and more forced labour was demanded.
A railway line was being built in the 1940’s to link the mining sites at Revda, Apatity, Kirovsk, Oktyaberskoy, and labour camps were set up along the track in the direction of Krasnoshelye. Only vague memories of these GULAG camps remain now, and what is left of them is now practically inaccessible by normal means of transport. Today they are remembered only as numbers - their distance from Oktyaberskoy: 62-km, 72-km, 82-km
GULAG Camp - 72km.
So how did I get there? What are the roads like - you may ask. Well… if you were made of rubber – you would have gone right through the metal roof; if you carried a lot of fat on your body – you would have lost most of it along the way; if you were of skin & bones – you would have found blue marks all over them; if you could have peeled a strip of your skin – you would have seen the hundreds of perforations from mosquito bites… and they were hungry for there were no other blood donors except the two human asses; even the bear took shelter in deeper woods. And yet, the trip was fascinating, exciting, memorable… an adventure I would never forego and be happy to repeat, even the moments when our truck fell into a pothole full of murky water, tilted 25o and stuck! Water flooded 1/3 of the truck and my rucksack… I had to wade out through this murky, muddy water onto “dry” land. Can you imagine how we got out and how it all ended?
And it’s at moments like this that, suddenly, a thought flashes through my mind: I am following in the footsteps of our fathers… and enjoying it, finding it exhilarating, a broad smile on my face! Am I not perverse - the worst kind of a tourist? I don’t kiss the ground our fathers trod; I don’t kneel or pray, or lift my fists in anger clamouring revenge. For here, our fathers were on an etap trudging in a column from one GULAG camp to another, guarded and hustled by armed guards and vicious dogs… hungry, exhausted, dressed in rugs, carrying their possessions. There was no smile on their face, their eyes stared blankly into the distance, their legs and feet covered in sores buckled under the strain, no anti-mosquito sprays… and that warning ringing in their ears: one step to the right or left out of the column, and we shoot to kill… And I am following in their footsteps… and enjoying it; I am laughing!
If you prefer the rough, the wild, the desolate and wilderness camouflaged by woods, the heat and mosquitoes and mites; if you prefer all that to the comfort of even the lowest-grade hotel and the predictability of a pre-arranged trip; if you like the look of streams of crystal clean water, views of open lakes with magical reflections… than undoubtedly this trip, this awful etap is for you; be a tourist, be an adventurer; try walk the etap if you dare! But if only you were alone, and had switched off the engine of the 4x4, and in the utter silence had let your soul free and just gazed at what’s around you… you would begin to feel what our fathers must have felt. You would see the endless kilometres of the railway line they were forced to build, the embankments they raised, the telephone and electricity lines laid through swamps and streams and forest… You would see railway bridges swept away by torrents; you would see the carcass of a steam engine swept off the rails… and you would know for sure that, in these conditions, many of our fathers must have perished; and you would look but find not even one cemetery… and the smile would fade on your face. And you would see clear signs of the final victory of Capitalism over Communism in the 1990’s: steel rails removed, telegraph poles abandoned to nature now looking like tumbling crucifixes strung with wires, the entire railway abandoned, unwanted, no longer competitive in the world of market economy, of satellite communications… Our fathers’ labour, their blood, sweat and tears, and lives - gone to waste, forgotten… left for tourists like me, or you to rediscover and ponder.
But if you were to follow the rail tracks, and if you knew where, you would have come to the place where they had come to, where their lives had come to an end in the 1940’s, 1950’s… you would have found a GULAG lagier; you would have found shreds of history of peoples’ lives, pain, sickens and death. And still, your heart would race in great excitement, adrenalin flow; you would dart here, there, everywhere; your camera would click away, for you have, at last, found visible, touchable, shreds of our fathers’ history - their footprints…
Now you can take a break, light a fire, bite into that thick slab of black bread, slonina and smoked salmon; watch in amazement the midnight-sun set the forest and your truck ablaze at 01.30 hrs; bed down for the sun-lit night in a forester’s wagon… But overnight, the gravity of what you had seen today would have overcome all your excitement, and you would know you had to go back, to see and feel what our fathers saw and might have felt. Now you see the perimeter fence still in place, barbed wire still cuts as it did then, and that wyshka - the watchtower - the hallmark of any lagier, still upright, but the guards gone, machine guns gone, the searchlight gone, cables dangling loosely, step ladder at a mad angle… no, you wouldn’t want to try getting up there. And here, there, and there, and there… you see collapsed barracks; grey, rotten timber cracks under your foot; you see death and decay on large scale; the greyness surrounding you is unnerving. Wow - you nearly fell into it! A pit dug deep yawns at you from under a roof of poles covered with earth at ground level… its gaping collapsed entrance beckons you in and would have welcomed you today as it had welcomed others in the 1940’s! Surely, this was no living quarters, more a grim prison inside a prison - an isolator - cold, wet, black, suffocating. And there! Two semicircular, large, black gaping holes glare at you from a mound of earth… and the cadaver of a grey, wooden something lies prostrate in front of them as if swallowed, digested and regurgitated by the hidden monster. Of course… it’s the ovens - they had to bake their own bread. And as you pace the length of the 200-metre perimeter fence, the next wyshka becomes discernible amongst the trees, its cabin blown off and the entire structure listing badly; and just here, the posts and barbed wire of the inner fence are recognizable too. Yes, it’s the death zone - the five-metre space between the outer and inner fence. If you were suicidal, just step into this space, and the guard in the wyshka would have immediately obliged you with a bullet. And those piles of stones and boulders lying here, there and there… what are they for? Are they the corner stones or foundations for the barracks, or… or do they mark the pits, the final resting place of the many that perished here..? No one lives to tell.
But eventually, you will have to stop, get that weight off your chest, start breathing, get your bearings; call out loud to your colleague, and you will be answered only by silence… And suddenly, you are struck by the realization that no cry of pain, or cry for help or prayer could ever have been heard outside the boundaries of this lagier, nor will it ever penetrate this dense, immovable volume of air suffocating the camp; here the air doesn’t vibrate, trees cushion and absorb all. As you look around, alone, silence becomes over-powering, the greyness becomes over-powering; the lagier has been taken over by self-seeded birch: slim, tall, silver, white, covered in new leaves… one tree for each departed soul? Even the sun rays that penetrate the thicket can not dispel that oppressive and claustrophobic feeling until… you look at the ground! You are stepping on the most beautiful natural carpet. Forget the best of the Persian carpets! None can compete with Nature, and none have soaked up as much blood, sweat and tears as the carpet under your feet. An amazing agglomeration of white, cream, brown, red, green moss and lichen woven into a fantastic mosaic of miniature flowers… deep and soft, tender almost. You will want to touch it, caress it… and in return, it would welcome you as it must have welcomed our fathers, yet nowhere in the area is there any evidence, not even a mound, of a cemetery or burial. And how many of our fathers had never returned..? The place will haunt your memory, yet you will want to return to it one day just to sit in solitude, in this deathly silence and try to understand why… this inhumanity of Man to Man?
But there were places along the way to the GULAG where you simply had to stop to absorb an entirely different experience. A wyshka! Just a hundred metres off the road, up on higher ground and towering well above even the tallest trees… no prison guards up on top, no machine guns trained on you, no vicious dogs minding its feet; on the contrary, it invites you to come and marvel at the infinite taiga. I have climbed a 67 metre high telecoms wyshka - but that was two years ago, and it was of welded steel construction… but this! Only half the height but most certainly not half as easy to climb, it’s a remarkable Meccano job from tree trunks and nails! A feat of carpentry, construction and erection skills – no mechanical cranes there at the time - only muscle power and ingenuity.
Step on rung one, two… 27… and all hell suddenly breaks loose around me! Miniature dive bombers like the Stukas of the Luftwaffe fall out of the sky, charge me and at the last moment veer away; the forest, forever in silence and composure, suddenly erupts in screaming… it’s a live scene from Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” and they are attacking me - crows! Crows? How could crows survive winter temperatures of -40oC; surely they are not migratory birds..? I freeze my hands onto the 4” tree trunks and, by sheer willpower, I can just about stop fear numbing my brain; crane my neck and there, directly above my head – crows nest! If I were a boy of some 10 or 12, I would have poked a stick into the nest and watched crow’s entire domain break up into shreds on the way down to the foot of the wyshka; I can imagine that bemused look on my face and my surprise that life can so easily be destroyed, but now, at 72… I am ready to let live and hope to live - a little longer?
With both feet back on the ground, I feel relieved, safe, happy, smiling… and Nature smiles back at me – I have not sinned. Soft, warm, appreciative rays of sun enliven the delicate green of the silver birch in spring. It has shown me the taiga in its fearful magnificence: a green plateau extending from here to almost eternity, at peril to those lost in its embrace, and there, in the far, far distance the magnificent Lovozerskoye Tundry like a huge grey whale streaked with layers of snow. But Man remains Nature’s brutal enemy for, first with axes, now with chain saws He cuts away at its life leaving huge eczema marks on its surface.
And to make the final point in the confrontation between Nature and Man - at the very top of the wyshka sits not a cross, or cockerel, or the double-headed black eagle of Tsarist Russia ag black crow! It had driven the invader away… it won! And what was the fate of the master-builders of this formidable wyshka - had they won their reprieve, had they found their way home through this immense taiga, or did they perish, as so many others..?
MAN & THE MOUNTAIN - KIROVSK
Polish people have a saying: “z motyka na ksiezyc” – a task as futile as prospecting with a pick & shovel on the moon. And yet, the Soviets did it – not on the moon, but in Kirovsk.
Can you imagine hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women chipping away at a mountain with picks and shovels to take the prize - Apatite - phosphate minerals? But Man is impatient… the picks & shovels and the lives of those wielding them have now been replaced by dynamite and heavy machinery; half the mountain is gone! Look at it from birds-eye view, or Google… and you are looking at a landscape on the moon: barren, pock-marked, grey. The Americans have also cut up a mountain in Nevada, but there, the mountain stands proud of its people and proud of its three Presidents; here - the mountain weeps. It’s a heart-wrenching site, an avalanche of chippings – as if tears - rolls down its face, grey from pain… did Man do it to you?
The mine - Kirovsky Rudnik - stands at the foot of the mountain – contented, proud to have been cutting the mountain since 1929. It will take all the tears shed by the mountain, process them, sell them to you and me. Somewhere around Kirovsk were lagiers, and prisoners, and the NKVD… no sign of them now; gone to history? A fresh coat of paint here and there on the administrative block, fresh coat of paint on adjacent workers’ residential blocks… orange, beige, milk-chocolate... the past forgotten; isn’t it all so pretty! But on the way back to Kirovsk town, just look north, across the lake… see the miserable, abandoned barracks? As in Workuta, the old thermal station still works, belching smoke blacker than the greyness of the Khibiny Mountains; the buildings and life around it are long dead.
A well known Russian film producer - Nikolay Dostal – set out to pass on to posterity “Lenin’s Testament”. The film was shot at the abandoned Lovchorr mine near Titan – Kirovsk at the actual place where the labour camp stood. Some original barracks were still there in 2004, others were reconstructed, barbed wire and wyshki were added to reflect camp conditions as they were in the 1940’s. The Memorial Foundation wanted to acquire the camp from the film producer but local authorities were against having a permanent exhibition of all that was wrong in Lenin’s legacy. Today, only a flat area strewn with stone chippings remains where the camp once stood. Pity the prisoners who were forced to work with pick and shovel at 800-1000 metres elevation …