Road of Bones

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

1. The Mask of Sorrow

From a hilltop above the North Pacific seaport of Magadan, Russia, The Mask of Sorrow—a 50-foot monument that resembles an Easter Island head—overlooks the city. You keep glimpsing this concrete memorial from afar as you move about town, passing Stalin-era buildings downtown, skirting abandoned construction sites, puzzling over the sight of two fighter jets perched on a huge steel structure over a creek, as if they had snagged themselves while flying under the radar. The giant face, by the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, is pocked on one side with lesions that resemble the “lion’s mask” of leprosy described by the Gulag author Varlam Shalamov. One of its eyes discharges blobby tears.

The monument honors the victims of the Kolyma Gulag camps, once centered here in Magadan. In Stalinist times, these people—millions, perhaps—were worked to death felling timber or frozen in punishment cells or simply called from their barracks and shot to meet the day’s quota of executions. Certain citizens of Magadan are proud of the monument: camp survivors, their children, people of conscience who preserved the memory of Soviet crimes. Few cities in Russia have ever created such a prominent memorial, and the organizers in Magadan had to overcome a hostile rear guard that asserted the past was a long time ago and never really happened anyway. Now, the organizers longed for the approval of a guest they were showing around town: a Chinese American human rights activist named Harry Wu.

But to his hosts’ surprise, Wu seemed dissatisfied. Wearing an elastic scowl and glasses that magnified his mournful eyes, he marched around with his hands clasped behind his back, in the manner of Chinese prisoners. One of his hosts, Miron Etlis, was a psychiatrist and Gulag survivor with a beard that had slipped down his throat like a muffler. He kept grabbing Wu by the elbow, as if to drag a word of praise out of him. But Wu told his hosts to pack up the monument and truck it down to the city center.

“You have to remove all the Lenin and Stalin statues and put up Gulag monuments,” Wu said, jabbing a finger at his hosts. “That’s the only way to keep it from coming back.”


It was July 1999, and my wife Nonna and I had come to Magadan from our home in Vladivostok to cover the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of this city of 100,000 people on the Sea of Okhotsk. (Prisoners began arriving in in the region in 1932, but the city was incorporated at the end of the decade.) Nonna was filing stories for Russian papers; I would freelance for the New York Times and other Western publications. As we waited for our flight in the Vladivostok airport, I met a San Diego–area advocate for human rights in Tibet, who was traveling to Magadan for a Gulag conference with Harry Wu.

“You mean the guy who sneaked back into China?” I said.

“That’s him. Would you like to meet him?”

Wu gained fame in 1991 after returning to his homeland, China, to document the use of prison labor in exported goods. On another trip he gathered evidence that the People’s Republic was harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for transplants. In 1995, Wu precipitated a diplomatic crisis when he was arrested in far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. His crime, Beijing stated, lay in “repeatedly entering China under false names, stealing Chinese state secrets and disseminating those secrets to institutions and organizations outside China”—that is, for the purpose of documenting the use of slave labor in China’s new economy. Under international pressure he was released.

That night in Magadan an oompah band thumped out marches and waltzes near our hotel on Lenin Prospekt, and cheerful drunks roamed the streets in the white night of a far northern summer. Of course, there would be a band—why not, how else would you celebrate a civic holiday? Except that—and perhaps it was unfair of me to bring it up, but still—hadn’t there been prisoner ensembles in Kolyma? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tells of an orchestra that welcomed a ship convoy to Magadan as it unloaded zeks, or prisoners, on the sea ice far from shore. “The orchestra played marches and waltzes, and the tormented, half-dead people strung along the ice in a gray line, dragging their Moscow belongings with them . . . and carrying on their shoulders other half-dead people—arthritis sufferers or prisoners without legs. (And the legless, too, got prison terms.)” Also, Yelena Vladimirova, a poet and Kolyma survivor, describes inmates marching off to work as a band played, among its members a one-legged boy in a jacket who “was banging the tight skin of a drum” and a bony, corpse-yellow clarinetist, raising his instrument “like the black beak of a giant bird.” The trumpeters’ blue lips

Were clamped to their trumpets’ shining brass,

Which was all aglow in the fierce cold.

They seemed a company of ghosts

Abroad in the frozen early mist . . .

Still, why begrudge a cold northern city a little music in its summer festival? It was still bright out at 10:00 p.m. when Nonna and I flagged down a car.


We had agreed to meet Harry Wu for a late dinner at a restaurant out by the cliff-lined Nagayeva Bay. In a private taxi, we approached a harbor with a couple of freighters at anchor, and above it, dilapidated tin-roofed homes and warehouses, and fenced yards of multicolored shipping containers. The quays were small compared to the miles of wharves along Vladivostok’s Zolotoi Rog harbor, but from 1932 to 1957 Nagayeva did a bustling traffic in human cargo. Former prisoner Janusz Bardach was shipped here in a converted freighter with perhaps six thousand other prisoners. At sea, criminals smashed through a bulkhead and dragged women, screaming and fighting, over to the men’s side like sacks of flour. Convicts sat on the women’s arms while their comrades gang-raped them. (“Lay still, bitch! You’ll choke on my cock if you don’t stop yelling!”) Hundreds of other men watched as the criminals beat and strangled women to death. Bardach was unable to get anyone to intervene. The ship’s crew finally stopped the melee by blasting the hold with icy water. Arriving in Magadan, the zeks disembarked down the gangplank in a harbor crowned by snowcapped hills. Images of Stalin were posted on billboards, warehouses, cliffsides. So were inspirational slogans:




I don’t remember why we met Wu out by the port rather than in the city center, or what restaurant we ate at. I have the impression it was a diner of a sort commonplace in Russia, with lace curtains and a reflective disco ball, and a menu of pork chops and fried fish and crepes stuffed with red salmon caviar. I do know we were at the table for a long time. It was light out when we arrived and dark when we left, in land so far north that in July you can read a novel outdoors at midnight. We lost track of time as Wu related his story.

The Chinese words for he and she are pronounced the same, and in English Wu beguilingly mixed them up as he spoke. Dryly, he recalled experiences he had once been unable to discuss without weeping. Or at any rate, he had cried the first time he told his story publicly, in a lecture after he arrived in America as an underfunded visiting scholar at Berkeley and began working the night shift at a doughnut shop. In the late 1950s, he was a geology student in Beijing when Chairman Mao encouraged free expression by “letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” Party cadres urged students to critique the new order. Speak out! Make posters! Help strengthen the system! Wu criticized the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Party’s caste system, and the campaign against “counterrevolutionaries.” But the Great Helmsman evidently was alarmed by that messy and ungrateful thing called free speech, and he reversed himself and had the Party cull those who had taken him at his word. Wu was a baseball player whose father was a banker—a class enemy—and it was an easy call to recast him as a “counterrevolutionary rightist.”

One day he arrived in a classroom for a meeting. Chalked on the blackboard under a poster of Mao was this: “Meeting to Criticize the Rightist Wu Hongda” (Harry Wu’s Chinese name). Students shouted accusations. “Wu Hongda still refuses to reform himself!” “Down with Wu Hongda, he must now show us his true face!” At the end of the session, a Party security officer entered and led Wu away.

During our interview in Magadan and in memoirs, Wu recalled his first night in prison, when he was led to a bare interrogation room. A police captain was waiting at a table. “Sit down!” he said. There was no bench or stool. Wu squatted. The captain tilted a desk lamp up to blind his prisoner, and ordered him to state his name, age, occupation, and crime.

“I am a counterrevolutionary rightist,” Wu said. “In the Hundred Flowers campaign I attacked the Communist Party. I still have a lot of poisonous ideas.”

“Do you know your sentence?” the police captain said.

Wu did not.

“You’ve been sentenced to life.”

The captain demanded further confessions, and when Wu’s answers did not satisfy, he kicked open a second door. In another room something was hanging from the rafters: a body. Another prisoner sprawled naked on the wet floor, unconscious. The interrogator said he would give Wu a day to come up with a better confession. Otherwise, he’d end up in that room.

Wu would spend eighteen years in labor camps, at times on starvation rations. He survived under the tutelage of a chicken thief known as Big Mouth Xing, who taught him to catch frogs and snakes in the fields, to dig up rat burrows and steal their stores of grain and seeds, and to strike back ruthlessly when attacked by criminals.

Wu told us he had come to Magadan at his own expense because of the importance of this anniversary. Mao had modeled his Laogai (China’s prison system) after the Gulag. Russia was opening up under Yeltsin, true, but the country still was reluctant to confront its past. Russians needed to do more. He planned to say that to the leaders of Magadan.

2. A Brief Resurrection

Miron Etlis, the muffler-bearded Gulag survivor, headed the Magadan chapter of Memorial, a group formed to remember the victims of the Soviet era. In 1953, as a university student, he had been swept up in Stalin’s reign of terror. A friend of Etlis’s was active in a radical group with five other courageous teenagers, but when they were discovered, the NKVD (the secret police) raked Etlis in, too, although he was not involved. He was fortunate to be arrested in the year Stalin died and not in 1937, or he undoubtedly would have been shot. As it was, he spent three years in the camps. Etlis later told Standpoint that he worked alongside German prisoners of war, and one of them urged him somehow to escape to the West and tell the world of the horrors of the Gulag. Etlis could not stomach this from a Nazi. He said he would never betray his country. As he recalled, the German grew angry and shouted, “We have bases in the Andes and the Amazon; Hitler is in Argentina. We will return to annihilate you, maybe in ten, maybe in fifty years!”

We met Etlis at the academic conference on Kolyma the morning after our dinner with Wu. “Conference” is a generous word for an event that  took place in a classroom, but it offered a counterpoint to the civic celebration’s congratulatory speeches and oompah band with the corpse-yellow musician playing a clarinet like the black beak of a bird. Absolutely: a survivor should be at the center of this event, but unlike Wu, with his mournful recollections on a universe of terror, Etlis leaned back in his seat and gestured grandiloquently, giving the impression that the only trustworthy information was that which flowed through him. A student nervously read a fascinating and deeply sad report on the Gulag’s child prisoners. Etlis scolded him for inadequacies in the paper. The student sat down, red-faced and chastened. An American journalist would later recount how Etlis hijacked his reporting agenda during a visit to Magadan, striking off some interviews and arranging others. (“This guy’ll be too drunk for you to talk to . . . This one’s unreliable; we can find you someone better than him. . . . This one—maybe.”)

That afternoon I trailed Etlis and his entourage as they showed Wu Magadan. A statue of Lenin stands downtown, as it does in Vladivostok, and a street and school were named for Eduard Berzin, director of Dalstroi, the NKVD entity that built and ran the camps. The zeks of Kolyma would remember the Berzin era with nostalgia: prisoners were fed a sufficient diet, their workdays were reasonable, they were more adequately clothed for the sub-Arctic camps. But Berzin was the one who founded the slave empire here in the Far East. It was unsettling to find his burly-necked bust displayed on a pedestal in front of city hall. Berzin was purged in 1937, like so many of Stalin’s henchmen, and local officials have recast him as a victim. Some in Etlis’s group found commemoration of Berzin offensive. A city librarian, who helped former inmates gather the documents necessary to apply for federal aid, told me the sculpture “sends chills down my spine. He’s a murderer.”

Together we headed up the mountain to visit The Mask of Sorrow. Etlis, who led the drive to build the monument, lectured on the way up. Wu nodded gravely. From where we parked, the lion’s mask of leprosy rose above us. Those seeming lesions on the brow, it turned out, were smaller faces formed of concrete, as were the tears, and a cross is incorporated into The Mask’s brow and nose. Yet the overall impression is more pagan than Christian. The sculpture’s power lies in its scale. Skull-like, it dominates the landscape, refusing to let Magadan forget its history. As such, it is a hopeful sign for this region, if not for Russia as a whole. A few years ago, before the switcheroo that put Vladimir Putin back in power, then-president Dmitry Medvedev laid a bouquet of red carnations at The Mask, calling the Gulag era “a tragic page in our country’s history.”

Yet as you head up the hill to the god of many faces, a messaging problem emerges. The path is marked by a series of smaller monuments to Soviet victims: an Orthodox cross, a Star of David, a crescent, and, troublingly, a hammer and sickle, for the communists who were purged. This memorial to the Bolsheviks works like a splinter into your brain. Yes, the repressions devoured millions of Party members, but it was communists who built Stalin’s meat grinder and fed it with the bodies of their countrymen until, to their alarm, its gnashing teeth snagged them by the sleeve and dragged them in as well. The Party celebrated the dictatorship of the proletariat, deemed “class enemies” as automatically guilty and undeserving of basic legal rights, and shrugged off rumors of mass deportations and murders of the peasantry. Whenever the apartment elevators creaked to life after midnight, carrying up the NKVD agents to arrest neighbors and send their children to orphanages, they philosophized, like Olga Adamova-Sliozberg’s husband, that “if you chop down trees, the chips are bound to fly.” (Both Olga and her husband were later arrested.) Besides, unlike Christians and Jews, Party members were not purged because of their beliefs, but in spite of them. But here on this mountain, the killer had slipped on the white robes of the martyr.

There is a strain of thought in Russia that holds that everyone suffered in the Great Terror and therefore no one is to blame for its excesses, except maybe Stalin. Recently, President Putin himself seemed not to understand the particular fears of national minorities who were deported en masse from their homeland under Stalin: “Yes, there was a period when Crimean Tatars as well as some other peoples of the USSR were treated cruelly and unjustly. I will say one thing: many millions of people of different nationalities suffered from repressions back then, most of all, of course, Russians.” Possibly this blurring of the distinction between victim and oppressor is what annoyed Wu. A similar phenomenon occurred in China when it awoke from the madness and bloodshed of Maoism. After his release, Wu looked up several cadres who had been instrumental in denouncing him. All of them shrugged off responsibility. The Party was the victim, they insisted. One of his tormenters told him, “The whole country suffered; our Party has suffered.”

On the face of The Mask, a set of steps with a handrail leads inside, as if this were the entrance to a factory cafeteria. The mishmash of symbolism continues within: there is a sculpture of a weeping woman, as well as a headless crucifix (why headless?). Wu took in the view out a window that forms one of the eyes.

Who were these dead we were remembering? Their name was legion. The great scholar of the Gulag, Robert Conquest, relying on ship manifests and other documents, said Kolyma’s dead totaled three million; others claimed the number was smaller, in the hundreds of thousands. “They all died,” begins Shalamov’s short story, “An Epitaph.” The story, which forms part of his chronicle of the camps, Kolyma Tales, amounts to a series of character sketches naming the dead. A peasant who had organized the first collective farm in Russia. An economist who could not grasp what was being done to him. A Dutch communist whose wife sent him a parcel containing a photograph of herself and a velvet suit. (A criminal stole the portrait to augment his fantasies during masturbation; the Dutchman went mad.) An unnamed sweet young girl dies at Izvestkovaya women’s camp, according to the greatest of the Kolyma memoirists, Eugenia Ginzburg; Simka the Block, “an aberration from a psychiatry textbook come to life,” strangles the girl for the fun of it. In Shalamov’s “Lend-Lease” the earth itself cannot stomach the dead. The stony permafrost regurgitates thousands of frozen corpses. “Nothing had decayed: the twisted fingers, the pus-filled toes which were reduced to mere stumps after frostbite, the skin scratched bloody and eyes burning with a hungry gleam.” An American-made bulldozer driven by a privileged criminal scoops up and reburies the corpses.

As Wu walked around the memorial, I recalled a story he had told us the previous night. During a famine across China, the prisoners lay in their barracks, immobile, because to move meant to burn calories. The dead were carried out every day. A prisoner named Chen Ming seemed to give up the ghost, and was taken away. But Chen revived in the morgue and terrified the duty prisoner when he rattled the door from inside. The guards returned him to the barracks, and Wu demanded that they give Chen something to eat.

“The meal is over and he missed it,” the captain said. “That’s all.”

“But he’s not an ordinary prisoner,” Wu said. “He has come back from hell.”

The captain relented and had someone bring Chen two steamed buns, the good kind that the guards ate, made of corn flour, not the ground corncobs served to the prisoners. Chen gobbled down both of them. At once he cried out in pain and collapsed, dead again, this time for real. Chen’s brief resurrection reawakened a capability to mourn in Wu, and he flung himself atop the body. A captain shouted at him. Wu wouldn’t move. Eventually the captain shrugged and told him okay. Go. Go with Chen.

So Wu went along with the gravediggers on an oxcart loaded with stick-figure corpses. Soon the cart began bumping along. They were in a field. Graves covered the land. The cart was thumping over them. Holes had been clawed up, scraps of clothing flung about, as if wild dogs were digging up the bones. Later, as Wu returned to camp, it came to him that life is but a cigarette ash flicked away in the wind. Yet he vowed he would live.

“I could not simply slide into nothingness and join Chen Ming,” Wu later wrote. “I had to use my life purposefully and try to change the society. In that way my own existence would not be mere dust but would have some value.”


3. The Gambler’s Wife

After my visit to The Mask, Nonna and I arranged to write about an operating gold mine that had formerly been a Gulag camp. Mining had once been the most feared work assignment in Kolyma. Shalamov himself toiled in the gold mines, which, he writes in “An Epitaph,” “transformed healthy people into invalids in three weeks by hunger, lack of sleep, long hours of heavy work, beatings.” In “Descendant of a Decembrist,” miners sleep in tents in a land where temperatures fall to the minus seventies Fahrenheit. In the shafts and pits guards beat zeks where they fall, kick their teeth in. The narrator, Andreyev, leans into a horse collar, raising blood blisters on his chest, as he and other zeks pull a stone-laden cart up the steep mine floor. “The collar was the same device used long ago by the ancient Egyptians,” Andreyev says. “I saw it, experienced it myself.”

We needed a car and driver, so the front desk at our hotel directed us to a taxi company they deemed reputable. A driver showed up, a man with a knife scar on his face who wore all black: jeans, shirt, leather jacket. His Toyota Crown had been imported used from Japan, like most cars in the Russian Far East, and this meant its steering wheel was on the righthand side. When he heard we wanted to go 240 miles north of Magadan, he said we needed a bodyguard.


“Of course.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“A lot of gold moves down that road. A couple of drivers were murdered this summer.”

I did not know if this was true, or if he wanted to throw some work to a friend, but we agreed. On the way out of town we picked up our bodyguard, an ex-cop and ex-con named Igor, who also dressed in black. He carried a daypack stocked with a pistol and a liter of vodka. We headed up Federal Highway M56, the Kolyma Highway, also known as the Road of Bones because of the thousands who died building it.

As we headed north toward the mountains, the outskirts of the city fell away. The road suffers from the weather, and in the winter you are advised to drive on frozen rivers instead. Potholes and patches of gravel bounced us about in our seats. Farther along, the highway was washed out altogether in spots. The M56 runs 1,200 miles from Magadan to Yakutsk, and Gulag workers mostly built it using picks and shovels. Mile upon mile of collapsing wooden fences parallel the road. These were constructed by zeks to keep the snowdrifts off the road.

The flora depends on how high you are willing to hike up from the road. In river valleys, hunkering below the winds, are bulrushy swamps and copses of dwarf Japanese pines and stunted Siberian larches and birches; several hundred yards up the slopes, tundra takes over, with lichen and thin, brutalized shrubs. We skirted a meadow where even in July the snow momentarily blinded us; it never melts because the permafrost hugs the surface. In this region a botanical curiosity marks the onset of winter, according to Shalamov: The dwarf cedar serves as a weatherman. A few days before the first snowfall, the cedar senses what is coming, the devil knows how. Its two-fists-thick trunk bends over, and it lies on the earth and stretches itself out on the ground. A day or two later, a blizzard blows in. The prophetic dwarf remains buried for months. Then, even as humans despair that spring will ever return, the cedar decides that winter has gone on long enough. It stands up and shrugs off its mantle of snow. And within days, a thaw begins.

I kept watch for outlaws, but the road was empty. It wasn’t always like this. In “Lend-Lease,” Shalamov tells how, day and night, U.S. war aid, Diamond and Studebaker trucks, used to crowd the road. In another story a character spends two days traveling the Kolyma Highway “with its incessant flow of vehicles and a checkpoint every kilometer.” But as we drove, only rarely did a car or truck emerge around a bend ahead and vanish behind us.

Road of Bones: the nickname is not merely metaphorical. Because of the difficulty of digging up the frozen earth, the dead reportedly were buried under the highway and paved over. A woman who runs a local museum once called the M56 “the biggest cemetery in the world.” This made our road trip a sacrilege. Among the laborers were children as young as twelve, the woman said. “At least twenty-five people died on that road every day, and nobody knows who most of them were,” she told a reporter. “Bones are always popping up through the surface.” She also said her father had been a Gulag guard. He didn’t like to talk about those days.

Igor, our bodyguard, turned around and knelt on the front passenger seat, facing Nonna and me, to make sure we didn’t miss anything, he said. Seldom are the garrulous interesting, but I began taking notes. Perhaps it pleased him to have a foreign reporter as a captive audience. The driver kept nodding to the rhythm of the car, like a meditating Buddhist, or maybe he was agreeing that everything we were hearing should be received as gospel, such as the story about how Igor arrested the wrong suspect and broke his own arm in the process.

“How’d that happen?” I said.

“Guy fought back with a gasoline-soaked torch.”

Igor was full of the schemes and wisdom of the Far North. Whenever we stopped to stretch our legs, clouds of mosquitoes attacked us. He told us his cure for the itching: daub the bites with salty water. When I asked about the winters here, he told a tale of his own survival. Once, when the thermometer fell to minus fifty-eight, his car sputtered to a stop on an empty road. The gasoline in the engine was freezing. So he dragged his spare tire from the trunk and set fire to it to stay warm, he said, then defrosted the gas tank with a blowtorch. When I idly wondered whether I would find e-mail access at our hotel, Igor asked the driver to pull off by a rural bank branch, and dashed inside. He returned a few minutes later. “Didn’t work,” he said. Turned out he had told the manager he was with the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, and he needed to check his Hotmail account. Inexplicably, the manager didn’t buy the story.

Igor also volunteered highlights from a crime-fighting career that had begun in glory and ended in a prison sentence, but fate was queen, and we all were her vassals. He’d started out as a security guard but landed a job with the police after he helped solve a case involving a deaf murderer. Igor had outwitted the guy. The trick: Igor brought a sign-language interpreter to a restaurant, and she read the deaf suspect’s conversation from across the room. The suspect described the crime, and the cops had their man. Igor became a cop.

Trouble came, however, the night of a card game with a gambling addict.

“Trouble?” Nonna said.

“Big time.”

Igor was at the gambler’s apartment. The men were downing glasses from a pail of beer of the sort you refill from a keg at a local kiosk. The gambler’s wife was hovering in the background, who knows, perhaps serving pickles and sardines, clearing dishes, telling her husband he’d had enough to drink. I no longer remember her name. Zoya, let’s say. Surely she’d seen many of these card games, Zoya. She was a babe, although Igor didn’t say whether she was a pale Nordic goddess or a Far Eastern beauty with dark hair and a slant of eyes that hinted at indigenous blood. Every time her husband, the gambler, lost, he played another round. Zoya tried to stop him, for Christ’s sake, they were losing everything they owned. The gambler told Igor, “You see what I have to put up with?” Piece by piece he lost everything: the family’s cash, the tape recorder, the videocassette player, the TV.

In the end, he had nothing left to bet. Clothes were worthless; kitchen utensils, too. He glanced around, and his eyes settled on his wife. The bitch. The one who was always after him. Who couldn’t get it through her skull that a man had to have a bit of fun. What did beauty matter if your woman was impossible to live with? This must have been his line of thinking.

“What about Zoya?” the gambler said.

“What about her?”

“I’ll bet her.”

Igor looked at Zoya in surprise. She was standing behind her husband, and she stared right back at Igor. He was single in those days. There were times when a woman pierced your soul, and you entered hers, with a glance. We knew what he meant, right? Or maybe Zoya just thought anything was better than being married to a drunk. Thing was, she agreed. Fine with me. Go ahead. Bet me.

The gambler dealt. Igor had always been a cool player, but he was wildly excited. His face was hot. The only thing he could think about was stripping Zoya naked and—but then, glancing at Nonna, he said, Well, anyway. But lovely Zoya was thinking the same thing. You could tell.

And he won! He won a girl! Zoyechka the beauty! My God, was she really scurrying to gather her coat and purse and toiletries? Did she mean to come home with him—tonight?!

Sad to say, this budding romance would never flower because the gambler began shouting, “Thief!” Neighbors barged in, a brawl erupted. Defending himself, Igor severely injured one of his assailants, and he—could we believe it?—he was the one who ended up in prison. Zoya? Who knew? Maybe she had no use for an ex-cop behind bars. Who could blame her? Story for another day: In prison Igor and three hundred other ex-cop inmates rioted against fifteen hundred common felons, your basic thieves and rapists and parricides and whatnot, who had been preying on the police. The cops won. This is what Igor claimed, anyway.

Sometimes everything in Kolyma seems to have literary antecedents. A Shalamov short story, “On Tick,” foreshadowed Igor’s card game in the land where the dwarves lie down when it snows. Shalamov tells of a brute named Naumov who loses all his possessions in a card game: pants, jacket, blanket, the pillow treasured by criminals. “The game continued,” Shalamov writes. “According to the rules it could not be ended until one of the partners had nothing left with which to answer.” (Could some vestige of this ethic have driven Igor’s friend to wager his wife?) Looking for something else to bet, Naumov demands another inmate’s red wool sweater. The man refuses; his wife had sent him the sweater. The criminals knife him to death and strip the sweater from his corpse. Blood leaves no stain on red wool. Naumov bets the sweater. He loses it, too.

Shalamov and the memoirist Eugenia Ginzburg were not alone in creating literature from the camps of the Northeast. Solzhenitsyn would wonder why so many great writers of the Gulag emerged from Kolyma. These camps also produced (or, rather, failed to kill) the poet Yelena Vladimirova, who wrote the verses about the band with the one-legged drummer. Arrested in 1937, she was dispatched to Kolyma; her husband was shot. As she worked on a logging crew, she discovered a capacity for composing verses in her head. The poem she wrote, “Kolyma,” grew to 4,000 lines. She then revised the entire saga in her mind, a task even harder than writing it in the first place, she later said. Fellow zeks memorized sections and spread them like samizdats. Vladimirova found a young woman who was willing to commit the entire poem to memory, risking a ten-year extension of her sentence.

“When we came back from felling trees, we would sit down somewhere outdoors and pretend to be chatting,” Vladimirova said. “In fact, we were working. If anyone had overheard a single word, both of us would have been finished.”

But Vladimirova was sent to a different camp before they were done, so she began writing “Kolyma” on cigarette paper, twenty lines per page, two hundred papers in all. She wrote in the open; it was essential not to look secretive. One day a guard looked her way and came running at her. “Keep calm!” she told herself, her heart pounding. But the guard was staring at something over her head. Someone had committed the frightful offense of hanging out their wash on the roof behind her.


That night we found a hotel in a village near the mine, which was called Rudnik Matrosova. We would have gotten a room for our driver and bodyguard, but both men said they were happy to tilt back the seats in the Toyota and spend the night out there with the vodka bottle. They were worried about car thieves. It was already bright out when I woke at 4:00 a.m., and after breakfast we went on to the mine. Rudnik Matrosova was named not for a zek but for a World War II hero who had died flinging himself on a German machine gun nest. While our road crew cooled their heels, Nonna and I spent the morning at the mine. The main building was the size of a hangar, and the heads of stone gods tumbled up conveyors at steep angles. In the mine pit, wooly mammoths were reincarnated as trucks. A bulldozer with a raised blade carted away frozen bodies dug out of the permafrost. Or, no, not bodies, how could you mistake them for bodies? They were rocks.

In the main building, you had to shout over the din of machines grinding stone. The security guards were all women, deemed more trustworthy than the hooligans and drunks known as men. The guards stood watching the laborers,  shotguns at the ready, in case anyone thought to pocket a chunk of ore or a pinch of gold dust. The machines pulverized tons of rocks every day and flushed the sand through ridged basins, where the gold would sink. Over the course of our tour I noticed a strange phenomenon. Many of the miners, largely men in their thirties and forties, had malarial-yellow eyes, a symptom of cirrhosis. You could not stop staring at the lemon rinds of their scleras, which was just as well because it meant you were looking them in the eye.

Rudnik Matrosova is so remote and the winters so long, boredom takes its toll in the dark months.

“Those who don’t have any hobbies start drinking,” the chief engineer told us. “And usually when they start drinking, they die.”

Afterward, we reversed our sacrilege and drove back down a good length of the world’s largest cemetery to Magadan. The Toyota Crown bounced in the ruts, like the oxcart that bore Harry Wu over the graves where wild dogs perhaps had been digging up bones and rags, or perhaps not. No bones came up through the highway as we drove. But the dead were with us, their entire frozen bodies, their eyes blazing. If you were so inclined, you could say a prayer for their souls, a thousand prayers, but there was nothing else to do. We had to get back. The Road of Bones was the only way.


4. “Big, Husky Men”

Once in an interview, Oliver Stone explained why he created a film hagiography of Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s vice president from 1941 to 1945. “We like the dreamers who actually see a different world, a better world,” Stone told a reporter. “And nobody embodies that more than Henry Wallace.” If only, if only—if the 1944 Democratic Convention had not booted Wallace from the ticket in favor of Harry Truman, “there could have been no Atomic bomb, no nuclear arms race, and maybe even no Cold War,” Stone said. Also Christ would have returned, the state would have withered away, and Stalin and his victims would have played horseshoes together in the Ossetian highlands.

As it happens, this misunderstood visionary—I mean Wallace, not Stalin—came to Kolyma on an official visit in 1944, bringing with him a philosophical outlook well suited to a sojourn in a land whose god was Moloch. (“Fancy that, how they used to worship God! Just as if he were Stalin,” a Magadan moviegoer cried out within earshot of Eugenia Ginzburg in 1953.) That is to say, Wallace was well suited from the perspective of his hosts. A former agriculture secretary, Wallace was a leftist and spiritual seeker whose influences “included, for a time, a Russian émigré, theosophist, and confidence man named Nicholas Roerich, whom—before he turned against him—Wallace addressed as ‘Dear Guru.’” Roerich believed a New Age was at hand. Perhaps the approaching Millennium might have something to do with hog feed; an abiding aspiration of Wallace’s was “to make the world safe for corn breeders.”

Wallace flew to Russia via Alaska, and in preparation for his visit, his Soviet hosts turned Magadan and one of Kolyma’s mines into Potemkin villages. During the Americans’ visit, officials rolled up the barbed wire, tore down guard towers, filled stores with luxury goods that were normally unavailable, and kept armies of prisoners indoors. The trip was a propaganda triumph for the Soviets. Wallace reported in his book on the trip, Soviet Asia Mission, that Dalstroi, the NKVD penal authority that oversaw the camps, was “a combination TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] and Hudson’s Bay Company.” Elinor Lipper, a Kolyma prisoner who was released to the West after eleven years in the camps, would later retort that “neither the Hudson’s Bay Company nor the TVA shoots its workers if they refuse to go to work.” The vice president incorrectly stated that free settlers built Magadan; in fact, it was zeks. He was delighted to spot a U.S. Lend-Lease ship in the harbor, unaware that these vessels, provided for the Soviet war effort, were being used instead to transport prisoners, as were the U.S. trucks that ran up and down the Road of Bones.

At the mine in the North, Wallace chuckled at the way Dalstroi’s brutal boss, Ivan Nikishov, “gamboled about, enjoying the wonderful air immensely.” Dalstroi officials had replaced the starved, scurvy-ridden zeks with guards and Komsomol members dressed as miners, and Wallace mused, “The Kolyma gold miners are big, husky men, who came out of the Far East from European Russia.” Thomas Sgovio, an American prisoner of Kolyma at the time of Wallace’s visit, later stated that the area was known as the Valley of Death. A doctor who worked there wrote, “Almost every day corpses of those who had died in mines of hypothermia were brought to the morgue. . . . Every day a small wash-basin was full of frostbitten fingers and toes that we chopped off.”

Lipper, a Dutch communist who spent eleven years in the camps, was outraged by the vice president’s report. She later wrote:

It is too bad that Wallace never saw [Nikishov] “gamboling about” on one of his drunken rages around the prison camps, raining filthy, savage language upon the heads of the exhausted, starving prisoners, having them locked up in solitary confinement for no offense whatsoever, and sending them into the gold mines to work fourteen and sixteen hours a day, at no matter what human cost.

To his credit, Wallace later apologized after Lipper’s memoirs were published, Vadim J. Birstein writes in an essay for the Woodrow Wilson Center Cold War History Project. “I can see after reading accounts by former slave laborers who escaped from Siberia that I was altogether too much impressed by the show put on by high Russian officials,” Wallace admitted.

One may object that it is unrealistic to expect a foreign delegation to uncover slave labor camps on a tightly controlled visit. But this really doesn’t let the Americans off the hook. The problem is that they were ideologically incapable of skepticism about the Soviet Union. John Hazard, an American interpreter on the trip, later claimed that structures could be seen near Magadan, “and when I asked the Russians what they were, they replied perfectly frankly that they were the stockades of prison camps.” Birstein adds, “It remains a mystery why Hazard, supposedly, did not say anything to Wallace and [Owen] Lattimore and how they did not see what Hazard saw.” Indeed, Soviet records reveal that Wallace asked their Russian hosts about prisons in Kolyma. In a telegram to Stalin and Molotov, Nikishov wrote that Wallace and his party wanted to view a prison camp, “but since they did not see a camp anywhere, or even a single prisoner, they were disappointed in this question.” Even without being allowed to tour a punishment block or peer into a basin of amputated fingers and toes, mightn’t the Americans’ questions about prisoners have tempered their endorsement of Kolyma? It is hard to imagine Harry Truman writing a book like Soviet Asia Mission, had he been vice president at the time.

Is this judgment facile, from one who has the perspective of history? Then let us at least share a laugh about Wallace’s visit with the prisoners of Kolyma. Years later the American trip was still a bitter joke in the region, recalls Ginzburg, the Gulag memoirist. She and her zek husband, a camp doctor named Anton Walter, waged a desperate struggle for survival after she finished her decade-long prison term but was required to remain in Magadan as an exile. She was fired from job after job and constantly feared rearrest. Among the couple’s trusted friends was a bookish fellow named Krivoshei, who mocked Wallace in a pseudo-American accent.

“The tall, sturdy boys from Central Russia are determined to conquer this wild region,” Krivoshei would say, imitating Wallace. Then he would comment in a whispered aside: “Three picked squads of armed guards, disguised in overalls of American manufacture.”

The joke became all the more hilarious when it turned out Krivoshei was an informer who egged Ginzburg into making criminal statements about Stalin. He nearly succeeded in getting her sent back to the camps in 1953. She was saved by the death of the Georgian ogre on March 5.

That day on Magadan’s central street, a former inmate, an ex–gold miner, greeted Ginzburg, “I wish you great joy on this happy day of resurrection!”


Ginzburg’s son, the novelist Vasily Aksyonov, was afforded a more realistic view than Wallace, and Stalin-era Kolyma and Magadan appear repeatedly as settings in his novels. Ginzburg overcame bureaucratic resistance and brought her sixteen-year-old boy to Magadan from “the Mainland,” as the rest of Russia is still known in the Kolyma region. He hadn’t seen his mother and father since he was four, when they were arrested and he was taken away to an orphanage with a guard tower. Yet he and Ginzburg formed a close bond, even discovering they had memorized the same poems. In Winter’s Hero, Aksyonov describes the shantytown where the released convicts live in exile: “contorted barracks walls, guard towers, barbed wire, rubbish pits, streams of nightmarish liquids, clouds of boiler steam,” with occasional posters of Stalin and images of the Soviet fighting man. In an interview, he recalled that watchtowers stood throughout Magadan, and there were guard dogs, men with guns, and shackled zeks with numbers on their backs. In the city center, Magadan resembled a normal town, with tall buildings, until you took in all the ex-convicts just released from the camps. Even the well dressed were not what they appeared to be. He spotted a column of men in fedora hats and ladies in furs and heels and fashionable clothing. They were “walking not on the sidewalk—where [convicts] were not allowed to walk—but in the middle of the street. Behind them were Red Army soldiers with machine guns, escorting them.”

They were convict actors and actresses, being herded to the variety theater for a rehearsal.


5. The Padlock

In the closing ceremony at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, viewers were treated to a Cirque du Soleil–like pageant celebrating Russia’s great poets and writers, among them Alexander Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Characters appeared from such classics as War and PeaceThree SistersThe Master and Margarita, The Idiot, and The Government Inspector. Among the portraits of writers that descended from the ceiling was that of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in a Gulag transit camp in Vladivostok, on his way to Kolyma. At the time I remarked in a blog and Facebook post that it was the only acknowledgment of Stalin’s victims I saw in the opening and closing ceremonies, and that obliquely. I wished Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, could have been transported forward in time for just three minutes to see that her husband was remembered and celebrated. In her second memoir, Hope Abandoned, she wrote of all those who died in the camps across the Soviet Union: “The mass graves into which the bodies with tags on their legs were thrown are inaccessible. One day, perhaps, they will dig up all the bones and burn them, or throw them into the ocean.” But she was wrong. In Vladivostok and most other cities, the bones were never dug up, except accidentally, when workers were laying the foundations of new apartment blocks.

When I posted this, Rob Coalson, an editor in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s central newsroom in Prague, remarked that I had not pushed the thought far enough. The Bolsheviks did not invent censorship; Russia has always silenced its great writers. Tolstoy was excommunicated, Dostoevsky sentenced to years in a Siberian prison. “Practically all the writers from Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn were at one time censored or persecuted by the Russian government,” Coalson wrote to me. The Sochi ceremony “was a pageant to censorship, arrest, exile, imprisonment, murder. Shameful for the state to be celebrating them without acknowledging it.”

After our trip to The Mask, Etlis had one more place to take Wu. On the outskirts of Magadan stands a wall of prefabricated concrete slabs leaning this way and that, like dominoes pushed into soft clay. The wall surrounds the central core of an old Gulag camp, where the former punishment block and other buildings still stand. Unfortunately, policemen guarded the entrance, and we could not see inside. As I wrote for the New York Times, Wu then scrambled up onto the wall.

“You can’t go in there,” Etlis cried. “That’s military property.”

Wu disappeared over the wall. “Oh, Lord!” Etlis said. I followed Wu over. “No!” Etlis shouted from the other side. He was seventy-one, and did not try to clamber over.

He caught up with Wu and me a few minutes later in the old punishment block, having explained to the police at the gate that two Americans had penetrated the perimeter. Wu was busy yanking open doors and exploring the cells, which measured about 10 x 11 feet. The cop told us to beat it. Wu ignored the interpreter who relayed this command, waving his U.S. passport at the policeman, as if that established his right to be here. The officer took the document and examined the entry stamps.

But it was there in the punishment block that the two prickly ex-prisoners, Etlis and Wu, finally found a common bond. Etlis began recalling his Gulag experiences. Cells like this were unlighted and unheated, he said. Prisoners froze to death overnight. Survivors would stack the dead in the corner and devour their bread rations until the guards noticed. Wu paced about, nodding excitedly.

“So each cell was designed for twenty people,” he said.

“Ha!” said Etlis. “I was in a cell like this in Kazakhstan and there were fifty people.”

They worked out that as many as thirty-five hundred prisoners had been crammed into this punishment block. After Wu filmed every corner, the group began filing out. But Wu hung back, lost in thought. He beckoned to me and pointed out an old Gulag-era padlock bolted to a barred door.

“Get it off,” Wu told me. “I want it.”

I poked in the keyhole with a pen but couldn’t open the lock.

“Just break it. Break it with your hands.”

This was silly. Come on, I said. If it had been that easy to open, wouldn’t the prisoners have escaped? Maybe he thought the rust had corroded the metal.

Wu stared ruefully. “There were locks just like this on my prison door in China,” he said.

That night he returned with a Russian who possessed a bolt cutter, and they slipped over the wall and cut off two of the locks. I recently phoned Wu at his Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, D.C., to ask what he did with them. He said they were sitting right in front of him on his desk as we spoke. He kept them to remember.


Works Cited

Adamova-Sliozberg, Olga. “My Journey.” Translated by John Crowfoot. In Till My Tale Is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, edited by Simeon Vilensky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, 2–4.

Aksyonov, Vassily. The Winter’s Hero. New York: Random House, 1996, 21.

Altman, Alex. “America’s Worst Vice Presidents.” Time magazine. Undated online story from 2012. Altman quotes Wallace on “mak[ing] the world safe for corn breeders.”

Bardach, Janusz, with Kathleen Gleeson. Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, 192–94.

Birstein, Vadim J. “Three Days in ‘Auschwitz without Gas Chambers’: Henry A. Wallace's Visit to Magadan in 1944.” Woodrow Wilson Center Cold War History Project, e-Dossier No. 34. Ivan Nikishov’s telegram to Stalin and Molotov is reprinted with Birstein’s essay.

Conquest, Robert. Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. New York: Viking Press, 1978, 227.

Gerstenzang, James. “U.S. Responds to Arrest in China with Restraint.” Los Angeles Times, 9 July 1995.

Ginzburg, Eugenia Semyonovna. Within the Whirlwind. Translated by Ian Boland. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1979, 101, 338, 354, 360.

Halpin, Tony. “Road of Bones That Led to Hell on Earth for Stalin’s Victims.” The Times (London), 18 July 2011.

Hochschild, Adam. The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994. Hochschild tells of the arrest of the young radicals, although he erroneously transliterates Etlis’s last name as “Atlis.” A fuller account can be found in a Sakharov Center interview with Susanna Pechuro, “Ya blagodarna sudbe,”

Judah, Ben. “Siberia: In Search of the Gulag.” Standpoint, January–February 2010.

Lipper, Elinor. Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1951, 112, 115.

Pohlmann, John. “Conversations with Vassily Aksyonov.”, 2007.

Shalamov, Varlam. Kolyma Tales. Translated by John Glad. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. The following stories are cited: “An Epitaph” (298–303, 308), “Lend Lease” (282, 276, 277–78), “Descendant of a Decembrist” (184), “A ‘Pushover’ Job” (26), “The Used-Book Dealer” (268), and “On Tick” (8).

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago. Vol. 1. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007, 582.

Thomas, June. “Oliver Stone on War, George Bush, Ken Burns, and His New Show.”, 14 November 2012.

Vladimirova, Yelena. “Kolyma: A Narrative Poem.” Translated by Catriona Kelly. In Till My Tale Is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, edited by Simeon Vilensky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, 92–94.

Wallace, Henry A. Soviet Mission Asia. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946, 33, 35.

Wilentz, Sean. “Cherry-Picking Our History.” New York Review of Books, 10 June 2010. Wilentz discusses Stone’s hagiographic film on Wallace and the former vice president’s admiration for Roerich.

Wu, Harry, with Carolyn Wakeman. Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994, 45, 49–50, 125–29.

Wu, Harry. Nine Lives: Making the Impossible Possible. Edited by Peter Braaksma. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications, 2009.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015