|2004-09-13 - The worst of prisonercamps
12 Sep, 04 - 23:09
Our 28th camp on the Expedition at N 64°19´25.99 and E 154°20´04.3, on a small island surrounded by the Kolyma river. Cloudy with occasional rains, as usual. Far to warm, 10-14°C, which have attracted swarms of gnats, no wind either. 50 km paddled.
Before I continue the report regarding Stalin´s inhuman and terrible koncentrationcamps -the gulags- I´d like you to note that we´ve temporarily taken control over our hunger. Johan just killed a pheasant, which he wasted 2 bullets on, and yesterday we digged gold! Just before darkness we entered a narrow, little inlet full of gnats, because as far as we could see on the map, it could have a great potential when it came to the swimming gold, Kolymas fish! We felt very hungry after 5 days of long and demanding paddling, with not enough food to eat. Before setting out our nets, we figured, why not give our Rapala lures a last try, even if they so far had given us nothing, we reckoned that maybe we had new specimens of fish to encounter after leaving Seimchan. We were dead right! I caught a big trout over 3 kg;s on my first throw! (Photo in next report!) Then it just continued like that and when we left today, we had caught more than ten big trout´s and plenty of graylings, one of them, the biggest we´ve caught so far, almost 1.5 kg! Therefore we´ve got food to last us a few days ahead. On top of that, there´s tracks after bear, moose, big horn sheep and hare everywhere we look. We´re truly in a genuine wilderness!
Johan arrived just now with the grilled pheasant...He´s rubbed it in oil and salt as I told him...Let us try a bite....mmm, it´s delicious! Food can´t taste better than this! Well, hold on a minute, we had a bigtrout soup with Ruslan´s datja potatoes for lunch, it was as good and we´ll have some cold, grilled grayling as a snack later on...Yes, food takes a lot of our thoughts presently!
Regarding Stalin´s gulags.
We have an expression back home where I live in Sweden, concerning somebody we wish the worst of bad luck: ´´Send them to a concentration camp in the peripheral part of Siberia!´´ There´s a similar expression in Russia. But not in Siberia. The worst you can wish your enemy here, is to send him to the camps in Kolyma. Kolyma means death. The worst of the worst. The meaning of the word Kolyma is therefore, for the Siberians, the same as Stalin´s cruel, mad and deadly work camps, called gulags. Not the spectacular wilderness teaming with wildlife.
I try,, and have tried, to breech the subject with everyone we´ve come across since arriving here, since Kolyma is primarily known as the worst of Stalin´s all Russian gulags and what they signifies for them. I try to do it in a non-offensive way, as I did when meeting Alexander in the banja in Seimchan. ´´What made you or your parents end up here in Siberia?´´ ´´My parents came here from the German speaking part of Russia´´, he answered. ´´The gulags?´´, I asked. ´´What else?´´, he answered with his eyes lowered and with a certain amount of shame. His girlfriend also looked uncomfortable and Ruslan looked away with shame. The Russians are like the rest of us and they therefore react very differently on a specific subject. Ruslan and his friends belong to this far too tiny group of people who knows, understands, take responsibility and feels shame for a troubled past. Which is extremely important, since this group of people will, and would, never be a part of another of Stalin´s cruel inhuman use of people, which belongs to the worst of atrocities of our troubled history. Then there´s those who knows about the Gulags, but try to avoid thinking about it or avoid admitting it having happened. If I am to believe what I hear from reports on the Internet, the shameful history of the Gulags are barely mentioned in the schoolbooks of young Russians of today. If this is true, it is sad. Than there´s these people, very few of those we´ve come across since ariving here, who think that Stalin was a hero and that he did the right thing to murder and turn people into slaves for the good of the country. Then there´s the young Siberians, like our guide Mikhailov, who prefer to show us bearpooh ahead of ruined gulag camps, but who in some ways are part of the Gulag history and therefore understands the value of keeping the memory alive amongst people, to avoid it happening again.
We visited two of those terrible, haunting death camps Stalin created. The best preserved one was called the Canyon and was beautifully hidden in a valley, which was dressed in autumn colors. Getting there was not easy, the track was overgrown and little used. A big coal mound at the end of the valley showed us hard work had been done in the past. And what work! Slaves who´d worked the mountain with pickets and spades until they died of the hard work. They were given food according to how much work they had put in. If they were ill and couldn´t work, they didn´t get any food! We found primitive working tools littering the area, like spades and wheelbarrows. The primitive living quarters where the slaves had been housed and worked and frozen to death before the winter was over, where quite well preserved. Telephone poles and lines were lying around and barbed were easy to find. On a wall inside one of the barracks, somebody had written: ´´Don´t ever forget Kolyma.´´
3.5 million people froze, worked or were beaten to death in Kolymas camps. One of the most popular ways to murder people was to shove them into a room during the coldest part of winter, it can be down to -80°C here, with a little woodstove in the center. The one closest, the strongest ones, to the stove survived, all the others froze to death.
The camps were created by Stalin for the simple reason that he needed cheap labor who could work the goldmines. Prisoners were of two categories, mainly political, but also simple criminals. Anyone could be classified as a political prisoner and they were far worse treated than the criminals. The political prisoners were mainly Russians, but the prisoners also came from Poland, Korea, Ukraine, Germany and the Baltic States, and many other countries. (One of the most famous prisoners is the famed Russian author Alexander Solzenytshin, who´s described his time in a book.) The camps existed between 1929 and 1953, with a peak of prisoners and killings 1941.
There´s a lot more comprehensive, better, accurate and informative to read about this historical shame. Two of the best known books today are Robert Conquests book Kolyma and Annie Applebaums great book The Gulags. It is frightening and extremely sad to ad about this human evilness, but very important to do so, for the sake that it doesn´t happen again. Still, important to add, it is also about time that Kolyma gets known for more than the history of the Gulags. It deserves it!