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The Kolyma Highway

Bill Benson

December 23, 2020

The Kolyma Highway begins at the port of Magadan on Russia’s Pacific Ocean, heads north some distance, but then veers to the west, and ends at Yakutsk, a city of 311,000 people, deep in a Siberian wilderness called the taiga. Travelers see only spruce and fir trees in every direction.

All together, this highway of gravel, mud, ice, and pavement that cuts through the endless forest extends across 2012 kilometers, or 1260 miles, of the Russian landscape.

Early in the 20th century, the Soviet Union’s dictator, Joseph Stalin, decided to build the Kolyma Highway with conscripted slave labor, prisoners convicted back east on trumped-up charges. Each received years-long sentences, and each were transported by railroad or ship to Magadan.

Stalin sent both men and women to the prison camps that dotted the full length of the highway. His stated purpose for the highway was to extract gold, tin, and uranium from the mines, but his actual purpose was to bully, intimidate, and terrify the Soviet Union’s people into submission.

The Kolyma Highway was a make-work project, “Stalin’s citadel of repression.”

Andrew Higgins, a reporter at The New York Times, wrote a recent article on the Kolyma Highway, that appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 22 edition. Higgins quotes from Varlam Shalamov’s short story collection, “Kolyma Tales.”

“There are dogs and bears that behave more intelligently and morally than human beings. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings. The men were not shown the thermometer, but that wasn’t necessary since they had to work in any weather.”

Historians estimate about one million men and women worked on that highway throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and that tens of thousands of men and women died there. Either guards shot them, other prisoners murdered them, the cold froze them, or the relentless work killed them off.

A survivor named Antonina Novosad recalls “how a fellow prisoner was shot and killed by a guard for wandering off to pick berries just beyond the barbed wire. Prisoners buried her there. This is how we worked. A camp is a camp.” Russians now call the Kolyma Highway “the road of bones.”

In the 1960s, Stalin’s replacement, Nikita Krushchev, dismantled the prison camps, but the highway remains. Traffic is sparse. People have deserted the towns. “Hundreds of miles separate the road’s few inhabitants.” The mines are shuttered. The factories are crumbling. Memories are fading.

Evidence of the mighty struggle prisoners endured when they built the highway have vanished.

Some distance off the highway, but near its midpoint, is the town of Oymyakon, “the coldest permanently inhabited settlement in the world. Called the Pole of Cold, its inhabitants suffer from an average January temperature of minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Although officials set the workday at ten hours, guards often worked the prisoners a full 12 hours, even on Christmas Day, considered “just another workday.” When Soviet officials in Moscow first came to power, they outlawed all religious celebrations, including Christmas.

In the winter of 2018, a young Moscow blogger named Yuri Dud traveled the 2012 kilometers of the Kolyma Highway in a van, and along the way he heard people’s stories. He decided upon this adventure, because, he said, “nearly half of young Russians had never heard of Stalin-era repression.”

Early in his two-hour video, entitled, “The Birthplace of Our Fears,” he comes across a wooden star, no bigger than three feet across, wired with colored electric light bulbs. A Kolyma Highway historian named Rostislav Kuntsevich explained to Yuri.

“They usually put stars like this one atop factory roofs. The star was wrapped in red fabric. If the prisoners met the quota on time, the star lit up with a red light in the evening.

“When they did not meet the quota, additional work hours were ordered, and the star wouldn’t light up. So prisoners knew they had hours of work ahead of them.”

Imagine the hopelessness that the people dispatched to the Kolyma Highway must have felt their first day on the job. Cold, work, beatings, and hunger stretched far ahead of them into a bleak future.

Imagine the sheer agony they felt on Christmas Day. No family gathering. No turkey or ham meal. No respite from the work. No presents. No smiles of joy. No phone calls with loved ones. No mercy.

Joseph Stalin’s most famous quote, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”

In the New Testament, shepherds reported that they heard angels sing the words, “Peace on earth. Goodwill to all men.” A message of hope, of a better life, of rest and comfort, of joy to the world.

Yet, in Stalin’s Siberia, Christmas surrendered to hopelessness.

To my faithful readers, at this season, I wish each of you a Merry Christmas.