Jacek Hugo-Bader has hitchhiked the length of the Road of Bones, on a pilgrimage to the land of gold and gulags
The 2,025 km-long Kolyma Highway in the far east of Russia is known as the Road of Bones because the thousands of gulag prisoners who died building it lie just beneath its surface. Jacek Hugo-Bader hitchhiked its entire length, from Magadan (which features in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago) to industrial Yakutsk, in one of the most extreme landscapes on earth.
Polish journalist Hugo-Bader doesn’t do things by half: for his previous book, White Fever, he drove solo across Siberia from Moscow to Vladivostok in a modified UAZ-469 4×4. In winter. Mercifully, his Kolyma journey takes place in summer and autumn, but even during these months the ground retains a metre of permafrost, bears attack broken-down drivers in broad daylight, vodka is preferable but “highway liqueur” (radiator coolant) is acceptable and -60 is in Celsius, not Fahrenheit.
Here is a taste of a summer picnic by the mighty Indigirka river: “a black night, and the river is scary to look at – there are such a lot of ice floes coming down it. It’s rattling along like the Trans-Siberian express”.
Formerly reached only by sea or plane, Kolyma still has island status; to its inhabitants the rest of the country is “the mainland”. A convict’s journey was usually one-way, since the mortality rate was – in Hugo-Bader’s estimate – around 80%.
Those who escaped from one of Kolyma’s 160 camps would last no more than two weeks before they succumbed to death by cold, bear attack, or starvation, which is why inmates or zeks (a Soviet administrative term, from zakluchennyie, meaning “locked-up”) called escape “being freed by the green prosecutor”. In the entire history of the Kolyma gulag there is one recorded successful escape, by a Ukrainian who walked the 2,000 kilometres to Yakutsk. He was later recaptured.
Captured escapees from camps were typically given 10 additional years for “economic counter-revolution”, which during Stalin’s era was also the fate of some innocent civilians convicted for being late to work, stealing a bottle of milk or neglecting a collective-farm cow.
Hugo-Bader seeks out the last camp survivors of what Ryszard Kapuściński called, in Imperium (his account of travels through Soviet Russia), “a nightmare game in which everyone lost”. Hugo-Bader meets babushka Tanya, one of the last inmates to be released in 1956 before the camps closed.
For the rest of this article, click here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/03/kolyma-diaries-jacek-hugo-bader-review