The Kolyma Highway in the Russian Far East once delivered tens of thousands of prisoners to the work camps of Stalin’s gulag. The ruins of that cruel era are still visible today.
The prisoners, hacking their way through insect-infested summer swamps and winter ice fields, brought the road, and the road then brought yet more prisoners, delivering a torrent of slave labor to the gold mines and prison camps of Kolyma, the most frigid and deadly outpost of Stalin’s gulag.
Their path became known as the “road of bones,” a track of gravel, mud and, for much of the year, ice that stretches 1,260 miles west from the Russian port city of Magadan on the Pacific Ocean inland to Yakutsk, the capital of the Yakutia region in eastern Siberia.
Snaking across the wilderness of the Russian Far East, it slithers through vistas of harsh, breathtaking beauty dotted with frozen, unmarked graves and the rapidly vanishing traces of labor camps.
There was little traffic when a photographer, Emile Ducke, and I drove last winter along what is now R504 Kolyma Highway, an upgraded version of the prisoner-built road. But a few long-distance trucks and cars still trundled through the barren landscape, oblivious to the remnants of past misery buried in the snow — wooden posts strung with rusty barbed wire, abandoned mine shafts and the broken bricks of former isolation cells.
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