The author, a Polish journalist, has written about what it is like to travel along the Kolyma Highway, surely one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with its combination of sub-zero temperatures, permafrost, remoteness and tragic history. This vast area of northeastern Russia, between the East Siberian Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk (thank goodness for the map at the front of the book), was once part of Stalin’s infamous gulag and there is a sense that violence, lawlessness and suffering have left an indelible mark on the population.
Half of them are the descendants of “zeks”, former prisoners in the camps; others are indigenous to the area, gold prospectors or others, washed up here from “the mainland”, as Russia is called, and now unable or unwilling to leave.
Hugo-Bader has set himself a challenge: to hitchhike from Magadan, the capital of Kolyma, to Yakutsk along the only road available and at the same time to stay alive and safe; in other words, not to freeze to death, be attacked by man-eating bears, be stranded in some abandoned settlement or arrested for infringing some petty bureaucratic law. The whole journey takes him 36 days during which he admits to “nineteen heavy booze-ups – the only way to get people to open up.” Reading his diary entries made it seem longer.
Perhaps this is because of the very vivid, yet random encounters he has along the way: with hermits, gold prospectors, “blatniki”, the caste of professional criminals who are inevitably attracted to this harsh region, truckers, oil oligarchs and exiles.
“You can’t imagine how many people have told me they came here to get as far away as possible,” one old lady tells the author. There is a pervasive air of pessimism and entropy. Perhaps because in 1991 there were half a million inhabitants of the region, whereas now there are only 150,000, the author relates that nobody smiles; almost everyone is afflicted with “that strange Soviet moroseness.”
Given this sense of resignation where, when something breaks down it is abandoned rather than repaired, it is not surprising that the infrastructure is rusting. Trying to meet up with the daughter of the former head of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, the author toils around a block of flats, noting that “none of the bells work and all the doors are fitted with a solid sheet of metal. None of the tenants knows who lives here with them.” Along the route he discovers that flush loos are rare, that proper sewage disposal is difficult because of the permafrost (I won’t go into the details) and that gravediggers have to burn old tyres to warm the frozen ground before digging graves.
Everywhere along the Highway is evidence of decay: former gold rush towns such as Debin, where a flowerpot now stands on the plinth where there used to be a statue of Lenin, or Burkhala, with 300 inhabitants left of the original 3,000. Kadichan, another town of onetime 3,000 residents, is now “a modern day Kolyma version of Pompeii.” The Highway itself is built over the bones of the thousands of convicts forced to build it. A woman called Madame Marianne, who seems to have psychic powers, tells Hugo-Bader that she fells “a very strong, powerful energy here … I can feel all the bones that are lying here, the blood that has soaked into the ground.”
At one place the author is forced to accept a bribe of 100,000 roubles (£2,000) from a local oligarch or “Kolyma gold king”. Every time he tries to dispose of it, the wad of notes turns up unexpectedly again. Finally, Hugo-Bader decides to donate it to a Polish charity for old soldiers deported to Siberia, for whom “Russia has never paid compensation.”
The book does show how people can survive in appalling circumstances. There is Vladimir, who tries to honour the memory of the thousands of dead bodies of the “zeks” killed during Stalin’s purges. Hitchhikers on the Highway are never left standing for long; the locals stop because “a man on the Route is sacred.” Several times the author walked in temperatures of minus 24 degrees so as not to freeze to death before the next big truck stopped for him. At Ust-Nera, the coldest inhabited place on earth, he notes all the allotments with their ingenious methods of growing vegetables that won’t rot in the ground. “In Russia, almost every family has a tiny patch of land for a vegetable garden” he informs us; it is often the difference between starvation and survival.
This being a travel book and its author giving no indication of religious belief, I wondered if there was any spiritual presence here– especially as Hugo-Bader quotes Varlam Shalamov, chronicler of the Gulag, who wrote that “The only people to have kept their human face … were the religious ones.” Then he meets Fr Igor Terentyev, the only Orthodox priest on the 800 km stretch of the Highway from Omsukchan to Ust-Nera, whose church, dedicated to St Nicholas The Wonderworker, was once an administrative office and who tells him, “Here the impossible happens every single day.”
The flaw in this lively and colourful account is that Hugo-Bader doesn’t pull his material together sufficiently for my taste; it is sheer reportage, a record of so many transient characters that almost no person is memorable or developed. I also feel that he is rather self-consciously striving to be sensationalist and to shock the reader: he is looking into “a window into hell” as he puts it and is happy to knock back the vodka (more popular than water in this part of the world) and to swear alongside the best of them. Reading it you are aware that Communism, and Stalin in particular, have much to answer for, in these snapshots of human beings fending for themselves in a region where there are fewer tourists than at the North Pole.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.