Kolyma Diaries: A Journey into Russia’s Haunted Hinterland by Jacek Hugo-Bader
The last time we met Jacek Hugo-Bader—in White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia—he was driving alone from Moscow to Vladivostok, an experience he summed up with:
Every dozen metres there’s the wreck of a burned-out car. They must have broken down in the winter, at night too, and their desperate owners set them alight to keep warm. There’s little chance this would have helped them survive.
He’s returned—whether as an encore or to scratch an itch—this time to a part of Russia even more desolate and run-down: Kolyma. In Kolyma Diaries, he hitchhikes from Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk more than 2000 kilometres to Yakutsk, and keeps a diary along the way.
Magadan, the largest city in Kolyma, is today known—if known at all—as the commercial center of the gold-mining industry in the Russian Far East. But Kolyma used to be the place of the USSR’s worst gulags.
You must have nothing to lose, or no alternative, in order to settle at the cruellest extremity on earth. That’s what people say and write about Kolyma. They also talk about on of the worst nightmares of the twentieth century, the most terrible and remote island in the Gulag Archipelago, its glacial extreme, the Russian Golgotha, a snow-white crematorium, an arctic hell, an industrial machine for grinding meat and crushing bones.
The region is populated today by the descendants of the zeks, or prisoners, legal and illegal gold prospectors, the odd oligarch, the remnants of still Soviet-style bureaucracy, some indigenous people and man-eating bears. “I reckon you have to ... be sick in the head to live here.”
Or visit. Hugo-Bader must be mad.
And did you know that human flesh tastes just like reindeer meat—subtle, lean and slightly sweet? I don’t know how the locals know this. ... It must be because of the similarity in taste that the local bears are so devilishly dangerous. Reindeer are their favourite delicacy, and to them a human is a reindeer that can’t run, a victim without antlers, a creature on its last legs, easy prey.
Or perhaps Hugo-Bader is just a closet novelist.
The book is made up of some 36 daily entries—much shorter than his last trip—interspersed with vignettes and reportage. Few passages are longer than five pages; each reads like a short story. Most are about people rather than events—and what people! For example, he spends the night at the home of the daughter of Nikolai Yezhov, who ran the NKVD under Stalin. There is also
Marianne Igoryevna Juquelier, née Verigina. A lady, a thoroughbred noblewoman, as you can see and hear with the naked eye ... a representative of the old, pre-Revolution émigrées... Conversation with her is a luxury, like reading Leo Tolstoy in the original.
Her family had been exiled to Finland by Tsar Nicholas after the 1905 Revolution.
In April 1945, after the War, when Madame Marianne was five, two NKVD agents visited their flat in Helsinki and took her father away. He ended up in Kolyma. She has come to Kolyma to find what traces she can.
Hugo-Bader visits with Maria Yakovlyevna Koshalenko who, after a machine tore off a finger in the 1940s when she was eighteen, arrived a day late for work, was arrested and sentenced to Kolyma for six years under “Article fifty-eight, paragraph fourteen”:
In other words, economic counter-revolution, also known as sabotage—for what else is neglecting your job and shirking?
She gave birth in the camps. She never returned to the “mainland” as the rest of Russia is called. Now, because her work was in a munitions factory, she is considered a “war veteran. A behind-the-scenes combatant.” She was given a medal and “letters with best wishes from President Putin”. She is “very grateful.”
There is a gold-mining tycoon (who slips him 100,000 rubles and a gold nugget), an alcoholic doctor, a shamaness, several truck-drivers, a deluded Yakut “inventor”, various members of the security services, a journalist, TV director, a couple of junk collectors, ex-soldiers and several bureaucrats. He visits a gold-mining operation, a factory—run by prison workers—that refurbished lightbulbs; the process was invented by a nuclear physicist who had been sent there.
Hugo-Bader likes talking to people and he revels in the Russian language, in its slang, its multiple diminutives.
Hugo-Bader has been well-served by his translator Antonia Lloyd-George. But it hard to know what to make of Kolyma Diaries. It is horrifying, filled with memories of man at his worst and with moral ambiguities faced by ordinary people as a result. While Hugo-Bader is a Pole who lived more than half his life under Soviet domination, there is no schadenfreude in his account. Instead, he seems intent on showing how robust the human spirit can be.
Hugo-Bader is an extraordinary guide to this car-wreck of a place: empathetic and observant, judgemental yet respectful.