Americans in the gulag

23-12-2008 , by Adam Hochschild , ed. Timesonlive

The little-known story of US citizens trying to escape the Depression

Mountainous Kolyma, only a few hundred miles west of the Bering Strait, is the coldest inhabited area on earth. During Stalin’s rule, some 2 million prisoners were sent there to mine the rich deposits of gold that lie beneath the rocky, frozen soil. In 1991, when researching a book about how Russians were coming to terms with the Stalin era, I travelled to the region to see some of the old camps of Kolyma, legendary as the most deadly part of the gulag, some of whose survivors I had interviewed. In a country beset by shortages of building materials, all of the hundreds of former prison camps accessible by truck had long since been stripped bare. The only ones still standing were those no longer reached by usable roads, and to see them you had to rent a helicopter.
I spent a full day being flown across this desolate territory, its gravelly mountainsides streaked with snow even in June. We descended into three of the old camps, finding rickety wooden guard towers, high fences of rusted barbed wire, and, in one camp, an internal prison of punishment cells. Its roof was gone, but thick stone walls still stood; within them were small windows crossed both vertically and horizontally by heavy bars, the intersections further cinched with thick iron bands. At the end of the day in Kolyma, as shadows filled the hollows like spreading ink,we flew back to the town where I was staying. I sat in the helicopter cockpit between the two pilots. Beyond every jagged ridge, it seemed, in every valley, were the ruins of another camp, the wood blackened by decades of exposure, as if an angry giant’s hand had scattered them across the harsh, bleak moonscape.

Mountainous Kolyma, only a few hundred miles west of the Bering Strait, is the coldest inhabited area on earth. During Stalin’s rule, some 2 million prisoners were sent there to mine the rich deposits of gold that lie beneath the rocky, frozen soil. In 1991, when researching a book about how Russians were coming to terms with the Stalin era, I travelled to the region to see some of the old camps of Kolyma, legendary as the most deadly part of the gulag, some of whose survivors I had interviewed. In a country beset by shortages of building materials, all of the hundreds of former prison camps accessible by truck had long since been stripped bare. The only ones still standing were those no longer reached by usable roads, and to see them you had to rent a helicopter.
I spent a full day being flown across this desolate territory, its gravelly mountainsides streaked with snow even in June. We descended into three of the old camps, finding rickety wooden guard towers, high fences of rusted barbed wire, and, in one camp, an internal prison of punishment cells. Its roof was gone, but thick stone walls still stood; within them were small windows crossed both vertically and horizontally by heavy bars, the intersections further cinched with thick iron bands. At the end of the day in Kolyma, as shadows filled the hollows like spreading ink,we flew back to the town where I was staying. I sat in the helicopter cockpit between the two pilots. Beyond every jagged ridge, it seemed, in every valley, were the ruins of another camp, the wood blackened by decades of exposure, as if an angry giant’s hand had scattered them across the harsh, bleak moonscape…

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