The Sunday, November 22 New York Times main section displayed a striking photograph across the top of the page. It pictured a short section of a two lane highway, the R504 Kolyma Highway, in a remote part of Russia.
The highway is known as “the road of bones.” As Andrew Higgins tells the story, “Road of Bones To the Gulag, Haunted Still,” it was hacked out of an empty section of Siberia by Soviet prisoners, Stalin’s prisoners.
It’s a powerful story, with remarkable photos. But as I read it, I was struck by more than just the horror of the road’s story. I found myself reading the thoughts of Russians, some of whom are among the few to live along that road, some of them in towns that have disappeared around them.
What these people think and say is, to me, the real horror.
Antonina Novosad, a 93-year-old who was arrested as a teenager in western Ukraine and sentenced to 10 years in Kolyma on trumped-up political charges, labored in a tin mine near the “road of bones.” She recalled vividly how a fellow prisoner was shot and killed by a guard for wandering off to pick berries just beyond the barbed wire. Prisoners buried her, Ms. Novosad said, but the corpse was then dragged away by a bear. “This was how we worked, how we lived. God forbid. A camp is a camp.”
Yet she bears Stalin no ill will, and also remembers how prisoners cried when, assembled outside in March 1953 to hear a special announcement, they learned that the tyrant was dead. “Stalin was God,” she said. “How to say it? Stalin wasn’t at fault at all. It was the party and all those people. Stalin just signed.”
“Stalin was God.”
Vladimir Naiman, the owner of a gold mine off the Kolyma highway whose father, an ethnic German, and maternal grandfather, a Ukrainian, came to the area as prisoners, stumbled during a thaw into a morass of soggy coffins and bones while working as a geologist in the district of Yagodnoye in the 1970s. Trying to reach gold buried off the road, he had hit a cemetery for prisoners with his bulldozer and got stuck in the charnel for five days.
He later put up eight wooden crosses at the site “in memory of those sacrificed.” But as a firm believer that Russia cannot thrive without sacrifice, he today reveres Stalin. “That Stalin was a great man is obvious,” he said, citing the leader’s role in defeating Nazi Germany and in turning a nation of peasants into an industrial power.
Compared with the countless Native Americans killed in the United States, Mr. Naiman said, “nothing really terrible happened here.”
“Nothing really terrible happened here.”
...[memories of Stalin-era persecution] have frequently been drowned out by celebrations of rival memories, notably of Russia’s triumph under Stalin’s leadership over Hitler in World War II. Rejoicing over that victory, sanctified as a touchstone of national pride, has obscured the gulag’s horrors and raised Stalin’s popularity to its highest level in decades.
…in Karelia next to Finland, the amateur historian Yuri Dmitriev challenged this narrative by digging up the graves of prisoners who were shot by Stalin’s secret police — not, as “patriotic” historians claim, by Finnish soldiers allied with Nazi Germany. In September, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison on the basis of flimsy and, he and his supporters say, fabricated evidence of sexual assault on his adopted daughter.
An opinion poll published in March indicated that 76 percent of Russians have a favorable view of the Soviet Union, with Stalin outpacing all other Soviet leaders in public esteem.
Disturbed by another survey, which found that nearly half of young Russians had never heard of Stalin-era repression, Yuri Dud, a Moscow blogger with a huge youth following, traveled the full length of the “road of bones” in 2018 to explore what he called the “Fatherland of Our Fear.”
After the online release of a video Mr. Dud made about the trip, his travel companion, Mr. Kuntsevich, the Kolyma historian, faced a barrage of abuse and physical threats from die-hard Stalinists and others who resented the past being dredged up.
Mr. Kuntsevich said he had initially tried arguing with his attackers, citing statistics about mass executions and more than 100,000 deaths in the Kolyma camps through starvation and disease. But he quickly gave up.
“It is best not to argue with people about Stalin. Nothing will change their minds,” he said, standing in his museum near a small statue of Shalamov, the writer whose accounts of life in the camps are routinely dismissed by Stalin’s fans as fiction.
“Nothing will change their minds.”
Even some officials are appalled by reverence for a murderous dictator. Andrey Kolyadin, who as a Kremlin official was sent to the Far East to serve as deputy governor of the region that covers Kolyma, recalled being horrified when a local man erected a statue of Stalin on his property. Mr. Kolyadin ordered the police to get it taken down.
“Everything here is built on bones,” Mr. Kolyadin said.
Andrew Higgins starts his story with this:
…Varlam Shalamov, a poet who, after 15 years in the Kolyma camps, concluded, “There are dogs and bears that behave more intelligently and morally than human beings.” His experiences, recorded in his book “Kolyma Tales,” convinced him that “a man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger and beatings.”
Yet Russians still worship Stalin, who died in 1953, 67 years ago.
In 2087, what will Americans be saying?