The Wall Street Journal


On the Road With the Ghosts of the Gulag 

A Journey into Russia's Haunted Hinterland 

KOLYMA is a desolate swathe of northeastern Siberia, one-third of the size of Europe, where some of the Soviet gulag's worst atrocities took place. Spurred by the need for resources to finance his five-year plan, Joseph Stalin began to transport prisoners there in the early 1930s to extract gold, timber and coal.

Trapped by Arctic, ocean and mountains—in what Robert Chandler has described as "a mini-State run by the NKVD," the Soviet secret police—conditions were harshest in Kolyma. Conservative estimates indicate that at least two million people died there over the course of two decades. Part fiction, part memoir, Varlam Shalamov's 1978 "Kolyma Tales" gives the most exhaustive and beautiful account of suffering on Kolyma's soil.

Now, 60 years after Shamalov began writing his book, we have Polish journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader's "Kolyma Diaries," translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. The book chronicles Mr. Hugo-Bader's own journey in his hero's footsteps, covering his 2,025-kilometer hitchhike on the road from Magadan to Yakutsk. Officially, on Russian motoring atlases, this road is called the "Kolyma Federal Highway." To locals, it is known as "Stalin's road of bones," or "the longest graveyard in the world." 

"Is it possible to love here, to laugh, or shout with joy?" he asks. "How do you weep here. . . bring up children, earn a living, drink vodka, and die?" In his 1993 "Imperium," Ryszard Kapuściński wrote that the region "will pass, together with Auschwitz, Treblinka, Hiroshima and Vorkuta, in the history of the greatest nightmares of the twentieth century." But Mr. Hugo-Bader does not dwell on death. Travelling into the wilderness of Siberia, the writer instead is seeking life.Jacek Hugo-Bader wants to discover what has become of Kolyma's inhabitants. "They are exceptional people," he writes in the first chapter, who "have seen the lowest depths of human existence; in the camps they crossed the border beyond which every soul falls apart." But instead of focusing on the past, Mr. Hugo-Bader wants "to hear what happened to them later on, how they managed to live with this experience."

When Mr. Hugo-Bader arrives in Russia's far east, the network of prison camps that Varlam Shalamov described is gone. The flow of slave-labor from European Russia has been replaced by consignments of jeans from China and four-wheel drive cars from Japan. State mining companies have been bought out by private gold prospectors. The city of Magadan (which greets Mr. Hugo-Bader with the sign: "Welcome to Kolyma, the Golden Heart of Russia") leaves him feeling "disappointed." No one smiles and everyone is "pissed off, brusque, sullen and sad," he writes. "It's as if December 1991 had never happened, and the USSR had not collapsed."

For Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Magadan was "the greatest and most famous island" in "The Gulag Archipelago," the "pole of ferocity of that amazing country of Gulag." Now, Mr. Hugo-Bader tells us, oppression in the city is invisible, but vicious. Unemployment reigns. Entire fishing communities have been lost to alcoholism. The author confesses, in one of his brilliant diary entries punctuating the book, that he didn't smile for the first five days of his journey. As he begins to encounter theatrically villainous former Party officials and local criminals, his trek begins to feel less like a typical non-fiction travel narrative, and more like a "Heart of Darkness" for the post-Soviet sphere.

We're introduced to Vlad the alcoholic doctor, son of a high-ranking KGB officer, who guides his junior colleague through a five-hour operation on a fractured thigh-bone via cell-phone from a bar near the local bus station, because he's too "sloshed" to drive to the hospital (or, indeed, to stand). Andrei, the local fisheries inspector, wears his uniform in case he's stopped when driving drunk, because "people in uniforms have a kind of understanding."

Alexander Basansky, the absurd local oligarch (a former, high-ranking officer in the Soviet special services) worships Vladimir Putin, "my idol and model." It's almost comic, until readers realize why. When Mr. Putin presented Mr. Basansky with a medal in 2007, the former-KGB-officer-turned-president told the businessman: "Our people are always at the top," as he grasped his hand.

Now, Mr. Basansky drives at 190 kilometers per hour on the wrong side of the road, simply because it's illegal and he can. Later, he dials his assistant on speaker-phone to quote his vast credit balance to our author, and openly arranges measures to be taken to bring around a business rival—or "rat." Whether he is referring to a persuasive corporate hospitality package, or an undisclosed act of violence, the cost to Mr. Basansky will be substantial: The "full programme," with Federal Security Service (FSB) assistance, costs 1.4 million roubles (£23,992).

In the tradition of Shamalov, Mr. Hugo-Bader is most drawn to mystery and subtlety in his tale. At a fishery station on the Sea of Okhotsk, he watches a scene unfold that transports him back to the camps. Dima, the revolting ("big, fat, and hung over") head of the local FSB sits down to gamble with Vanya—whose tattoos mark him as an avtorytet(or "authority") in the criminal world. Both drink liters of vodka, hurl insults at one another and sneer viciously in the distinct dialect of the Soviet camps. A ritual begins, which is nearly identical to the one that played out in Shalamov's card story "On Tick." But unlike Shamalov's characters Naumov and Seva, who gambled for blankets and old clothes, Russia's new kriminalisti lay down 5,000 rouble bets. Mr. Hugo-Bader realizes that he's watching a sadistic and scary bonding exercise. "They save their contempt for suckers," he writes, "the entire rest of the world. Only blatniye and secret policemen aren't suckers." This reads like a pointed reference to the dynamics of Russia today, but Mr. Hugo-Bader is also underlining the appalling acts of the past.

As Shalamov described on several occasions, among the most terrifying experiences for political prisoners was their transit to the camps and their first encounters with Russia's sprawling criminal caste. Though theoretically opposed to the administration, thekriminalisti joined forced with the NKVD to brutalize "the new enemies of the people" who flooded Kolyma between 1937-39 during Stalin's Great Purge. As Anne Applebaum described in her 2003 "GULAG: A History," and reiterates in her preface to Volume II of "The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia," the kriminalisti (like Vanya) were given de-facto control over prisons because, on some occasions, "they were more cruel, and more disciplined than the guards."

Gang rape, to the point of death, was "the specialty of the criminal prisoners," Tamara Tikhonova—a former journalist turned potato-harvester—tells Mr. Hugo-Bader when they meet, randomly, hitchhiking along the route. She speculates about how many of Kolyma's children were born because of this, and describes the epidemic of sexual violence as "choral rape": "The whole of Russia was raped in chorus." It is both chilling and ironic to learn that the most violent era of the region's history was not the uncertain 1990s, when "the racket" terrorized Russia, but 1953, when hordes of such prisoners—released from the camps, but forced to remain in Kolyma—descended en masse upon the towns.

Mr. Hugo-Bader travels further into the interior and hears many accounts of convicts' bodies being accidentally unearthed, still in their regulation camp uniforms, and of how cannibalism had been a matter of everyday conversation among Kolyma's occasionally starving denizens. Breaking out of a prison camp with a weaker friend, for instance, was once known as "escaping with a sandwich." The tales of torture that Mr. Hugo-Bader hears are as picaresque as the landscape he describes. Although the author has set out to write a book that is "not about the Gulag, the camps, prisons, starvation, death and torture," by his own approximation, half of all the region's inhabitants are the descendants of prisoners. Writing a readable travel log about a region that is completely synonymous with pain is an unenviable task.

Parts of Kolyma were only fully discovered in 1924. It was not until 1932 that the first prisoners were shipped to the mines. Later, they were packed into airless freight cars like cattle. Many died en route to the transit camps, where they were held before crossing the Sea of Okhotsk in freezing slave ships. They weren't only set to work in Kolyma's mines, but also to building the arterial road upon which Mr. Hugo-Bader travels. If every victim of the U.S.S.R from this area were laid head-to-toe, he writes, they would stretch longer than the entire highway.

Historical images such as these blend with the contemporary tragedy of modern Kolyma. The poorest now compete with animals to eat food left as offerings on the gravestones of the dead. Scrap-metal thieves, who roam the settlements "like Neanderthals," have stolen the eye from a monument to Tanya Molandina, an activist who was raped to death by escaped convicts in 1937. Near deserted prefab housing blocks, parades of shops are permitted to sell vodka, though the license alone costs 120,000 roubles per month. Shamalov once had a narrator instruct that "a human being survives by his ability to forget." Today, in this corner of Siberia, mass-alcoholism appears to be killing communities just as slowly as the camps.

Though "Kolyma Diaries" could be hopelessly depressing, it is a testament to Mr. Hugo-Bader's skill and the strength of his subjects that the book is not only charming, but life-affirming. Its primary concerns are not flashy villains or remembered horror, but ordinary people. Society may be disintegrating, electricity poles may be sagging and miners may be crushing mass-graves with powerful machinery to sluice every ounce of gold from between the scattered human bones. But in the mountains and countryside, Mr. Hugo-Bader is always offered food, transport and a place to stay—most memorably in a caravan, with a prospector known as "the Moldovan," beside 12 kilograms of gold and a loaded Kalashnikov.

Kolyma's people are not only haunted. They are also contrary, devil-may-care and friendly. There is an eccentric local television host, and a crooked politician whose bumbling agents rifle through Mr. Hugo-Bader's laptop. Their visits to his computer are painfully obvious; they leave it switched on. There is also an old man who founded an impromptu museum in his home (by rescuing a fallen statue of Lenin), while a self-proclaimed shaman insists on diagnosing health problems (from which Mr. Hugo-Bader does not suffer) using only his sight.

When the author meets Varlam Shalamov's former lover at the end of the book, she talks about how he never lived to witness the publication of "Kolyma Tales." Yet Shamalov was her "prophet," she says. It's a sentiment that Mr. Hugo-Bader shared, along with everyone else who would subsequently queue across the Soviet Union to read their hero's book, when his masterpiece was finally published there in 1982.

The Russian establishment may feel little interest in public atonement for the past. Mr. Hugo-Bader likens Magadan's remaining statue of Eduard Berzin, once the "absolute ruler" of Kolyma, as equivalent to "a statue at Auschwitz of the brilliant doctor and anthropologist Josef Mengele." But the ordinary people of the region, whose ancestors lie beneath the permafrost, feel some distance from history—and from the reaches of oppressive, modern Russia. This is a relief from the past, which Shalamov never experienced during his lifetime. Unlike his hero, Jacek Hugo-Bader finds surprising solace among the ghosts of the gulag, in one of the most remote regions on earth.

Mr. Nicoll is a British writer and journalist, who has been short-listed twice for the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize.