Sometime in the 1930s, a line was drawn through the map of North-East Russia. The Soviet government, after discovering the Far East region was rich in natural resources, decided to build the largest network of labour camps ever created in order to extract and convey treasures of gold, silver, tin, uranium and wood. A route was laid through forests, mountains, valleys and deserts, connecting Magadan — a port on the Sea of Okhotsk so remote it has long been called an “island”— with Nizhny Bestyakh, 34km west of Yakutsk.
In 2016, French artist and reporter Marie de La Ville Baugé travelled to Yakutsk via the 2500km Kolyma Highway, also known as the “Road of Bones”, in memory of the victims of Stalinist repression who died building it. Throughout her journey she met grandchildren of former prisoners, workers sent there for good wages during the Soviet Union, truck drivers, wolf hunters and the remaining residents of the coldest inhabitated place in the world. They demonstrated their way of life and the wild beauty of the country — an infinite palette of blue.
I set out on this route as if I were delving into a great history book. I would have liked to take my time in getting to Magadan, crossing the eight time zones that separate it from Moscow and feeling how the North stretches out in real time. Instead I took the plane, like everyone else, and was surprised to discover that the enormous vessel was only half full.
In the last hours of the flight, we passed above Kolyma, with its impressive taiga landscape: white dunes and glaciers striped with pines, intersected here and there by a frozen river. On arrival, shuttle buses greeted us at the airport with slogans like “Magadan, Russia’s golden heart”, “Magadan was, is and always will be” and, more worryingly, “The road to heaven begins with us”.
Magadan is a town of 90,000. It was founded in 1930 as a major transit centre for prisoners sent to labour camps. When Dalstroi, the forced-labour camp system, was dissolved following the death of Stalin, some prisoners remained in the region, where they were joined by paid workers sent from all over the Soviet Union to pursue the extraction of natural resources. By 1990, Magadan had half a million inhabitants. When the USSR collapsed, the local economy melted away. The town is emptying out.
Those sentenced to the gulag travelled from across the USSR to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian railway, before spending a week in cargo holds, aboard a ship en route to Magadan in the Bay of Nagaev. There, they would disembark onto the pontoon written about by the likes of Varlam Shalamov and Evgeniya Ginzburg, both gulag survivors. Today the pier is battered by the ice in the bay, as if in punishment. After a spell in the transit camps in Magadan, the prisoners were dispersed across the region, as I’m told by Ivan Panikarov, the curator of the Gulag Museum in the village of Yagodnoye.
On a hill overlooking the town, on the site of the old transit camps stands the Mask of Sorrow, a memorial dedicated to the prisoners who suffered and died in the gulag prison camps. It’s a modest monument for the 900,000 forced labourers and the 140,000 men and women who died there, but its very existence is deeply important in a country that is trying to forget this period of its history. The tears of its concrete faces symbolise the infinite personal and collective miseries of imprisonment.
We leave Magadan for Yakutsk. We make use of the Kolyma road, which takes its name from the river which unfurls down to the Arctic Ocean; it’s also known as the “Road of Bones” in memory of the thousands of zeks (prisoners) who died building it. These days this system of roads has largely been renovated. Driving along the 2,032km of road R504, we rush through the pages of Russia’s history since 1930. Untarmacked, the road shows few signs of use. On the way we pass only 30 or so trucks, a dozen cars, two buses, a few gritters — and a whole palette of different blues. Marine blue, petrol blue, grey-blue, silver blue flecked with the golden light of the North. When the wind blows it creates light, delicate organza veils on the road ahead of us, which flee as we come closer.
The gulag is present in all the things I see along the way: at the side of the road, where certain sites are marked by crosses; in the handful of museums (always unnofficial initiatives); and in my encounters with people. Elena, a young woman with fuchsia-red lips, takes us to visit a hydroelectric facility on the banks of the Kolyma, while recalling her own personal history. Two of her grandparents were sent to the camps, her grandfather as a political prisoner, her grandmother for stealing some sacks of wheat while working on a Ukrainian collective farm. These ukazniki (“sentenced ones”), condemned to five to 15 years of forced labour for “theft of socialist property”, made up half of the detained. Elena’s grandparents met in the camps and stayed to work in the region after they closed. This was a time when former prisoners mixed with former guards and new workers.
“The town priest delivered a sermon recently in which he said not to lose hope, that the region was full of riches and was going to see development. I asked him: ‘But when, Father?’ He told me: ‘God alone knows that…’” Larissa and Alexey live in Sinegorie, a town of 3,000 built in the 1970s to house the workers who constructed the Kolyma hydroelectric facility. They don’t want to wait for God to make up His mind. Back in Vladivostok, Larissa was the best student in her class, and as a reward she was sent to work at Kolyma 35 years ago. That was the town’s golden age — and the flush of her youth. Work, shashlik kebabs, festivals, dances, accordions, all the inhabitants together. Today, the couple live in an apartment in a block of concrete with frozen walls. They are practically alone in their building: all their neighbours have left. “We’re leaving as well. We’re sad. We looked all over Russia to find somewhere to settle down and we finally decided on the Petersburg region. There, in the North, people are good-spirited. Like here, in Sinigorie.”
There’s not a soul left in Kadakchan. The last resident, who lived here with his dogs, died last winter. In the mid-90s, an explosion killed six people in a coal mine here — where Shalamov worked and which he describes in his novels. The mine was no longer feasible and the decision was taken to close it. Residents either left or were turfed out with meagre compensation. Water, heating and electricity were cut off, garages and vegetable patches were set on fire. Everything else is still here, like a huge panorama: the school with its indoor basketball court, the House of Culture, the cinema with its sign forever promising “Today’s screenings”, the residences whose apartments are still full of everyday objects, food shops, hundreds of abandoned cars.
Here, too, an ancient concrete town remains intact — this one was built to house the workers of the automobile factory which closed in the early 1990s. We explore its abandoned buildings in the blue hour of evening. Here it’s said that, for a number of Russian regions and industries, 1991 was like the asteroid that struck the planet and wiped out the dinosaurs. It extinguished life. Several towns in the region were pronounced “without a future” or no longer capable of yielding resources due to permafrost. Salaries stopped being paid, the collective farms were closed, animals died of hunger and entire towns were emptied of their inhabitants, sent back to “continental” Russia or to Magadan, mostly between 1991 and 1996.
Whatever the season, there is a sense of comradery on the road. Below -40°C, breakdowns are common. A truck or car that stalls won’t restart before the spring, so they are left running 24/7. Tyres suffer. If you see a vehicle stopped at the side of the road, the highway code is strict: you stop and help. Last week, Vova rescued a man who had broken down in -55°C; together, they spent 12 hours repairing his lorry. Vova sells products which he transports from Yakutsk: the same Barni biscuits and Moroccan mandarins that one can buy anywhere in Russia. He has no reason to worry — if his truck breaks down, the refrigeration system onboard keeps the temperature inside at +5°C compared to -50°C outside. All he has to do is wait patiently in his vehicle for someone to stop.
“It’s cold here, eh? Oh yes, but today it’s only -53°C. Last week it was -58! Anyway, whose idea was it to come here in winter?!” This line makes you laugh if you’ve heard the local proverb: “Kolyma, Kolyma, enchanted planet! Winter lasts 12 months and all the rest is summer”. But the shopgirl continues: “Come in summer, it’s wonderful. It’s warm, the nature is superb, we go to the dacha, we grow tomatoes and cucumbers, make jam… So come back in summer!”
“You’ve come to see how we live with cold like this? Today everything’s fine, the kids are off to school, it’s only -49°C. Once it gets to -50 the school closes.” I sense a certain pride in our interlocutor in maintaining a civilised life in such inhospitable conditions. Harsh outside, warm inside: both houses and people are like that. One old lady at the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, waves us down enthusiastically. Maybe she’s in danger from the cold? We open the car door (never the window for fear of being unable to close it again before spring) — and it’s a false alarm. She just wants to wish us a good journey and congratulate us for having adventured this far.
On the Road of Bones, it’s important not to miss the fuel pumps and cafes every 250km. Café Cuba is one of the nerve centres of the area: here you can exchange news, discuss the weather, work together to fix heavy loads, covering the vehicles with tarpaulin to keep them warm. People talk fishing and hunting. Female company is rare, so people also stop at Café Cuba to flash smiles at the young Yakut girl who ladels borsch into a plastic bowl.
Yakutia, also known as the Sakha Republic, is a region six times the size of France with only a million inhabitants. Until the 1930s, the region was mostly occupied by the Yakuts, who survived on hunting, fishing and rearing reindeer, horses and cows. Then the Russians arrived in search of coal, gold and diamonds. Here, shamanism and animism are alive and well. People make offerings to show their respect for the goddess of the earth and the god of fire, and use the gimbard or “Jew’s harp”, a small instrument that you vibrate with your mouth to purify the body of spirits.
After Café Cuba, we fork onto the old Kolyma road, a path five metres wide through the middle of a pine forest. These days only a section is still in use, up to the village of Tomtor, after which it becomes unusable. En route, in Oymakon, we meet Tamara, who has been battling all her life for her village — where, in the winter of 1933, a record low temperature of -67.8°C was recorded — to be recognised as the “Cold Pole”; that is, the coldest inhabited place in the world. Oymakon in a slightly elevated valley, far from the sea. The mountains that surround it maintain the cold, which descends on the village and stays there. Tamara can keep her frozen horse meat inside her house for most of the year.
Life is hard in Tomtor. People here get by on raising reindeer and small Yakut horses for meat as well as for hunting, fishing and gathering. “White” tourism is also slowly developing. But hardly anything grows here. Potatoes have roots that dig too deep: the permafrost starts only 15 centimetres below the ground. The cost of living is very high, as it is across the region. By the time products have been transported here they cost two or three times as much as in Moscow. Wood and coal are the other great expenses. To compensate for the lack of running water, you have to seek out a spring, which never freezes; alternatively, one can, in autumn, cut great blocks of ice from the river, which are then stored outside and brought into the house every time that water is needed.
Maria Boyarova runs the Museum of Gulag Literature in Tomtor. “When I was a child, when I didn’t want to finish my meals, I wasn’t told: “Eat your soup or you’ll get sent to the forest and a wolf will eat you,” I was told, ‘Eat your soup, or an escaped gulag convict with kidnap you and eat you!’” Today, though, wolves have replaced escaped prisoners. This year, the reindeer herds wandered north far from the village, fleeing the packs. But in the fields you can still see groups of Yakut horses, a robust species living at liberty wild in the taiga. They can sniff out grass under a thick bed of snow. Their hoofprints are everywhere at the side of the road. Hitched or mounted, they are also reared for their meat, milk and hide.
In the SakhaBult factory boutique in Yakutsk, a shopper wearing chinchilla fur hesitates between two pairs of unty costing 25,000 roubles ($443). These traditional Yakut boots, decorated with beads and made from reindeer hide with felt soles will certainly keep your feet warm. People here vouch for their anti-freeze properties, which they say match those of the tradition Russian fur boot, or valenki. A trapper enters, still in camouflage, come to sell sable skins for tanning. He tracked this catch across northern Yakutia. People come to SakhaBult from all over the region, bringing the furs of a thousand different little creatures for coats or hats, reindeer hides to turn into camping mattresses for hunters, or wolf hides which are turned into bedspreads popular among Italian clients.
“Zharko!” — “It’s warm today!” Yana tells us, exhaling a cloud of vapour into the -32°C air, as she stands among her frozen fish, laid out like baguettes. In order to come and run her stall, Yana has put on two pairs of tights, wool socks, unty, long johns, three jumpers, a vest, a muffler and a fur hat. The young woman mostly serves Yakuts; Georgy and Anna, opposite, deal with the Russians. This young Romanian couple, 10,000km from home, are selling local fish. It should be said that the pay is good for those willing to put up with the extreme conditions. “I have a friend who’s a teller in a Russian bank and he earns 35,000 roubles ($620) a month. Sure, I work hard, in -55 sometimes… Between September and May, the cold is natural here. But by my reckoning, I earn 150,000 to 200,000 roubles ($2660-3546) every month!” Georgy is 25. After the exiles of the 1930s and the Soviet explorers of the 1960s, the riches of the Great North today attract only a few intrepid souls.