Thursday, 13 June 2013

Dzienniki kołymskie by Jacek Hugo-Bader

Sometimes you finish a book and you're thankful it's out of the way. It bored you, it frustrated you (whatever the reason - style, vocabulary, tone), it was over-long, it was self-indulgent... But today I got to the end of Dzienniki kołymskie ('Kołyma Diaries') by Jacek Hugo-Bader and felt a sense of loss. Indeed, the past few days, aware the last page of the book was approaching, like the last day of a wonderful holiday, I felt sad each time I picked it up, knowing my enjoyment of it was coming to an end.

The book, a Christmas present from Moni, has been my travelling companion on my commutes to and from work for the past six weeks. It is the key to understanding the soul of Russia.

Many years ago, my friend Andrzej Poloczek visited Moscow, then still the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Standing in Red Square, he thought to himself that he was indeed in the heart of darkness. Having read Dzienniki kołymskie, I can say that Russia's heart of darkness lies 6,000 miles/10,000km further east - a frozen Golgotha - a land where, for the duration of Stalin's dark reign, humanity ceased to exist. The Gulag system, where the slave labour of Soviet Union's political prisoners, made to work for handfuls of dark bread excavating gold, diamonds, uranium and other precious metals, is where today's Russia is from.

That brutal and unthinking system, that boot stamping down on the face, with its prison hierarchy of vory and blatniy, where the strong exploit the weak to survive, is mirrored in Putin's Russia. Today's Russians, and the peoples of Siberia who are still subjects of Moscow, are the product of those decades of terror.

Jacek Hugo-Bader is the true heir to Ryszard Kapuściński in the journalistic sub-genre of reportage. This is his third book about Russia (the second one, Biała gorączka, I reviewed here). Hugo-Bader is above all a fearless writer, someone willing to put themself into harm's way to get an insightful story for his readers. His stories in Gazeta Wyborcza had always impressed me with the direct questions he'd ask difficult people; here is a man putting his life on the line to tell us the truth.

And the truth about Kolyma is not easy to digest. An inhospitable land, closed off from the Eurasian continent for much of the year; a land rich in natural resources - gold, diamonds, oil, caviar. A land far from the rule of law - if there be any rule of law than the fiat of whatever ruthless, face-stamping megalomaniac is in the Kremlin. Kolyma is a land to which unusual people flee their past; a land from which usual people escape.

Hugo-Bader hitch-hikes over 2,000 kilometres from Magadan, the capital of Kolyma, to Yakutsk, just as merciless winter falls. Travelling by way of Debin, Susuman, Ust-nera and Chadyga, he encounters a memorable procession of characters. Much drinking goes on. Thirty-six days on the road with 19 massive vodka-drinking sessions along the way, without which the window to the Russian soul would have remain tightly shuttered. Each one offers us plentiful insight; on the extraction and trade in gold, that drives the economy of the Russian Far East. On the plight of the Yakut and other native peoples, without a head for alcohol, who are being exterminated slowly by vodka (a main theme in Biała gorączka). On the bottomless corruption, the stupid, venal, primitive, brutal local oligarchs (wealthy beyond comprehension, yet lacking the nous to move to somewhere civilised). And at the heart of it, Stalin's Gulag system that gave this part of the world its infrastructure, its first settlements - penal colonies that would become today's sad, depopulated towns.

I tracked Hugo-Bader's voyage on Google Earth, studying carefully the satellite imagery of Kolyma, the photos on Panoramio, reading the Wikipedia articles about the settlements along the way from Magadan to Yakutsk. Well worth doing. To get an idea of the insane geography of the place; where temperatures can oscillate between -60C and +30C; where permafrost means that normal sanitation is impossible; where people's fatalism is so deeply rooted that there's no future for most of them.

If you live in Kolyma, 'the continent' is the outside world, the normal world - is difficult to reach. Yakutsk, a city of over a quarter of a million people, lacks a bridge between the two banks of the River Lena, and taking a heavy goods vehicle across on a ferry costs €4,000.

There are so many fascinating snippets of knowledge in this book. Twice, Hugo-Bader's interviewees mention the ONTOTs - a chain of Stalin-era tanks buried hull-down into the hillsides overlooking the Amur River and the border with China with just the turrets showing. Red Army soldiers were supposed to man these outposts until death - there was no way out, should the Chinese invade. Then the are the shatun - the man-eating bears that are a constant threat to humans towards the end of hungry winters. The devil-may-care attitude of the paputchniki (truck drivers) of the Trakt Kolymski - that partially-asphalted, slender thread that links Kolyma to the outside world, built by the zeks of the Gulag system. Seldom sober, the paputchniki are friendly, human - but liable to tell the tallest tales, from the very depths of their souls - or somebody else's soul.

Hugo-Bader rarely had to wait long for his next lift. At truck-stops, where drivers would pop in to the store for a couple of half-litre bottles of vodka, he'd catch a ride a dozen, a hundred, a few hundred kilometres further on up the road. Once only he had to pay for his travel - 500 roubles, 50 zlotys, £10, to join five other men on a suicidal journey across the Aldan in a tiny motor-boat, dodging massive ice-floes in a swiftly-moving and broad river.

The people he'd meet - Yezhov's daughter; faith-healers and shamans, gold-diggers, blind-drunk surgeons, nomads, hermits - out here, no one is normal.

The landscape is littered with ghost-towns, where the lights went out after the last of the gold or coal was excavated, where the people left as soon as they could. What will happen to Kolyma? My guess is that Kolyma - and much of the Russian Far East - will become Chinese by the end of this century. The Chinese will buy it or conquer it by force; Moscow has neither the will nor the wherewithal to maintain  this resource-rich but depopulated piece of real estate (see this post).

I hope that Dzienniki kołymskie will make their way into English; this is one of the most significant books about the world we live in I've read in a long while.

This time last year:
Russia-Poland in Warsaw: the worst day of Euro 2012

This time two years ago:
Thirty-one and sixty-three - a short story

This time four years ago:
Warsaw rail circumnavigation

This time five years ago:
Classic Polish vehicles

This time six years ago:
South Warsaw sunsets

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Michal,
I finally read Biala Goraczka about a month ago. Hard on the soul. Normally, I read a book in one or two sittings...this one, I needed to put down and de-stress between chapters. Too bad your latest review didn't come a few days earlier, a girlfriend left for PL on Wednesday...I would have asked her to pick up a copy for me. It will have to wait until next year when the family and I come over to visit.

trzymaj sie,