Excerpts from 'The Gulag Trail - Footprints into Exile' by Jerry Kubica, with his kind permission
GULAG-72 km. A present-day view of a GULAG
I was fortunate, history understood and smiled at me this day; Ivan knew the place of a long-forgotten derelict GULAG lagier; his colleague, Petia offered to take me there... if I dare - just the two of us.
So... how did I get there? What are the roads like - you may ask. Well... if you were made of rubber - you would have gone right through the metal roof; if you carried a lot of fat on your body - you would have lost most of it along the way; if you were of skin and bones - you would have found blue marks all over them; if you could have peeled a strip of your skin - you would have seen the hundreds of perforations from mosquito bites... and they were hungry, for there were no other blood donors except the two human asses; even the bears took shelter in deeper woods. And yet, the trip was fascinating, exciting, memorable... an adventure I would never forego and would be happy to repeat, even the moments when the truck fell into a pothole full of murky water, tilted 25 degrees and stuck! Water flooded 1/3 of the truck and my rucksack... I had to wade out through this murky, muddy water onto “dry” land. But it's at moments like this that, suddenly, a thought flashes through my mind: I am following in the footsteps of our fathers... and enjoying it, finding it exhilarating, a broad smile on my face!
Am I not perverse - the worst kind of traveller? I don't kiss the ground our fathers trod; I don't kneel or pray, or lift my fists in anger clamouring for revenge. For here, our fathers were on an etap, trudging in a column from one GULAG camp to another, guarded and hustled by armed guards and vicious dogs... hungry, exhausted, dressed in rags, carrying their possessions. There was no smile on their faces; their eyes stared blankly into the distance; their legs and feet covered in sores buckled under the strain, no anti-mosquito sprays... and that warning constantly ringing in their ears: one step to the right or left out of the column, and we shoot - to kill! And I am following in their footsteps... happy in my soul to be retracing their etap despite the mosquitoes, the engulfing puddles, and the austerity of the surroundings.
If you prefer the rough, the wild, the wilderness camouflaged by woods, the heat and mosquitoes and mites, deep ruts and potholes camouflaged by huge puddles, torrents across your track... if you prefer all that to the comfort of even the lowest-grade hotel and the predictability of a pre-arranged trip then, undoubtedly, this trip, this awful etap is for you. Or if you like streams of crystal clean water, views of open lakes with magical reflections... you will find them here too; be an adventurer; walk the etap, if you dare!
But if you were here alone surrounded by the utter silence, your soul free to just gaze at what’s around you... you would then begin to feel what our fathers must have felt. Your mind would focus on the endless kilometres of the railway line they were forced to build, the embankments they raised, the telephone and electricity lines they laid through swamps and streams and forest. You would see railway bridges swept away by torrents; you would see the carcass of an old steam engine swept off the rails... and you would know for sure that, in these conditions, many of our fathers must have perished. And you would look, and look... but find not even one cemetery, or burial mound... and the smile would fade on your face.
And, perhaps with great relief, you would see clear signs of the final victory of Capitalism over Communism in the 1990’s: steel rails removed, telegraph poles abandoned to nature now look like tumbled crucifixes strung with wires, the entire railway abandoned, unwanted; no longer competitive in the world ruled by market economy; nobody walks the etap now. Our fathers’ labour, their blood, sweat and tears, and lives - gone to waste, forgotten... left for travellers like me to rediscover and ponder.
If you were to follow the rail tracks, and if you knew where to look, you would come to the place where they had come to, where their lives had come to an end in the 1940’s and 50’s... you would have found the remains of a GULAG lagier, and you would find here the shreds of history of peoples’ lives, pain, sickness and death. Your heart will race in great excitement, adrenalin will flow; you will dart here, there, everywhere; your camera will click away... for you have, at last, found visible, touchable shreds of our fathers' history - their footprints - you would have found what's left of GULAG 72km.
Now you can take a break, light a fire, bite into that thick slab of black bread, slonina and smoked salmon; watch in amazement the midnight sunset the forest ablaze, and then bed down for the sun-lit night in a forester’s wagon. But overnight, the gravity of what you saw on this day will overcome all your excitement, and you will know you have to go back to see, to feel... to share a moment with the ghosts of our fathers.
Now you see the perimeter fence still in place, barbed wire still cuts as it did then, and that wyshka - the hallmark of any lagier - still stands upright, but the guards have gone, the machine guns gone, the searchlight gone, cables dangle loosely, its step ladder leans at a mad angle... no, you wouldn’t want to try climbing up there. And here, there, and there, and there... you see collapsed barracks; grey, rotten timber cracks under your foot: you see death and decay on a large scale; that deathly silence and the greyness surrounding you is unnerving.
Wow - you nearly fell into it! A pit, dug deep, yawns at you from under a roof of poles covered with earth at ground level... its gaping, collapsed entrance beckons you in and would welcome you today as it welcomed so many in the 1940's! Surely, this pit was no living quarters, more a grim prison inside a prison - an isolator - cold, wet, black, suffocating.
And there! just here! Two semicircular, large, black gaping holes glare at you from a mound of earth... and the cadaver of a grey, wooden "something" lies prostrate in front of them as if swallowed, digested and regurgitated by the hidden monster. Of course... the ovens! They had to bake their own bread!
And as you pace the length of the 200 m perimeter fence, the next wyshka becomes discernible amongst the trees, its cabin blown off and the entire structure is listing badly. And just here, the posts and barbed wire of the inner fence are recognizable too. Yes, it’s the death zone - the five-metre space between the outer and inner fence. If you were suicidal, just step into this space, and the guard in the wyshka would have immediately obliged you with a bullet. And those piles of stones and boulders lying here, there and there... what are they? Are they the cornerstones or foundations for the barracks, or... or do they mark the pits, the final resting place of the many that perished here? No one lives to tell.
But eventually, you will have to stop, get that weight off your chest, start breathing, get your bearings. Call out loud... and you will be answered only by - silence. And suddenly, you will be struck by the realization that no cry of pain or cry for help, no prayer could ever have been heard outside the boundaries of this lagier; nor will it ever penetrate this dense, immovable volume of air suffocating the camp: here the air doesn’t vibrate - trees cushion all.
As you look around, alone, the silence becomes over powering, the greyness becomes over-powering... Momentarily you will become immobilized by its history... my father... was he here? If he was, thank God he got out - so many didn't.
The lagier has been taken over by self-seeded birch: slim, tall, silver, white, covered in new leaves... one tree for each departed soul? Even the sunrays that penetrate the thicket cannot dispel that oppressive and claustrophobic feeling until... you look at the ground! You are stepping on the most beautiful natural carpet. Forget the best of Persian carpets! None can compete with Nature, and none have soaked up as much blood, sweat and tears as the carpet under your feet, an amazing agglomeration of white, cream, brown, red, green moss and lichen woven into a fantastic mosaic of miniature flowers... deep and soft, tender almost. You will want to touch it, caress it... and in return, it would welcome you as it must have welcomed our fathers, yet nowhere in the area is there any evidence, not even a mound, of a cemetery or burial. And how many of our fathers never left this place? This will haunt your thoughts, yet you will want to return here just to sit in solitude, in this deathly silence and try to understand why... this inhumanity of Man to Man?
(Photos courtesy of Jerry Kubica)