10. Feb, 2018

BLOG 30-ROAD OF BONES

This is why I love history:
The other day I was reading somehting and came upon an article titled "THE ROAD OF BONES". I read into it and now I share it. I know it's not the American Civil War:
ROAD OF BONES

The "Long way round" the Road of Bones. This route in the extreme north-east of Siberia was carved out of the marshy tundra more than 60 years ago by Gulag prisoners. The dirt road isn’t at the end of the world. Anybody who reaches the Road of Bones has already left it way behind them. The Magadan highway is the biggest cemetery in the world.
The R504 Kolyma Highway, "Federal Automobile Highway 'Kolyma'"), part of the M56 route, is a road through
the Russian Far East. It connects Magadan with the town of Nizhny Bestyakh, located on the eastern bank of Lena River opposite Yakutsk. At Nizhny Bestyakh the Kolyma Highway connects to the Lena Highway.
The Kolyma Highway is also known as the Road of Bones, because the skeletons of the forced laborers who died during its construction were used in many of its foundations. Locally, the road is known as Trassa (Russian: Трасса – "The Route"), or Kolymskaya trassa (Russian: Колымская трасса – "The Kolyma Route"), since it is the only road in the area and therefore needs no special name to distinguish it from other roads.
The Dalstroy construction directorate built the Kolyma Highway during the USSR's Stalinist era. Inmates of the Sevvostlag labour camp started the first stretch in 1932, and construction continued with the use of gulag labour until 1953.The bones of the people who died while constructing it were laid beneath or around the road. As the road is built on permafrost, interment into the fabric of the road was deemed more practical than digging new holes to bury the bodies of the dead.
Russia's "Gold Rush" was different from California's. Here in the frozen wastes of the Far East the prospectors were slaves, prisoners worked to death on what became known as the "Road of Bones". Now the retreat from one of the most inhospitable environments known to man is in full swing. The route from nowhere to the back of beyond is lined with abandoned villages, once gulag camps.
Even Susuman, an urban outpost servicing the gold mines, is in decline. The town's population has halved over the last decade and teenagers describe their home as "a tip with no future".
For those who stay, summer is trying enough. Those out on the highway built by Stalin's prisoners from Magadan, the nearest port, 400 miles away, are baked by the heat, covered with dust and attacked by huge mosquitoes.
Winter is worse. The last one was severe even by local standards, with temperatures hitting -76F. A sprinkling of hilltop snow in July was a reminder that the hot weather was already on the wane.
Under Stalin hundreds of thousands of prisoners endured those extremes and more. Kolyma, the river which lent its name to the whole region, "a pole of cold and cruelty".
Armed only with pickaxes and wheelbarrows, prisoners, generals and intellectuals side by side with common criminals, hacked and hewed at permafrost in the hunt for gold.The search for gold went on, scarring the wilderness
landscape with waterlogged gravel pits and scrap heaps.
Under Stalin there were lots of camps with barbed wire and watch towers. Kolyma was one big camp’s.
"Forbidden Zone. No Access. I will open fire", wooden crosses marking prisoners' graves
Without gold or slave labour from the gulag, the place would be an empty wasteland to this day. Every town or
village was once home to a prison camp. Yet there are few reminders of its origins. The "Road of Bones" has more tributes to recent car crash victims than to the tens of thousands who perished building it.
Only one roadside cross mourns the fallen while a colossal Easter Island-type sculpture called the "Mask of Grief" gazes down at the Magadan harbour where barges carrying prisoners arrived at the start of their final journey north.
Inhabitants are the squalor and loneliness of life on the frontier between civilisation and nature at its most unforgiving. Outlying villages are shutting down and their people moving to Susuman.
The journey to the heart of Joseph Stalin's reign of terror was long and arduous. Finally, hidden behind a clump of trees, the gulag emerged. This is where victims of Stalin's repressions were imprisoned as slave labourers and worked to death on the Road of Bones, the notorious Kolyma highway that connects Khandyga to the port of Magadan, in Russia's far northeast.
The timber barracks, blackened by more than half a century of neglect, stood in a sodden bog that swarmed with mosquitos in stifling summer heat, not far from the mountain road that its former inmates had built. The roof had partially collapsed and the walls had buckled with age, but this small cabin revealed glimpses of its part in the tragic history of this remote region, where thousands of prisoners, or zeks, endured unimaginable hardship in labour camps.
The window frame was still covered by bars that once held Stalin's "enemies of the people" captive. A small brazier in the room hinted at the efforts of inmates to survive the brutal winters, as did bits of rag stuffed pathetically into holes around the door frame.
Lines of barbed-wire fencing led to the gate that marked the entrance to a hell for those who passed through. Many never left, but no graves commemorate their existence. Instead, those who were executed nightly by guards or simply expired from exhaustion, hunger and cold were buried under the highway as it was built, a human foundation for the 1000-mile Road of Bones. The isolation of the camp, and the bears that live in the surrounding wilderness, would have crushed any hope of escape.
It is a shock to find any evidence of the gulags, years after the dictator's death in 1953. The bitter legacy of this era continues to divide Russia, where many people still revere Stalin as the man who led them to victory over Nazi
Germany in the Second World War, and where an old saying holds that half the population were prisoners and the other half were jailers.
Most of the camps along this road from the main highway to the settlement of Topolinoe, 140 miles (225km) from Khandyga, were closed in the mid-1950s as the new Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev strove to end the despotism that had driven Stalin's personality cult. Others were erased from history by people scavenging for timber.
Even today, reaching the gulag is a marathon. It took 12 hours by car and ferry to reach Khandyga from Yakutsk, the regional capital six time zones east of Moscow. Khandyga owes its existence to the gulag: it was established in 1939 as the first camps opened here. It is now a ramshackle town in decline, reluctant to remember its past. There is no memorial to the victims.
An estimated 800,000 prisoners entered gulags along the highway, which was built partly to allow the workers' state to exploit the region's gold resources, also mined by slave labour.
At first they planned to build a railway but then the war came and they decided on a road instead. The work began in 1941 and it had already gone 735km by 1943.
It was mostly political prisoners at first but they were joined during the war by people who had been in areas occupied by the Germans. There were peasants who had objected to Stalin's collectivisation programme for their farms and also people who had committed crimes - you could get ten years in the gulag just for stealing something.
The camps were named after the kilometre markers where they were located. Those who worked on the roads had it a little better than those in the mines, who died in greater numbers.
It gets to 40C (104F) here in summer and minus 60C (minus 76F) in winter. They laboured for 15 hours a day, ate just porridge or bread, and lived in camps surrounded by swamps. Sanitary conditions were terrible.
Many inmates were rehabilitated when the camps closed and left the area, but others stayed in Khandyga. Most did not survive long because life in the camps had been so harsh. But there never seemed any ill will between them and their former guards.
The turning off the highway towards Topolinoe, where at least half a dozen camps once stood, including one for women, appeared about 40 miles east of Khandyga. Ahead lay seven spine-jarring hours to reach the gulag in an all-terrain vehicle that ploughed across ten rivers and 100 miles of rutted track.
A modern bridge over the Menkule River was built in 2008 to replace the one made by camp inmates in 1951. An Orthodox Christian cross stands beside it in honour of "Russia's bridge-builders 1937-2008", carefully avoiding direct reference to the gulags.
Back on the Road of Bones, at the village of Teplyi Kluch, a map at the tiny gulag museum charts the expansion of the camps under Stalin, from 6000 prisoners in 1930 to more than 12 million by the time of his death. Prisoners built Teplyi Kluch and its tiny airport, which was used by the Americans in the Second World War to deliver aircraft to the military.
At least 25 people died on that road every day and nobody knows who most of them were. Bones are always popping up through the surface. We are trying to keep their memory alive. It's very important. There were more than a hundred camps in this area alone. It was like a giant conveyor belt of people, including children as young as 12.
The Prison Camps were grey, awful places where people were always hungry and cold.
Originally built by prisoners using hand tools in the 1930s, the Kolyma Highway represents the unification of two road systems, one stretching east from Yakutsk, the other north and west from the sea port of Magadan.
One of the ultimate adventures in the taiga of Russian Far East, be ready to see lots of mines, wilderness, bears, moose, squirrels, abandoned cities, dust, and a few resourceful and interesting people.