Dispatches From Hell

Piles of shoes have become the universal symbol of death camps. Placed on exhibit in Auschwitz and in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, they have a way of conveying the scale of human disaster. The pile in Butugychag, the largest of Kolyma’s numerous concentration camps, does not impress: Here, behind what used to be the isolation barracks, there are no more than 300 or 400 pairs. Inna Gribanova, director of the local history museum in the nearest village of Ust-Omchug, says that the first time she came here, 10 years ago, the pile was enormous, thousands of pairs. She doesn’t know what’s happened to them. I assume that, like every waste repository in this region, this one has been mined for useful parts. Inna says that a couple of years ago she came here to look for a boot with a tire-tread sole to use as an exhibit. She had seen many of them before, but this time there were none. Of course not: Those soles can still be used to patch tires.

We are lucky to have Inna as our guide: This camp, actually a series of camps, covers over 100 square miles, filled with inscrutable ruins. Inna has pieced together a lot, though by no means everything, from accounts, verbal and written, by former inmates and staff. She knows which of the barracks most likely housed inmates (these are surrounded by barbed wire), which housed the staff (these have more stoves, and there is a child’s swing next to one, overlooking a mine), which were the kitchens, and which was the uranium factory. Still, she cannot fathom the purpose of a double granite wall–everything here is constructed of slabs of granite, the most easily available building material–that runs along the sides of three adjoining mountains. It may have been a wind-proof corridor for the guards making their rounds, she thinks: They would have observed the inmates working and living up above, at the top of one of the mountains. Sasha and I think it was more likely a transport corridor: There are still rails running through parts of it, and several of the mine tunnels open up into it. From above, the structure looks like a Great Wall of China in miniature, and the guessing game in which we are engaged resembles the work of archeologists trying to decipher the ways of distant ancestors. Except all this was built in this century by people, some of whom are still alive.

“This is the work of Roman slaves in the middle of the 20th century,” says Inna of the mine she has brought us to see. It is an awesome sight, an opening in the mountain’s granite monolith about 100 meters high and 50 wide, a cave for monsters worked by ants. They mined for tin here, using primitive drilling machines and explosives, then loaded the slabs of granite–each weighing upward of 50 pounds–onto carts by hand. The women had a particular task, called crumb-picking: They had to scour the mountain slopes for chunks of granite covered with tin-containing crystals that had been flung afield during the explosion.

To get to our vantage point, we climbed the other side of the mountain. It’s a dangerous route: We stepped on slabs of granite that cover the slope in a natural loose formation and have a way of giving treacherously underfoot. If one of them had come dislodged, one of us would have tumbled down the near-vertical slope, taking other slabs along. We stopped to rest a few times, and still at the top Sasha and I, well-exercised people in our early 30s, were gasping for breath. Inna, who is 54, plopped down on a flat slab, holding her right hand to the left side of her chest.

“How high did we climb?” I asked.

“Not that high,” responded Inna, a former geophysicist who has been climbing the mountains of Kolyma her whole adult life. “About 400 meters. There is a memoir that says the climb is 1,000 meters, but that’s not true. In general, former inmates tend to exaggerate.” Of course they do: To a person near death from starvation–and all accounts indicate that this described most inmates–that climb, without breaks, when the mountain is iced over during the 10-month-long winter, would have been endless. Many had to make the climb daily: Those who lived in the camp in the valley worked the mine at the top. Inna quotes from another memoir, this one by a geologist who was an intern here in the early ‘50s:

Like giant ants, they climbed the side of the mountain in silence. Then they were counted laboriously and let into the mine one by one, like toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube. After 12 hours, the process was reversed: They were counted over and over, and the count always came up short, but the formation could not step off until the last bloody jacket was extracted from the mine. Sometimes this took two or three hours.

 The jackets were numbered, explains Inna, and the important part was to account for all the prisoners by number.

“You have to write it with hyphens,” Anna Dzenkiv instructs me and checks that I wrote her number correctly in my notebook: B-1-762. She is one of 19 surviving former Butugychag inmates who still live in the area. She tells me that in her six years at Butugychag, she lived up at the top of the mountain and worked in the uranium factory down in the valley.

What remains of the factory (which was shut down, along with the rest of the camp, in 1954) still shows off some Stalin-era grandeur: what was probably once elaborate wainscoting in the offices and the remnants of cast-iron chandeliers up by the roof. We can’t stay long because the radiation levels here are still 10 times the safe maximum. “I have been asking for warning signs to be placed here for years,” Inna complains. “Then people wouldn’t come here, or at least they wouldn’t stay and picnic.” Which, judging from the abundant graffiti, they do. Most are addressed directly to the grand architect of the place. “Thank you, comrade Stalin, for this haven in the taiga.”

Down here in the valley, it is indeed taiga, a thick Siberian forest. Former inmates say that nothing used to grow here back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when thousands of pairs of feet stomped the slopes daily. Now there are trees and flowers of many kinds. There is one with a white ball-like growth on one of the branches. A skull.

The cemeteries here–there are five that Inna knows of, but former inmates say most people were buried inside the mines–are the source of her biggest heartache. The graves are less than a foot deep–you cannot dig any further into the granite–the wooden boxes in which the inmates were buried are rotten, and the wind blows the graves open constantly. Plus, apparently, there are vandals who pick at the remains for fun. When we get to the cemetery, which is, puzzlingly, at the top of a foothill, Inna grabs a loose board from one of those pseudocoffins and starts to shove scattered bones back into the open grave from which the scull was apparently taken. I kick in a hipbone and a rib that I see underfoot. The first time Inna came here was after she read an article–one of many spurred by glasnost–about the condition of the burial grounds at the camp. Now every time she comes, she covers the graves, which defy all attempts at counting them.

“In the excitement 10 years ago, everyone was saying there should be a memorial here,” she says. “I didn’t think so then, and I don’t think so now: It would be too big an investment for such a remote place. But I think the burial grounds should be put in order, and radiation warning signs should be placed at the factory.”

The excitement is long since over, and Inna’s chances of getting these things done are pretty much nonexistent. I have seen lone crusaders like her everywhere there are remains of Stalinist camps, which is to say, all over Russia. Some are battling construction on burial sites; others are fighting for some sort of memorialization. Some are the children of former inmates; others, like Inna, are self-taught local historians who were transformed by perestroika. Almost never are they former inmates themselves: More often than not, those who are still alive and have remained in the area of their internment have made peace with their destiny.

“What can you do?” asks Anna Dzenkiv, who was not yet 20 when she was arrested and taken from Ukraine to Kolyma. “The country needed a labor force. You’ve got to work your whole life, you know.”