Skip this post if you want an uplifting light reading. This one is not. It is about terrible events.
I did not plan writing this post, but it comes to me every day...
My mom died in 1988. Several days after the funeral my older brother, who lived with my mom, asked me whether I wanted to meet one of her friends, whom I did not know. My brother told me that he knew a lot about the Extreme North, where I lived at that time.
I wanted, both because I thought she would like me to meet her friend, and I also was curious as to his connection to the Extreme North.
He was in his early 80s, not a big guy by any standards. He shook my hand and something was weird with his hand, but I could not figure it. He lived in s small studio apartment 5-10-minute walk from my mom's apartment. I asked him how he got to the north, and he smiled at the stupidity of my question. In 1939 there was only one way to get there - GULAG. Yes, I was sitting with a man, who was in the GULAG in the most terrifying years, and yet survived. Very few did, really very few...
In 1939 he was a young railroad engineer working in Siberia, when there was one of so notoriously famous initiatives by the workers -well organized propaganda thing- when they find the deserving hero among the workers, and then make it as if the workers came with the initiative, and then they would take him all over the country, and he would go to places and speak at the meetings, and they would be in every newspaper across the country and on every radio station. That was a great patriotic movement. There were intiatives in each major industry.
But my guy in Siberia did not have the skills to say what was expected, or better simply shut up to survive. So, when the hero spoke at the meeting in the railroad Depot where my mom's friend worked, he did not get the political significance of the movement and started asking practical questions, and the problem with great propaganda things is that they usually fade when people ask practical questions, and ask a lot of them.
He was arrested the very same night, declared the enemy of the people (paragraph 58 of the Penal Code), and taken to the NKVD (later KGB) station for interrogation. At that time if they could get your admission of guilt, it was enough ground to indict you and excecute you at the direction of Troika (3 people, who represented justice). So, the officers tortured people trying to get the admission. And then it struck me that his fingertips were flattened. They put his fingers between the door and the jamb and then smashed them. Every interrogation. No wonder that people signed anything prosecutors wanted, people wanted to end it and die fast. Not so easy with my mom's friend.
"At first I fought with them. Then I got weak, and I could not fight, so when they bring me into the interrogation room, I would kick and spit and then fall to the ground trying to protect my head from the boots". He never admitted guilt, and this saved his life, as they could not shoot him without it. He got 15 years (at that time this was the longest prison term in Russia), but then do not forget that the lifespan of inmates in the GULAG in the Extreme North was only 3 months.
He was lucky. He was a railroad engineer, and an experienced one, and the authorities needed him to lead workers in building the railroad to Vorkuta, my Arctic city. He was the lead engineer on some stretch of this road, so they fed him, they took care of him. They needed him for more than 3 months. Many things he told me, I mostly knew, and it was shocking.
In the 70s and 80s the Soviet Union was building Baikal-Amur Railroad in Eastern Siberia and Far East of Russia. It was a huge project, and it took more than 10 years to build, even though it is still unfinished. I remember reading and hearing how they were overcoming obstacles and one of the biggest was permafrost.
My mom's friend was building a railroad, where there was way more permafrost, and it was not the 70s, these were the end of 30s, with less knowledge, technology... The war started in June 1941. Germans cut access to Ukrainian coal, and the country needed Vorkuta coal to help keep the metallurgy up and running. Without metal the war was lost. Stalin gave them until the end of the year to put the railroad through tundra to Vorkuta and get the coal. The working day was extended to 12 hours with no days off. These were not stationary camps, these were mostly tents, where people slept. And they built several hundred miles in less than 6 months, and the first echelon with coal for Leningrad left Vorkuta December 30, 1941. Stalin did not joke.
I asked him how come they could do it, and in the 70s they couldn't. They did not know nothing about building railroads over permafrost, there was no roads built that far north before. He got dark in the face, got closer to me and whispered "it is on bones".
If you go and read about the construction of the Northern Railroad, you would easily find that there was an extreme shortage of everything. And in the tundra there is no construction grade wood. They did not have enough wood sleepers to put under the rails, and they started putting two out of three.
Of course, you would read about the heroism of Soviet people, who in incredibly difficult conditions heroically completed the construction of the railroad. Nobody ever did it before.
If you happen to travel from Moscow to Vorkuta - 38 hours of uneventful journey - you would be bored by a bleak unpronounced landscape, vast spaces with nothing for the eye to notice. You will not see cemeteries. People were people even in the harshest and most inhumane times. Prisoners buried the dead and moved ahead with the railroad. And when they already could not see it, the bulldozers were going along the railroad leveling and messing up all graves so that there was no trace left. It is just all bones. In summer permafrost occasionally releases them, and locals are used to that.
A glorious place. Nobody died. They vanished.