Kolyma was a word that I had never heard until a few months ago. I suspect only 1 out of every 100 Americans has ever heard it. On the other hand, it likely causes the average Russian to shudder.
It is a region in the far eastern part of Russia, and is part of Siberia. It’s a harsh climate, bitterly cold all year round, and covered in permafrost. It’s isolated, and inaccessible for the better part of the year. You can only reach the place by boat for the very brief period when the ice breaks up on the Sea of Okhotsk.
Humans are not meant to live in such harsh conditions, and no one in their right mind would do so. Not voluntarily. Kolyma is a place to be avoided.
From 1930 to about 1954, it was home to the most brutal labor camp in Soviet history. It is estimated that 250,000 to more than a million people died there, after working in this Gulag under starvation conditions, mostly to extract gold.
It was a place where violent criminals were considered the cream of the crop. They got the most privileges. The inmates that were treated the worst were the political prisoners, which mostly consisted of academics or intellectuals.
You could find yourself sent to Kolyma for a variety of trivial reasons. One man, it is said, was sent there for refusing to write a song about Stalin. You could also wind up there for decades, if you survived, simply for speaking out against the state or refusing to incriminate friends or colleagues. After World War II, many Soviet POWs who were released by the allies were then sent to Kolyma for 10-25 years for “collaborating with the enemy”.
Many authors have written about Kolyma. The one who has touched me the most during my research on this post was former prisoner Varlam Shalamov. You can read one of his moving stories, Condensed Milk, on-line. It really shows how much your humanity can be taken away from you, and how your whole focus, your whole survival, can be reduced to one can of condensed milk. You can also read some chilling quotes from his book, Kolyma Tales, here.
It is said that this Gulag shut down in 1953, but many people, oddly enough, remained there voluntarily. And in truth, there were still some prisoners there. The last prisoner was supposedly released in 1990. Most structures in Kolyma are disintegrating now, and most people are gone. But no one knows for sure how many bodies lie beneath the permafrost.
What I find most disturbing about Kolyma is that it occupied such a horrible place in human history, and yet so few people know about it. It makes you wonder what else we are missing.
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