We had been in Yakutsk for a week. A week in the unrelenting July heat of central Siberia, everything covered in a film of brown dust. I was with a Danish post grad student, X. We were en route to a tiny village on the Kolyma river to make a documentary film about the last members of the Yukagir tribe for his MA in documentary film making at Manchester university. We were due to fly to Zyryanka - the nearest town to the village where the Yukagir lived, further upriver. Flights left randomly and while we waited we were being put up in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of the Yakutsk by an acquaintance of X’s, a teacher.
Three months earlier, I had decided to accompany X at my own expense, having heard some of his hair-raising stories about hunting with local trappers in the forests of Siberia. One of them had particularly shocked me. X had been hunting in midwinter, with some shady types - skiing and with guns on their backs. Shady means that they were not very respectful of the law, or of much at all - they shot endangered birds and day to day life was rough. After some days of only eating bread, meat and sala (salted fat), X had become constipated to the point that he was in serious pain. One of the trappers had approached him with some rubber tubing and set up an impromptu colonic using snow. Not long after this humiliating experience X had developed flu and had to be carried some of the way. That day the trappers had killed a bear. They had stopped at a cabin in the forest and X had collapsed on to one of the hard wooden bugs and fallen into a feverish sleep. He had been awoken at knife point and dragged out into the snow where the trappers had skinned the bear and splayed it on a spit to roast. ‘A skinned bear looks remarkably like a skinned human, it was terrifying seeing it over the fire,’ said X - ‘they told me to fuck the bear.’ He had pulled out a knife and refused. It was a great story, that I now doubt the veracity of for several reasons. At the time that and another story that involved him hiding out in a forest hut for 6 weeks under constant siege from rats and bears after the dubious party of trappers had been caught in the local town selling endangered species of bird, were beguiling and frightening enough for me to want to accompany him to Siberia.
We had had two days in Moscow where we had bought electric goods for our Yukagir hosts. Things between us didn’t start well: X, who was engaged, had seduced an english friend of mine in Moscow, and we had had a row in the airport as we had too many kilos of luggage and X was furious that I had bought a 1kg jar of marmite with me.
Yakutsk was an ugly charmless city. We were in an in-between state and my jet lag had made me sleep walk into our host’s kitchen at all times of the day and night, muttering and moaning. From the kitchen window the city stretched to the horizon in housing blocks and shacks. Day after day, there was no flight. We passed our time drinking tea and visiting the local natural history museum and looking at the stuffed mammoth.
Finally we heard a flight was in the offing. The plane was small and wobbly, and as we shook through the air it was as if we were entering a different dimension, the old connections were left behind - the ties of logic and acceptable forms of behaviour. We were entering a land where different rules apply - the rule of the Gulag. The town of Zyryanka was built by Soviet prisoners in the 1930s and was inhabited by those serving the prison system from that date onwards. Moscow friends’ eyes had grown wide with astonishment when I told them I was going to the Kolyma. It was a place of unspeakable conditions, of death, of the most terrible human abasement, of prison ballads and myths - it was another land within Russia. Those who lived there call it the ‘materik’, slang for the motherland, a diminutive of the word mat’, mother. It is part of Russia, but separate - it is landlocked and accessible only by air, or via Vladivostok by boat - a country within a country - and certainly not somewhere a foreigner, or Russian, would wish to simply wander into - there were portals, physical, and mental to discover and find a way through.
The Gulag system was a distorted and extreme parallel version of Soviet reality. It may have come to an end under Gorbachev, and the Kolyma camps shut earlier than that, but it was still inhabited. While the majority of prisoners were desperate to leave when their sentences were over, many also stayed and served the system - they had been on the materik so long, had lost all ties with their families, were possibly scared to go back, but more to the point were accustomed to the ways of the Gulag system and did not want to go back to the other Soviet reality, where the same rules applied but behind an elaborate masquerade of apparent order. Many had been brutalised and were fearful to go back and start over. They may have decided to become a prison guard, or begun a family with another former prisoner from one of the women’s colonies. So, many of the people we met in Zyryanka were descended from the prison system - from prisoners and from guards. I didn’t know this at the time, I didn’t know much about the Gulag system, but I was not immune to the strange atmosphere of the town - there was something hollow and ghostly about it. Some places have a ghastly atmosphere. When I was in Chechnya, as correspondent for The Times, in 2003, I remember feeling physically ill from the atmosphere of Grozny. I had spent the afternoon in a garage, listening to the story of some parents whose son had gone missing, suspected taken by Russian soldiers or the FSB. They were telling stories of torture - how rampant it was, and how many people went missing and never reappeared. It was a part of everyday life. Leaving the garage - they had given me a quince as a present - I felt like this was the closest to hell on earth I had experienced. In retrospect, Zyryanka was the grandmother of that place. The horror had happened earlier - in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s. It had had a chance to subside, be partially absorbed into the permafrost ground and ensuing generations.
When we landed I noticed that the ladies were beautifully dressed, going about their business in high heels, their hair coiffed, their nails polished. Except there was water only two hours a day and the food in the shop was either prohibitively expensive foreign imports, or cheap food that was made locally. The further away from urban centres, the more expensive was the imported foods - due to fuel costs. Fuel was in short supply, we were about to discover. The rouble had devalued to the point that everyone was dealing in tens and hundreds of thousands of them. The town was a collection of single storey wooden houses with no plumbing, and low rise concrete prefabs.
To be continued.
I have lots of pictures - in the form of negatives - am planning to develop and upload for future blogs.