The Kolyma Diaries

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Issue: 
(390)

Jacek Hugo-Bader, Portobello Books, £16.99

Polish journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader travelled over 2000 kilometres along the Kolyma Highway which traverses one of the bleakest, baddest and most remote parts of Russia.

The highway is known as the "Road of Bones" because it was built between the 1930s and 1950s by political prisoners exiled there by dictator Joseph Stalin. Tens of thousands died during its construction.

They were stripped of their clothes, as they were invaluable protection against the cold for other prisoners (or zeks), and then the road was built over their bodies.

Along the journey Hugo-Bader is plied with vodka and often gets "rasslabit" (sloshed). He hears the astonishing and heart-wrenching stories of the descendants of the prisoners making a living as conmen, gold prospectors, child bandits, scrap metal dealers, corrupt politicians, shamans, television producers, secret policemen, oligarchs and many more.

Hugo-Bader has a remarkable ability to get close to this array of individuals and to unearth their extraordinary stories.

The book is divided into days which are subdivided into the entries in his diary and individual stories he hears from "poputchiks", fellow travellers, and the inhabitants of Kolyma.

In total, each day is around ten pages, which makes the book easy to dip in and out of, and establishes a steady literary rhythm. Each day is accompanied by a photograph which develops portraits of the individuals in authentic ways

Another strength of the book is the vivid depiction of Kolyma as a special place of interest - a forgotten hinterland with a haunting historical legacy.

One notable moment which brings the countryside to life is the description of a pine, pinus sibirica, that is the only plant in the Far North to stay green all year round.

It survives the winter with temperatures as low as -60c by lying flat on the very last day before the arrival of winter. It lies two metres below the snow and stays there for eight months with the last remaining snow acting as a blanket, giving it the name stlannik, meaning the spreader. This remarkable plant illustrates the endurance of life in the harshest conditions.

The weak point of the book is Hugo-Bader's historical account of the Communist regime in the 1930 and 50s. Most of the time he skirts around the issue but occasionally he makes bold factual claims, which are not referenced, and at times presents the cliched argument that the crimes of Stalin were the result of the politics and policies that had been decided by Lenin.

However, this is not the focus of the book. The characters are central. Hugo-Bader succeeds in bringing them to life with his funny, engaging, thought-provoking prose, photographs and judicious use of Russian language and slang.

The Kolyma Diaries are an excellent read for anyone interested in understanding the grim legacy of the gulags but also how the human spirit can flourish in the bleakest areas.