This fascinating account of Siberia’s horrific legacy is told with great verve
Sophy Roberts’s first glimpse of the Sea of Okhotsk was from beside the foot of a metallic mammoth, sculpted from discarded cogs, chains and pipes. Nearby was an artificial beach of gravel, a ship’s carcass snagged in the shallows, strange sun umbrellas with overlong stalks and a nearby jetty that looked like it was slipping into steel-grey waters that were frozen for seven months of the year. There were no people. The foggy landscape was “bald, scarred, austere”. And her hotel lacked a second floor, with just a first and third.
Such was the bizarre scene greeting this inquisitive British travel writer when she entered Kolyma, the eastern flank of Siberia. She had arrived in the bay where a fleet of ships, some foreign-owned, had once landed the despairing human cargo carted off to the gulags under Joseph Stalin. These sad souls included Poles, Russians, Koreans, Japanese and thousands of Spaniards “rescued” as children during that country’s civil war. Many perished on the journey from disease. Guards used hoses of freezing water to control their charges. One historian estimates that of 3 million prisoners exiled to Kolyma, just 500,000 survived.
One woman at a winter festival ‘had the look of someone who no longer remembered if she’d ever laughed’