Piotr Semyonovich Naumov was a 40-year-old bed ridden invalid and semi blind father of six living on a pension of £160 a month in a one room flat in Yakutia near the desolate and infamous Kolyma Highway in Russia, when his wife suddenly died.
He coped with his grief and general bad luck by running. That was twenty years ago. When Jacek Hugo-Bader, a travel journalist and writer who prefers to get about on foot and bike like Dervla Murphy and who was hitch hiking along the Kolyma Highway, caught up with him, Naumov had just completed a 58 kilometres per day run from Kaliningrad to Vladivostol, 12,000 kilometres away, which took him 206 days.
Naumov is just one of hundreds of eccentric characters Hugo-Bader encounters during his epic trek across the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, notorious because the Kolyma Highway was constructed by victims of Stalin’s purges from the 1930’s. One chapter, superbly written (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), concerns itself with the fate of Natalia Nikolayevna, adopted daughter of one of Stalin’s most ruthless stooges and henchmen, Nikolai Ivanovich, the Robespierre of the Russian revolution, who with blood curdling diligence, had thousands executed on the merest of paranoid pretexts, until the monster he unleashed devoured him.
Many of his victims, if they weren’t shot, tortured or strangled, sometimes by himself, even though he was five foot nothing, ended up in the Gulag system, north of the Sea of Okhotsk, digging for gold for the State, or excavating the Kolyma Highway, until they died and were covered by the lengthening road, as if under lava.
Hugo-Bader calculates that if all the victims of Stalin’s camps in furthermost Siberia were laid head to foot along the road, they wouldn’t all fit in: it is believed that two million prisoners were sent to Kolyma, whether they either died from slave labour, or went mad.
If there is such as place as purgatory on the planet, life along the Kolyma Highway might just be it. There are stories of man eating bears and bear eating dogs and so many salmon in a river you could walk across their backs to the far side, and then there are the locals: prospectors, hunters, dreamers, ex-KGB agents, hucksters, politicians and drunks.
Hugo-Bader recalls a marathon card game of blatnik between two friends which lasted, non stop, for eighteen hours, fueled by endless supplies of caviar and vodka. He spots, in the distance, billowing smoke: the only ecological method to dig fresh graves in the permafrost is to thaw the ground by burning old tyres.
Kolyma Diaries is unsparing with facts and unflinching with specifics: during the Stalin period, over 55 out of every 100 children born in the USSR died; 200,000 prisoners died from hunger or the cold; prisoners slaved away outside until the temperature reached minus 55 degrees centigrade.
Hugo-Bader, always curious if not always sympathetic about the Russians he encounters, translates vykluchilo mnye: it means ‘to wander off.’ Young Russian men here seem to do often, even when driving. Sometimes fatigue is blamed, sometimes vodka. It is consumed a lot in this book, particularly in winter, by everyone, even the cats and the dogs.
The author himself hits the nail on the head: Kolyma is place of beauty without spirit, inhospitable and yet a home for survivors.