I have now been in Magadan, NE Russia, for just over one week, making
preparations to fight my way on a bicycle through the encroaching Siberian
winter – the first leg on a 15,000 mile ride back home.
For me, Magadan has seemed a most haunting city. The strange presence of
sorrow is tangible. Stalin condemned over 2 million innocent people to work
to their deaths in the local gold mines, earning it the nickname “the
gateway to hell”. It was generally understood that “if you were sent to
Magadan, you never came home”.
Perhaps Magadan haunts me because those curses and prayers of anguish
which rose to heaven fifty years ago still hang in the air, unable to move on or
let go. Father Michael, the amazing Catholic Priest whose community I am
staying with, tells me that every day since he was called here, he has felt
something of this spiritual depth. God is indeed present in the
place of sorrow. Father Michael now works tirelessly and gracefully to
raise a beacon of hope and love in the wasteland of despair, corruption,
alcoholism and desperation which is post Soviet Russia.
The Maske Scorbe (mask of sorrow) – a monument to the 3 million innocent Russians who were sent to their deaths by Stalin in the gold mines around Magadan.
Russia, it seems, has been unable to free herself from her past. For the
majority, the hope that an allegedly new political system would bring opportunity, is now lost. One commentator claimed that in fact ‘darkness has followed the dawn’. Corruption holds virtually all offices of power, and a baffling, pointless and dehumanising bureaucracy strangles the will of any who have aspirations for noble endeavour or honest employment. It has taken me an astonishing 8 trips to the local visa office to try and get my visa registered – I must go for the 9th time tomorrow! As Kafka once said of such a system of bureaucracy: “”one is more an object, a thing, than a living creature”.
This said, the Russians i have got to know so far have proved themselves a
very good people. They are friendly, generous, helpful, interesting… and
they speak barely a word of English!
With Al plus Beryl (his bike) now here from Alaska, our panniers are all
packed and we are ready to start riding on the challenging first leg through
the Kolyma Mountains to Jakutsk. Apparently the snow is already falling
inland and temperatures are now dropping below zero. We must move fast – the Siberian winter is on its way.
To Russians, Magadan was known as the “gateway to hell” – over 3 million
Russians who arrived at this port were sent to work to their deaths in the
icy gold mines of Kolyma.
Prisoners were shipped from all across Russia, like cattle.
“If you were sent to Magadan, you didn’t come home.”
The ghosts of communism still seem to haunt Magadan.