This is the second entry of a three-part series regarding three major infrastructural projects created during the era of the Soviet Gulag system. Part one can be found here; part three can be found here.
Russian Federal Highway M56 seems like an innocuous enough name for a road. Very rarely, however, is it referred to as such. M-class federal highways in Russia are generally given nicknames in addition to numbers, and M56 is split into western (Lena) and eastern (Kolyma) routes.
The 1 197-km long Kolyma Highway is the most remote of all federal highways in Russia, connecting Magadan on the Pacific Coast with Nizhny Bestyakh in Sakha, eastern Siberia. The road follows the Kolyma River upstream and then crosses over the Chersky Range, travelling through the taiga into Sakha. It is only linked to the rest of the federal highway system in winter when ice on the Lena River is thick to drive on from Nizhny Bestyakh across to Yakutsk (a bridge across the Lena is scheduled for completion in 2013). Being the only highway in this part of Russia, it requires no special name among locals, who call it simply ‘Trassa’ (‘Трасса’ – The Route). Most famously, the Kolyma Highway bears a much more infamous appellation that gives away its rather morbid beginnings: the Road of Bones.
During the first Five-Year Plan (1927-1932), gold and platinum were discovered in the Kolyma; resources that could help fund economic development and accelerate Soviet industrialisation. The NKVD set up a large construction trust called Dalstroy (a Russian acronym for Far North Construction Trust) that would manage all construction and mining projects in the region. With a sparse indigenous population, this basically gave Dalstroy full administrative reign over a region of 3 000 000 km2. The operation grew to encompass all facets of economic management: surveying, transportation, port management. The crux of Dalstroy’s operation was the massive use of forced labour; Dalstroy established 80 different Gulag camps in the Kolyma, using hundreds of thousands of prisoners over the years. Like many of the more isolated Gulag operations, the camp population was a mixture of political prisoners and ordinary criminals. The number of prisoners in the Kolyma Gulag at any one time grew from 11 000 in 1932 to 90 000 in 1938, and tended to vary between 80 000 and 200 000 through the 1940s and 1950s.
Even by Gulag standards, the Kolyma was a brutal, dehumanising experience: in winter, quite literally, the coldest part of the inhabited world. The death toll is unknown; many died from exhaustion, exposure, or malnourishment; thousands were shot simply for not working hard enough (Solzhenitsyn once quoted a camp commander as stating ‘We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore’). One of the first projects undertaken by Dalstroy was the construction of a road connecting Magadan with the mountainous interior to open up the region to mining and connect it to the outside. This would become the Kolyma Highway, and the difficulty encountered in building it is displayed in the fact that the project lasted the entire 21 years of Dalstroy Gulag operation. Like other forced labour projects in the Gulag system, this was completed almost entirely by hand. Workers who died or were executed during construction were buried where they fell; their corpses often incorporated into the road bed to buffer it from the permafrost, giving the road its most common nickname. In some places, bodies in mass graves occasionally become exposed.
Kolyma Highway in winter. Source: http://lh6.ggpht.com/_hVOW2U7K4-M/SoS-5Qnwy2I/AAAAAAABES0/UPfoFGZ9cas/s640/r27.jpg.
Today, the road is treated as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the Gulag, especially those who died during construction of the road. Were it not for the fact that it is the only road of any meaningful distance in the region, as well as the only theoretical route one could drive out of the region upon, there is no way one could call the Road of Bones a highway by modern standards: a single-track, unpaved track with numerous washouts and collapsed bridges, becoming a muddy soup unable to be traversed by standard road vehicles (residents and businesses in Magadan rely upon air and sea travel rather than the highway). The road is only maintained year-round at the Yakutsk and Magadan ends, with the central part of the route only maintained in winter. Breaking down in the middle of nowhere is a harrowing experience.Entire settlements along the road such as Kadykchan lie abandoned.
Source: Sibirsky Extreme, http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2510/3741152717_e6c43d9c82.jpg.
Amazingly, this state of disrepair has created a small tourist niche by attracting motorcycle adventurers who wish to try and conquer the road; a movement spurred by the road’s featured role in the round-the-world motorcycle tour of actors Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman, Long Way Round. It must be started that the scenery is stunning. The Kolyma Highway likely won’t remain in such a state much longer, as the push for resource development in Siberia and the Russian Far East has spurred plans to improve the road (many of the same mines worked in the Gulag are still in operation with much more modern equipment today). Already deterioration of the road has slowed thanks to the increased traffic from adventure tourists. The website AskYakutia.com has a decent-size archive of Road of Bones-related travel articles and route information (seasonally-updated highway conditions, for example), as well as a seven-page route map. Over at the Google Earth Community forum, there is also a detailed Google Earth file of the Kolyma Highway and its spur routes.
Baghirov, A. (2006). Kolyma – Off to the Unknown: Stalin’s Notorious Prison Camps in Siberia. Azerbaijan International 14(1): 58-71. Available at http://azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/ai141_folder/141_articles/141_kolyma.html. Accessed 13 November 2010.
Bochkarev, B. (2008-2010). AskYakutia.com. Available at http://askyakutia.com/. Accessed 13 November 2010.
Bochkarev, B. (2009). Kolyma Highway Travel Map & Short Guide. Yakutsk: eYakutia.com. Available at http://download.eyakutia.com/pdf/temp/kolymahighway_travelmap.pdf. Accessed 13 November 2010.
Bolton, K. & L. Bolton (2007). Yakutsk-Magadan-Yakutsk via The Road of Bones or The Kolyma Highway. Goanna Tracks, 25 July 2007. Available at http://www.blog.goannatracks.com/2007/07/road-of-bones-or-kolyma-highway.html. Accessed 13 November 2010.
Steampunk (2010). Stalin’s Road of Bones. Environmental Graffiti, 29 January 2010. Available at http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/featured/stalin-road-of-bones/19454. Accessed 13 November 2010.
Warc1 (2009). Kolyma Highway. Google Earth Community, 26 April 2009. Forum post available at http://bbs.keyhole.com/ubb/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number;=1213004; Google Earth .kmz file available at http://bbs.keyhole.com/ubb/ubbthreads.php?ubb=download&Number;=772027&filename;=Kolyma%20Highway.kmz. Accessed 13 November 2010.