Magadan. It is a name that turns Soviet hearts to ice and evokes memories of the long ago midnight knock on the door. The port of entry to the most deadly archipelago of the Gulag system, it became a synonym for the terror Joseph Stalin visited upon the land. At least 2 million prisoners were worked to death in its gold mines and timber forests and on its road projects. Since then, with few exceptions, the city of Magadan and the vast region around it have been closed to foreigners. When the Soviets permitted a small group to visit Magadan, Moscow Bureau Chief James O. Jackson was among them. His report:
They say the camps are gone, swallowed up by time, destalinization and the cultural amnesia of a history still unwritten. There are no longer any huts, gates, guard towers, or shuffling columns of prisoners on their way to another day of killing slave labor. There are no memorials, no cemeteries dedicated to Stalin's victims. Some of the camp names that dot the pages of prisoner memoirs are ordinary towns now: Shturmovoy, Elgen, Yagodnoye, Mylga, Magadan itself. "When you go to Magadan and stand upon the Kolyma highway," a Muscovite advised, "you must look down at the earth beneath your feet and think of all the bones buried there."
< If the bones are there, it is only in the figurative sense. Survivors of the highway construction said the dead could not be buried in the permanently frozen earth and were dumped instead in riverside snowbanks. Their corpses were washed away with the spring runoff and finally came to rest on the gold-rich bed of the Kolyma River.
Today it is difficult to imagine the bones, the icy graves, the miseries and horrors that took place in Stalin's Magadan. Whatever it was in 1937, Magadan in 1987 is a very different place. The region's 552,000 residents are better housed, better fed, better clothed and better paid than most other Soviet citizens. The majority of them came as young volunteers in search of adventure. Many stayed for the challenge and high pay of the Arctic frontier: salaries run around 500 rubles ($750) a month, nearly triple the national average. "Like many of my friends, I came out here in 1953 at the bidding of the Komsomol ((Young Communist League)) and also at the urging of my heart," said Alexander Bogdanov, 56, first secretary of the regional Communist Party. "We thought we would work here for three or four years. But as it turned out, we stayed on and on."
Bogdanov rules over the coldest, richest, most remote region of the Soviet Union. It is an area nearly twice the size of Texas, tucked into the farthest corner of the Soviet Far East, between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Straits. Temperatures in some parts of the region fall to -95 degrees F in winter, and even in late March the central Kolyma basin recorded -35 degrees F on a crystal-clear day.
Despite the cold, Soviets are drawn to the area by the riches. "We have all the elements of the periodic table, and we have them in industrial quantities," declared German Pavlov, curator of the Magadan geological museum. The most important of those, by far, is gold. Magadan is thought to contain the major part of the Soviet Union's vast gold reserves, although Magadanians are extremely coy in discussing the subject. Nikolai Selyutin, director of the Karamken gold mine, artfully dodged all questions.
How much gold does it produce per week? "Enough."
How many miners work there? "Enough to be profitable."
How much gold is extracted per ton of ore? "Enough."
Where is it processed? "In the central part of the country."
Where exactly? "At certain places."
The view from the air in winter evokes an old prisoner song: "Kolyma, , wonderful planet/ Twelve months winter, the rest summer." While that may not be literally true, the brief subarctic summer can be worse than the winter. When it arrives in July, thawed swamps release swarms of hungry arctic mosquitoes and tiny black biting flies that together make life miserable.
"August is the best time of year," said Oleg Kievsky, 50, an engineer at the Bilibino nuclear power station, the most northerly power reactor in the world. "The frosts of August kill the mosquitoes, but the weather is still beautiful. Everybody goes out camping, and we spend our days picking berries or mushrooms for the winter."
During the 1930s the only way to reach Magadan was by ship from Khabarovsk, which created an island psychology and the term Gulag archipelago. The prison ships were crowded hellholes in which thousands died. One survivor's memoir recounts that the prison ship Dzhurma was caught in the autumn ice in 1933 while trying to get to the mouth of the Kolyma River. When it reached port the following spring, it carried only crew and guards. All 12,000 prisoners were missing, left dead on the ice.
Magadanians today seldom speak of their dark history. "I didn't live here then," snapped Party Leader Bogdanov when asked about the camps in Magadan. "That page of history is closed. There is no need to talk constantly about it."
Others were more forthcoming. "It is our tragedy, our pain," said Valentin Avdeyev, director of a power dam on the Kolyma River in the heart of the area where most of the camps were situated. "Newcomers always ask about them. There are none left, but we know where they were. When we are driving past, we point and say, 'There was a camp here.' "
Younger Magadanians seem more interested in their present and future careers than the area's sordid past. "That was a sad time, and we feel shame for it," said Galina Fedchenko, a reporter for the regional newspaper Magadanskaya Pravda. "But we don't talk about it very much. It's far in the past." She paused, and added with perhaps more confidence than justified by history, "We know it can never happen again."