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R504 Kolyma: Highway to hell

Road of Bones Kolyma Russia

Construction of the bridge through the Kolyma by workers of the Dalstroi state enterprise, a work that is part of the Road of bones. [Photo: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Highway to hell is the title of one of the most famous -if not the most- songs of the Australian hard-rock band AC DC. Navidades en Siberia, the Spanish band Los Nikis sang in the middle of the 80s. And although we are not going to talk about the vicissitudes of the band of the Young brothers or those of Los Ramones de Algete, both themes are useful to us to put into context a non-fictional, but real and true highway to hell located in the vast Siberian territory. We can, therefore, get used to the idea that the scenario through which the R504 Kolyma Highway runs -today P504-, rather than high and burning infernal temperatures, is quite the opposite: icy and inhospitable; and it also has a terrible and dramatic story under its asphalt.

It is a 2,030 km long road that crosses a piece of southeastern Russia. It connects the city of Yakutsk, on the banks of the Lena River, with Magadan. It is the only road in an extremely cold region, especially in winter, where temperatures can drop to -60°C. In fact, in the winter season, local drivers always keep their cars running before any stop along the way, because if the engine of their vehicles stops working, in addition to having the possibility of not starting it again, their own lives would be practically doomed to certain death by freezing, taking into account the adverse surrounding environment and the slim chances of finding a nearby population center.

Road of Bones Kolyma Highway Russia
Section of the Kolyma Highway in 2007. [Photo: Сергин, Владимир Александрович, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
On the other hand, it is necessary to add that the road is not entirely paved and has sections where a mixture of earth and gravel make up the pavement, which means that only in summer or when it is covered with ice in winter it is possible its risky traffic, because even during the summer the presence of sinkholes, fallen trees on the road or unexpected passers-by, among other adversities, turn the trip, especially for non-locals, into a box of surprises. At other times of the year, the rains or the thaw make the road an impassable mud track at some points. Also worth mentioning, for obvious reasons, its high accident rate on some sections. Yes... you read correctly, a couple of lines above we have written unexpected passers-by, but don't get impatient, we'll talk about it a little further down.

The word Kolyma in Russian is related to the so-called gulag, a system of labor camps where political prisoners, dissidents, disaffected and, ultimately, enemies of the people* for the Stalinist regime in the former Soviet Union were sent, not only to get rid of them, but to use them as a labor force in hard tasks in the most precarious conditions. An inhuman physical and psychological torture, a sentence from which hundreds of thousands did not manage to come out alive. Some waited until the end of the day, exhausted and hungry, to escape that horror by lying down on the snow, waiting for death by freezing to take them from that hell in a few minutes. From those infamous labor camps in the vicinity of the Kolyma River, which were part of the gulag Sevvostlag, the road takes its name. The aforementioned river also gives its name to the extensive region that extends the length and breadth of its course, until its mouth in the Arctic.

Movie clip from Doctor Zhivago (1965).

An infrastructure whose work began in 1932 and which lasted 20 years of a real nightmare, until the closing of the gulag, and which has to do in its origin with the mining activity, related to the extraction of gold and iron ores. In order to facilitate access to the mines and the transport of the extracted material, it was necessary to build a network of roads and railways, among which is the sadly known as Road of Bones or, which is the same, the R504 Kolyma. The macabre name you can imagine why and by whom.

The long list of corpses, far from being a problem for the psychopaths in charge of those camps when it came to what to do with them, was part of a macabre solution with which to give greater consistency to the mixture asphalt. And that is how the bones of those hundreds of thousands of workers ended up forming part of the pavement. It produces a strange, violent sensation of rage and absolute sadness to have to write this, because if there are hardly any words to describe what those men suffered during marathon and inhuman days of work, knowing that sooner rather than later their earthly existence was sentenced -their life expectancy did not exceed two years-, how to digest that their bodies would not receive burial according to their beliefs or would not even end up in a mass grave, but would end up, literally, forming part of the work in which they left their lives.

The Case of Varlam Shalamov, a "Socially Dangerous Element"

To get an exact idea of ​​what life in the gulags meant, what better way than to turn to someone who suffered it firsthand and, specifically, to the revealing legacy that he left us written in several of his works of devastating crudeness for the human soul. We refer to Varlam Shalamov, writer and journalist, son of an Orthodox priest, who in 1927 would have his first clash with the Stalinist regime when he participated in the demonstration for the tenth anniversary of the October revolution, with slogans such as Down with Stalin! and Carry out Lenin's Testament! In 1929 he would be arrested during a raid on the underground premises where the leaflets entitled Lenin's Testament were being printed, and for which he was sentenced to three years in a labor camp after being considered a "socially dangerous element". His release two years later would be followed by new arrests and increasingly longer sentences, most of them to serve in gulags in the Kolyma region and in work mainly related to mining.

From his experience in these miserable camps, in which he left two decades of his life, which he was about to lose, part of the pages that make up his collection Kolyma Tales would come out. In one of those stories, What I Saw and Learned in the Kolyma Camps, poignant phrases that are direct to our conscience, our heart and our soul, such as the following ones, may be read:

The extraordinary fragility of human nature, of civilization. A human being would turn into a beast after three weeks of hard work, cold, starvation and beatings.

I learned that friendship and solidarity never arise in difficult, truly severe conditions — when life is at stake. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not in the mine).

I learned the difference between prison, which strengthens character, and work camps, which corrupt the human soul.

That people distinguish between camp chiefs according to the power of their punches, to their enthusiasm for beatings.

I learned that world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. 95% of cowards are capable of any meanness, lethal meanness, after light threatening.

I learned how terrible the ego of a boy, of a youth is: better steal than ask. This and their boasting throws youth to the bottom.


Lonely Road... or maybe not so Lonely

Apart from the tragic story that this road hid for a long time, it also has others related to mystery and, specifically, with those passers-by who appear or cross the road suddenly, causing the drivers are startled and end up losing control of their vehicles while driving in conditions of real risk in some sections. If there are not a few witnesses behind the wheel who have claimed to see strange and inexplicable presences, especially in places where tragic events have taken place in which isolated individuals or more or less numerous groups of people have been involved, at least statistically it would be more likely paranormal phenomenology on a highway where hundreds of thousands of people not only perished working on its construction, but also their remains rest as part of it.

History is susceptible to being rewritten every day of our existence. And heartbreaking stories like this are part of it, which should serve as a lesson about the pain and suffering that human beings can inflict on their fellow human beings. It may seem like a lot, and even more so considering the dizzying speed at which the world is currently moving, but only 70 years have passed since this atrocious and terrifying episode, where, as has been happening for centuries, the desire for power and the excessive ambition of a few have taken the lives of so many ahead.

May the victims of the sadly known Road of Bones, like all those resulting from human vileness, have been able to find the peace that was taken from them in their earthly life.


(*) If analyzed the stage of our recent history between 2020 and 2022, elements such as totalitarian power, the enemies of the people -those who disagree with the official line- and the prison camps -home confinements and punishment with civil death for those who think for themselves and rebel- seem to be regrettably present.

"What I Saw and Learned in the Kolyma Camps". Varlam Shalamov, 23 September 2022, https://shalamov.ru/en/library/34/1.html
"Biography". Varlam Shalamov, 23 September 2022, https://shalamov.ru/en/biography/ ]