- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

SUSUMAN, Russia Russia's gold rush was different from California's. Here in the frozen wastes of the former Soviet Far East, the prospectors were slaves, prisoners worked to death on what became known as the "Road of Bones."
Now the retreat from one of the most inhospitable environments known to man is in full swing. The route from nowhere to the back of beyond is lined with abandoned villages, once gulag camps, labor sites for political prisoners.
Even Susuman, an urban outpost servicing the gold mines, is in decline. The town's population has halved during the past decade, and teenagers describe their home as a "tip with no future." "Tip" is British slang for a mess.
For those who stay, summer is trying enough. Those out on the highway built by Stalin's prisoners from Magadan, the nearest port, 400 miles away, are baked by the heat, covered with dust and attacked by huge mosquitoes.
Winter is worse. The last one was severe even by local standards, with temperatures hitting minus 76 degrees F. A sprinkling of hilltop snow in July was a reminder that the hot weather was already on the wane.
Under Stalin, hundreds of thousands of prisoners endured those extremes and more. Kolyma, the river that lent its name to the whole region, was, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "a pole of cold and cruelty."
[Mr. Solzhenitsyn, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, wrote about the Soviet gulag system. Among his books are "One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1962), a labor camp prisoner, and "The Gulag Archipelago" (first part published in 1973). He was arrested for treason in 1974, exiled from the Soviet Union the following day, and now resides in Vermont.
[The author called the gulag system an archipelago because on a map, the work camps looked like a chain of islands. At the sites, prisoners had to meet quotas to obtain rations, which were inadequate for the work and climate. Prisoners who exceeded their quotas were rewarded with supplementary rations, which allowed them to live and work longer, while the others were simply worked to death.]
Armed with only pickaxes and wheelbarrows, prisoners among them the founder of the Soviet space program, generals and intellectuals side by side with common criminals hacked and hewed at the permafrost in the hunt for gold.
After the tyrant's death, the camps were disbanded and most prisoners returned to the "mainland." But the search for gold went on, scarring the wilderness landscape with waterlogged gravel pits and scrap heaps.
"Originally, here every stream was its own Klondike," said Alexander Talanov, head of the Susuman district. "Maybe there is still a lot of gold, but by now it is hidden deep down and harder to find."
Now the precious metal is mined by hulking dredgers, scooping the earth up through a huge proboscis, their innards sorting the rocks before spewing unrefined gold into a secure hold.
"I am here to deter attacks or robberies," said Yaroslava Volkova, a pistol strapped to her belt. Along with padlocks and wire meshing, she defends the dredger's gold from thieves.
Before communism collapsed, a new generation of prospectors arrived, volunteers attracted by wages so high that they were the only way of legally striking it rich in the old Soviet Union.
Such adventurers planned to come for a year or two but stayed far longer. Many now find themselves stranded at the end of the world, unable to afford the passage home to the rest of a country changed out of all recognition.
"Under Stalin there were lots of camps with barbed wire and watch towers here," said Ivan Panikarov, a local journalist. "But Kolyma is one big camp to this day. There are no prisoners; you just can't escape."
Mr. Panikarov is curator of a small gulag museum, three small rooms in a typically rundown block of flats in the town of Yagodnoye, packed with mementos of the region's dark history.
Attractions include a sign saying "Forbidden Zone. No Access. I will open fire," wooden crosses marking prisoners' graves and a picture of Othello and Desdemona painted by a camp inmate on a canvas made from a U.S.-donated sack of flour.
In fact, all Kolyma is a monument to the past.
Without gold or slave labor from the gulag, the place would be a wasteland to this day. Every town or village was once home to a prison camp. Yet there are few reminders of its origins. The "Road of Bones" has more tributes to recent car crash victims than to the tens of thousands who perished building it.
Only one roadside cross mourns the fallen, while a colossal Easter Island-type sculpture called the "Mask of Grief" gazes down at the Magadan harbor where barges carrying prisoners arrived at the start of their final journey north.
More immediate concerns for today's inhabitants are the squalor and loneliness of life on the frontier between civilization and nature at its most unforgiving. Outlying villages are shutting down and their people moving to Susuman. Most see that as a step toward escaping altogether.
"Every year that passes, my heart is giving up, and there is nothing to do," said Sergei Zanin, who spent 30 years working in a place known in the local language as the Valley of Death.
"Ours is hardly a middle-class life here," Mr. Zanin added.
A World Bank program, when finally approved, will finance the resettlement of pensioners, invalids and large families to the rest of Russia, but many locals want the program expanded to allow the able-bodied to flee as well.
At the same time, officials do not conceal another intention of resettlement: to allow bulldozers and dredgers to demolish the deserted villages and continue the hunt for gold amid their ruins.
One nagging worry remains: After decades of struggling to survive, can people adapt to life in the relatively temperate conditions of the rest of Russia? Some who tried have now come back to what was for so long their "home."
"That is the great paradox," said one. "It is impossible to live here but impossible to leave as well."
Marcus Warren is leaving Moscow after 12 years as the Daily Telegraph's correspondent. In the two dispatches on this page, he reports from Siberia on Russia's Gold Rush and the death of the gulags.

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