Greetings from Afar

The Place With No Name

Regardless of what you’ve heard, Western Siberia is a wonderous place nothing like we were led to believe in the West. It is not a frozen wasteland. There are no starving bears chasing emaciated wolves up and down the frozen, dreary streets vying for the skeletal forms that huddle wretchedly in long lines waiting for their daily crust of bread and cup of thin turnip soup.

Siberia is big and bold and beautiful a land of extremes, and contrast with frigid winters and sweltering summers high, snow capped mountains and pine forests that stretch out as far as the eye can seee. It is a land of great modern cities like Novosibersk with it’s population of three million, and tiny villages like Dubovka with is population of thirty.

At one time, Siberia was synonymous with “suffering” and “pain”. At one time, it was the heart and soul of the most infamous and notorious prison system the world has eve seen Stalin’a GuLag (That, by the way, is the proper way to write the word… it is an acronym, meaning Gu(sodarstnoi)La(ger)… Government Camps…) stretching from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, from Vorkuta, above the Arctic Circle to Magadan on the Sea of Alaska it was a place of torture, torment and grief. It was a place to which many came, but few returned.

The train lumbered through the tiny village in the dead of night. It was mid winter, and great sheets of ice shrouded the twelve wooden cars that crept along behind the big, black 6-8-6 steam locomotive. A thick cloud of smoke belched from the engine as it struggled to push aside the dense piles of snow that all but obliterated the tracks. Thinner streams of smoke trailed from each of the cars. It was the only sign that inside each car, packed like sprats in a tin, were eighty human beings lost souls most of which were making their final trip to a place with no name. For five days they had been crowded into the cars five days with one cup of thin soup and one slice of coarse black bread to keep them alive barely five long days with no room to lie down and room to sit only in shifts five long days of a single bucket for a toilet, shared by all, and a tiny coal fed, iron stove to fight off the frigid temperatures which plumeted, at night to over forty below zero. These were the damned. The victims of a dying dictator’s paranoia. They were doctors, lawyers, engineers, soldiers, wives, mothers and children. All of them had managed to run afoul of Stalin, or his infamous henchman Lavrenti Baria. Now, those who had survived the trip, were near their destination a place with no name. They were only the latest arrivals… not the first… not the last. It seems only fitting that these nameless “Enemies of the State” were bound for an equally nameless “last stop” a place in which most, if not all of them, would eventually end up in an eqally nameless mass grave, in the place that they called “Site 36”. The place without a name.

Things are different now. Site 36 has long been closed. The land that that once made up the most infamous camp in Stalin’s GuLag has long ago been turned to farmland. One or two scattered villages dot the landscape, several of these are populated by those who once labored here for the state and their descendants, either as guards or as prisoners. They get along, now. It is as though they share a special kind of sadness, a common nightmare. Their children and grandchildren do not know who was who. It is a peaceful place now, and only the old railway platform marks the exact location of the old camp. No train serves it now. The villagers travel by car, or by bus, the fifty kilometers into Novosibersk when they do their weekly, or monthly shopping for the things that their tiny local shops do not carry. But the legacy of Site 36 hasn’t ended. The local farmers still find “unwanted” obstacles in their fields not the least of which are the numerous uncharted, unmarked mass graves. Then, too, there are the sounds in the night.

Every night the train still comes. The clack-clack-clack of it’s drivers echoing across the wheat and potato fields and through the windows of every house in every nearby village. Every night, the lonely wail of it’s whistle echoes through the stillness of the Siberian night, and every night, the hiss of it’s air brakes slashes the stillness as the train and it’s load of misery ease into the platform at the place without a name. Each night, the shouts of the guards, the barking of their dogs, and the cries and moans of the newly damned are heard echoing through the stillness, just as they have for over half a century. Once in a while the other sounds are drowned out by the sharp crack of a pistol shot, the bark of a rifle or the gutteral growl of a submachine gun. Sometimes you can hear the sirens.

The people who live in the area are used to all this. When asked about it, they shrug and say simply that things like this happen. And, happen they do every night at the place without a name.

© 2007/2009 by Dr. J. Lee Choron. All rights reserved unless otherwise specified by the author in writing.