By Eliza Frenkel, Graduate Student, Anthropology
In the old Soviet comedy “The Diamond Arm” (1969) the following saying became very popular among Soviet citizens.
— Будете у нас на Колыме, милости просим.
— When you will be in Kolyma, you are so welcome.—
— Нет уж, лучше вы к нам.
— No, you’d better come to us.
This seemingly harmless expression that describes a polite invitation to Kolyma exposes the core of the Soviet irony towards the region. On the one hand, it is a beautiful place in northeastern Russia, but on the other hand, Kolyma’s landscape is scarred with remnants of forced labor camps and mass graves of their prisoners. Thus for many Soviet citizens, Kolyma and its region came to be associated with a prison, as a place of extortion and exploitation, from which people sometimes never return. The reason for this connection lies in the establishment of Gulag prison camp networks during Stalin’s regime. Prisoners accused of various crimes by the state, often for things that they never did, were brought there to work, digging for the land’s natural resources.
Stanislaw Mucha’s film Kolyma: Road of Bones, awarded the Best Documentary film at the Achtung Berlin film festival in 2018, showed how Kolyma’s inhabitants live in the shadows of the area’s dreadful past. The film’s name illustrates the famous highway called the “road of bones” because it was built by the prisoners who lost their lives while constructing it. This road extends 1,260 miles (2000 km) west from the Russian port of Magadan on the Pacific Ocean and straight to Yakutsk, the capital of the Yakutia region in eastern Siberia. Over one million prisoners were brought to Kolyma on this road. During the Soviet period, the fates of Kolyma’s victims were hidden from the public. The dates and places of people’s executions and murders remained a secret, and the scale of the terror was never discussed publicly. The post-Soviet era did not shed too much light on the investigation of its past, and Soviet dark chapters are either relegated to oblivion or whitewashed and featured in a forgiving way.
Mucha meets his main characters on this unmarked cemetery, Kolyma’s road of bones. His questions to his protagonists focus on how it is possible to live, laugh, or be happy in a place where so many horrible things have happened. His encounters with different people construct a broad portrait of this place and their interpretations created various and multivocal meanings of the life in Kolyma. One of the first groups Mucha interviewed was a Ukrainian family recently brought from the war zone between Russia and Ukraine. They describe their first day in Kolyma, and their encounter with the sign in front of the city that said “Welcome to Kolyma, the golden heart of Russia” [Добро пожаловать на Колыму, Золотое сердце России]. Ironically, they were laughing at this sign as it reminded them of the old stories about the Kolyma prisons.
Other participants in the film undermined Mucha’s attempt to articulate life in Kolyma as arduous. A man in his sixties told Mucha that Kolyma is his motherland, rodina, despite it all, adding that Western people do not even understand the concept of motherland. Meanwhile other people reflected on the region’s difficult past. One was a former prisoner who described the inhumane conditions which people endured, and who noted that people were murdered for no reason by the commanders. Later in the film, a museum director claimed that Stalin was responsible for the terror. However, at the same time, he also perceived Stalin as a great leader who did what he needed to do in order to make the USSR a progressive country and win the Second World War.
The ruins of that cruel era are still visible in Kolyma. The graves and the sites of prisoners’ murders are still unmarked, but the gold mines where some of the prisoners were forced to work are still functioning. A group of indigenous artists, carving their art in ice, challenged Mucha’s concerns with the burden of living in Kolyma. By using ice as a representation of Kolyma, one of the coldest places to live on Earth, they revealed that that the crucial thing in life is not to have ice within our hearts. These artists undermine Mucha’s idea that Kolyma’s history has suspended its citizens in a situation of having to forever relive echoes of the region’s past. When Mucha tried to understand how people reconcile themselves with Kolyma’s past, they showed him that they live in the present.
In the last scene, Mucha conversed with an indigenous shaman. The man noted that “shamans are born in places that are difficult to live in because only then could people think about the spiritual.” Following this, Mucha asked him about Kolyma’s road built on the prisoners’ bones. The shaman, in turn, turned the question on Mucha, asking if the roads in Europe and especially in Germany (where Mucha lives) are not also built on bones. We realize that Mucha’s conceit, to understand people’s lives in such ‘dark’ places, portrays Russia as an exceptional place that did not resolve its own past. This closing of the film makes apparent that Kolyma’s history is not singular, but is the history of every place that has endured colonialism, genocide, Holocausts, exploitation, and state terror.
The film was followed by a Q&A session with Professor Tyler Kirk from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, moderated by Indiana University’s Professor Russell Valentino. Kirk pointed out that the documentary enables the audience to explore the forgotten places in Kolyma that are shadowed by their past. He also noted that the film illustrates the different kinds of people now occupying Kolyma’s region, promoting representations of indigenous people and their perspectives. The voices of indigenous people of Kolyma are a rare occurrence in the discourse of Russian memory landscapes. Discussions about Kolyma often focus on the 1930s – 1950s, when the Gulags were constructed. This focus emphasizes Kolyma as a purportedly “empty” place designed for prisoners in exile. In this film, Mucha includes the voices of a range of people (including indigenous people) living in Kolyma, thus emphasizing the fact that the region was colonized by the Soviet Union and is not “empty” at all.
The post-screening discussion sparked some ideas about the problematic representation of indigenous people. Some indigenous people were filmed doing a pseudo-scientific experiment using electricity that looked dangerous. A few audience members claimed that by filming them this way, the director portrayed them as “backward people.” However, I assumed that with this documentation, the author was attempting to show us the different interests, occupations, and creativities of people in Kolyma. Another discussion focused on Kolyma as a place that was designed for death, and as a place absent of reflection, which caused the people there to be ‘resilient.’ I was interested to note that several participants in the post-screening discussion voiced the idea that ‘trauma’ was central to the experiences of the people living in Kolyma today. However, none of the ‘characters’ in the film described themselves as being traumatized—they were angry, cynical, and critical, but not ‘traumatized.’ I worry that the audience’s easy turn to psychologizing descriptions of post-Soviet reality might result in ‘burying’ people’s own descriptions of what they are feeling and experiencing. Another question that emerged from the post-film discussion suggested that Mucha was rendering a Western and maybe even exotic perception of the Kolyma region, as the director indulged in stereotypical portrayals of Russian northern landscapes.
As a region with a problematic past that was silenced for a long time, Kolyma becomes a place of curiosity to a lot of people. One of the most profound examples of such interest was Yuri Dude’s film “Kolyma – Birthplace of Our Fear” (2019). This film tries to understand what happened in Kolyma, but from a post-Soviet generation point of view. In this film, Dude unpacks the Soviet and post-Soviet subject’s inner fears that could have been internalized during the Soviet regime through such places as Kolyma.
While it is a region that seems dark and uncertain to many people, Mucha’s film showed that people who search for answers from the Kolyma locals using exoticizing questions such as “How do you live in SUCH a place?” discriminate against individuals whose experiences do not resonate with such facile assumptions. Further, the exoticizing approach does not allow one to elicit the full range of peoples’ responses in terms of reconciling with the past. Although on the national level, Russian authorities attempt to eliminate the country’s violent past from the public debate, the history nevertheless leaves its marks and traces. Mucha may have presumed that the local people would have been wrestling with the persistent reminders of the region’s haunting history, but the documentary shows that to residents of Kolyma, the future is just as important as the past.