Ania Hyman, M.A. candidate in World History at NYU, presented to the Jordan Center on March 6th. In “Dead Road: In the Footsteps of Stalin’s Ghost Road,” Hyman recounted her incredible experiences on an expedition to the Siberian Taiga as part of a research project to document the last remaining, and largely untouched, Gulag camps.
Anne Lounsbery, Hyman’s adviser and Chair of the Department of Russian & Slavic Studies, introduced Hyman and admitted that at first the project “seemed like an almost impossible fantasy.” Lounsbery emphasized that she was “completely impressed” with her student’s achievements, and Hyman thanked her advisor for her “fantastic, unbelievable support”
Hyman began her presentation by introducing the audience to the so-called “Dead Road” — Stalin’s impossible project to build 800 miles of railroad above the Arctic Circle in an extremely inhospitable environment marked by extreme weather and permafrost. Upon completion, the Transpolar Main Line was to connect Salekhard to Igarka and traverse taiga, tundra, and marshland. As with many other massive Stalinist projects, slave labor was employed to construct the massive railroad. Beginning in 1949, an estimated 80,000 to upwards of 120,000 slave laborers participated in the building of what would be a complete failure. The project abruptly ended in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, because it was clear that it faced extreme obstacles to completion. When railroad construction was suspended, 700 of the 800 planned miles of railroad had been laid. Due to the high cost of dismantling the camps that had been built along the way, buildings along with equipment and even railroad axles were simply abandoned to rot.
Because of the remote location of the camps, they have been left largely undisturbed. As a result, Hyman explained, there now remains “the only standing monument to Stalinism,” Gulag camps which look just as they did in 1953.
Hyman has long had an intense interest in researching the Gulag, so she and five of her friends and colleagues organized a plan to travel to the remaining camps, whose location they determined with satellite images, in order to document what they found. What came of their plan was nothing less than the incredible expedition that Hyman recounted in detail, providing really stunning photographs along with her enthralling account.
The crew travelled by ship, train, plane, and helicopter at various points, making friends with locals who were able to help them traverse the wilderness. Hyman and her crew were able to experience first-hand what life is like for Siberians and comprehend how utterly remote the Gulag camps were.
Hyman called Yanovstan, the crew’s point of departure into the wilderness, “the actual end of the world.” She commented on how shockingly expensive basic goods were, even before reaching Yanovstan, illustrating the incredible distance that products have to travel to reach the region. Yanovstan itself has exactly three residents– all meteorologists that report weather conditions back to the nearest village.
When Hyman and her team finally reached the coordinates indicated by satellite maps with the help of their guide, Ivan, they found that wildfires had destroyed the remaining buildings– worse yet, flames had engulfed the site just one month before the team arrived.
“Unfortunately not much was left,” Hyman said. Clearly the discovery was devastating for her and the crew. “It was a humbling experience, it was very hard to deal with.” But the group pressed on, determined to find some surviving camps. Eventually they happened upon a cluster of buildings that were still standing. The group immediately set to work taking measurements of the buildings, photographing artifacts, and exploring the site for clues as to what life was like for slave laborers on the Dead Road. “The moment it gets really powerful is when you find objects used by the prisoners,” Hyman explained.
She described how utterly moving the experience of finding the camps was.
“This is raw, living history,” she said. Hyman pointed out that these camps are very different in several ways from Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz. For one thing, Russians really haven’t dealt with the Stalinist atrocities in the same way that, say, Germany and Poland have; and for another, these particular camps have remained largely untouched, not having been turned into museums like Auschwitz. Finally, while other Soviet prison laborers often felt that they contributed in some way to the building of the Soviet Union, survivors of the Dead Road, Hyman explained, “feel they contributed to nothing.”
Hyman’s expedition to the Siberian wilderness is something she said that she would never forget, and was unmatchable in terms of the first-hand experiences. “This is the kind of history you will never learn in a library or an archive,” she said. Hyman also explained how spending time with the people of this region, whose parents were in the camps, inspired her to shift her research interest. Hyman is now interested in the ways in which the Gulag camps influence the existing population today, and how these people continue to incorporate the camps into their lives. “I’m interested in how they explain their history to their children through the camps,” Hyman said.
Anne Lounsbery thanked Hyman for the presentation and congratulated her on her achievements, saying that she was even more impressed with the team’s efforts after seeing Hyman’s presentation.
Hyman has included her research in a forthcoming journal article, “The Road Is Dead, but Life Goes On: The Utilization of Former Soviet Forced Labor Camps by the Current Inhabitants of Siberia.” The documentary filmed during the expedition is almost complete and the group will also be publishing a book in English and Polish about their experiences. More information, and excellent photos of the trip, can be found at the team’s website. You can also follow them on Facebook.