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Along the road of bones

1304809389 45 Along the road of bones

  • JOURNEYS: THE SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY

THEY say the Vladimirka is the road of death, a place of exile and of suffering, a ribbon of evil that cuts through the heart of the nation.

Over centuries, they say, millions have travelled it in chains and in boxcars and, of those millions, only a handful returned.

Of course, this is true: there are witnesses too numerous to dispute it, the bones of too many corpses left abandoned by the roadside with nothing more to do than to turn into dust.

But there is life too on the Vladimirka Road. every spring, tiny blue and yellow flowers push up between the cracks in the slowly warming asphalt, and every July and August families travel north to the cool of the western steppes, while amateur painters, devotees of Levitan, of Shiskin and of Arkhipov, set up their easels and squint into the sun and try to capture summer’s harsh and fleeting beauty.

But the seasons move on and winter returns through the slow, creeping conduit of autumn, and the road again freezes and the days grow shorter and the sun sets early on the camps of the north — mostly deserted now — and the summer road returns to the road of bitter memory, the crooked finger pointing north and east towards the Arctic, its frozen, broken surface swept by the bitter winter winds.

The road of death, people say. The road back to life, say others.

Take the case, for example, of Leonti Krabka. according to the archives of the Vladimir Bee-Keepers’ Association, Krabka, when, having served six years of an eight-year sentence of hard labour in a camp at Omsk in Siberia for the crime of having spoken critically of Joseph Stalin’s conduct of the war, he was released in 1954 (the year following the generalissimo’s death), was promptly sentenced to a further term, this time in internal exile, for a period not exceeding the remainder of his life.

Never, he was told, should he attempt to leave his native land. his native land was now his home and his prison.

Following his release from the gulag (but while he was still, of course, under arrest, still a criminal, therefore, and not allowed by law to own even the scrappiest piece of land), Krabka made his way back to Moscow along the Vladimirka Road, his intention being to return to his former work on his parents’ bee farm northeast of the city.

In his absence, both his father and then his mother had succumbed to the typhoid epidemic of the previous year, and the farm, left unattended, had fallen into complete disrepair. of the once many thousands of bees, only corpses now remained – mounds of silent husks where once had hummed the glorious and deafening buzz of life.

For 10 days Krabka wept, mourning not only the loss of both his parents but, of course, the loss of what he’d hoped would become his livelihood. in time, though, being a man strengthened both in body and in spirit by the brutality of his treatment, his tears dried and his gaze was set forward. Having survived the gulag, Krabka would not, he determined, become a man buried by aimless despair. instead, he set to work burning the corpses of the abandoned bees and repairing the hives, and, drawing on the goodwill of neighbours who offered him goods with which to barter in return for a slice of future profits, hour by hour and day by day he returned the place to a state of good order.

When this was done (after many months of back-breaking work), he travelled to Moscow and bought his first bees, including two dozen queen bees, the largest and most fertile of whom he christened Nadhezdha, in memory of the second wife of Joseph Stalin, whose brutal treatment of her led to what many historians believe was not suicide at all but murder.

Today, the Krabka bee farm is the seventh largest in the whole of Russia, a producer of honey that can be found on the breakfast tables and in children’s sandwiches from Rio de Janeiro to Reykjavik and Rome. though Leonti has passed away (an easeful death, people say, as befits a man who had suffered so), the farm, on his death, was bequeathed into the hands of his children who, every year on the anniversary of his arrival at the then broken-down and neglected farm, hold a tasting contest in his honour.

For this, people come from all over the district (some even come from overseas), while some, like me, are guided there by simple good fortune.

I tipped back my head and let the smooth golden liquid run down my throat. It was as thick as syrup and twice as sweet. I couldn’t help smiling.

Avram Krabka was studying my face, as if mine was the only opinion that mattered. "is it good?"

"yes," I said. he nodded and, with the solemnity of a priest or a prizefighter’s trainer, took my hand in his and raised it.

"yes?" said a voice from the group of perhaps 50 onlookers.

"yes!" Avram Krabka replied, his voice echoing out around the arched underground vault. "Next stop England and her Majesty the Queen!"

I swear the taste of that honey is still on my tongue as I write these words, as it was, still, on my arrival a few days later in the city of Vladimir — a sweetener born directly from the bitterness and death of the gulags.

THEY numbered – those terrible places – close to 500 (some say more, for definitions vary, as the fickle tides of Russian politics ebb and flow) and were scattered like shrapnel scars across the great barren land of what constituted the greater part of what was then the Soviet Union.

They were large – some indeed by any measure vast, catering with great ingenuity to the misery of thousands – while others were smaller and more intimate, more bespoke; but they were all, from the ice-bound north to the arid southern steppes, prisons unlike any other.

Though the tools of their cruel trade were familiar from camps the world over – the unspeakable torture, the starvation, the arbitrary and capricious punishment – they had one thing about them that other such places couldn’t claim. Isolation. Complete and utter.

Take a man or a woman or a child from his or her family (and take him, with no warning, as, unawares, he sets down his cup or pauses in his ploughing to consider the sky and what the changes in its colour may herald), deny him any contact with those left behind him (or even the chance to look back) and then take him to a place as far away and as foreign as the surface of the moon. and all but a few will be broken by the endless nothingness, the spirit of all but a few – what remains after such a journey – draining away as if through the soles of their bare feet to be lost for ever in the bitter, stony soil.

And even then, should a man break free, what good will that do him if he finds himself a thousand miles from the nearest source of heat, a thousand miles from the chance of conversation, a thousand miles in which a man could go mad with nothing and no one to observe but a Siberian eagle that flies so high and distant that his eyes can observe the very curve of the earth, and the ease of whose flight, in any case, seems to mock a man’s faltering footfall?

No good is the answer.

For isolation and abandonment have the power, when used well, in tandem and with gusto, to break a man in spirit and heart just as a pistol, when fired with skill, has the power to penetrate the flesh and break a man’s bones.

This is an edited extract from The Road of Bones: a Journey to the dark Heart of Russia by Jeremy Poolman (Simon & Schuster, $35).

<a href="http://www.theaustralian.com.au/travel/along-the-road-of-bones/story-e6frg8rf-1226045431277tag:news.google.com,2005:cluster=http://www.theaustralian.com.au/travel/along-the-road-of-bones/story-e6frg8rf-1226045431277Fri, 29 Apr 2011 14:09:24 GMT 00:00″>Along the road of bones

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