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Full Circle

Day 18: Magadan

Michael Palin - Full CircleA bright, clear morning in Magadan. Seagull cries scrape away at the borders of my consciousness. Peer out of the window. Bright sunlight picks out the cracks in the walls, the threadbare curtains, the mottled paintwork, the shabby unfinished drabness of the concrete blocks opposite. A half-mile beyond, this same crisp, unsparing brightness sparkles on the waters of Nagaev Bay, where the Pacific is known as the Sea of Okhotsk. Below me people are making their way to work across rubble-strewn courtyards. They favour imitation leather jackets and carry plastic bags and saggy holdalls. Despite the sunshine it looks bitterly cold out there.

The Ocean Hotel, Magadan, at which we arrived late last night, is the newest hotel in a city built by forced labour in the 1930s. It was created as a port for the gold, silver and other precious metals dug from the inhospitable mountains of the nearby Kolyma region. From Magadan the most infamous of all the Gulags - the Soviet labour camps - were administered. Between 1933 and 1953 millions of 'enemies of the people' (writers, artists, lawyers - anyone on whom Stalin's suspicions fell) were shipped into Magadan during the ice-free months. It is conservatively estimated that three million of them died here.

Although it was always officially denied that the Kolyma camps ever existed, the numbers of those murdered by the state is now being acknowledged. It has just been made possible to visit the remains of the camps, which is why we are taking another helicopter today, this time in the company of a citizen of Magadan, Ivan Ilych Yakovlev. He is one of that small, exclusive and ever-dwindling band - the survivors of the Siberian Gulag.

The mountains of the Kolyma region are dreadful and forbidding. They rise in wave after wave of bare and broken rock, little more than petrified clumps of ash and dust stretching to the horizon. A vista of endless, hostile anonymity. It is ironic that these grim spoil heaps are full of all those things we find so desirable - gold, silver, diamonds - and particularly that most sinister and sought-after metal of the twentieth century - uranium.

The uranium mines were the worst of all. The work was hard, the food appalling. The winter temperatures dropped to -50° centigrade and there was the added risk of radiation poisoning.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 18
  • Country/sea: Eastern Russia
  • Place: Magadan
  • Book page no: 36

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