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Full Circle

Day 18: Magadan

Michael Palin - Full CircleI try to imagine what it would have been like to have been here, hauling barrowfuls of rock 1000 feet down the mountainside for thirteen hours a day, rations dependent on how much uranium you delivered, knowing that whatever trivial offence had brought you here - it could be something you wrote, the birthplace of your parents, or even a look in your eye - the outside world would never know. To come to a place like this would have been to vanish off the face of the earth, to cease to exist.

Ivan Ilych survived because he could play the piano and make things out of wood. So he was given privileges - a few ounces more salted fish, a coat for the winter. At the end of the day, when we are safely back at his cluttered flat in Magadan, lined with editions of Dickens, Balzac and Shakespeare, he has only two things he wants to show me. One is his release form from the Gulag and the other is a certificate thanking him for all his hard work in The Great Patriotic War. That's the final surprise, I suppose. That despite all that he went through at the hands of his own people, Ivan Ilych still loves his country.

There is a general feeling amongst those I have met here that post-Gorbachev Russia is as rotten as the Communist state it replaced. There is already a keen nostalgia developing for the days of queues and scarcity, which are associated with an equality, a sense of common purpose. Everything has a price now - education, housing, fuel - and it is a price most Russians can't afford. So the black market flourishes and the sharp and aggressive and unscrupulous are the new top dogs. At the Ocean Hotel tonight we have a glimpse of them.
Choose another day from Full Circle


  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 18
  • Country/sea: Eastern Russia
  • Place: Butugychag
  • Book page no: 39

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