Travel Reference
In-Depth Information
Especially striking was how in the midst of all this cruelty, Kowalski remembered peek-
ing out cracks in the wooden walls of the boxcar to marvel at Russia's landscape. Lake
Baikal in eastern Siberia, he recalled, “could take one's breath away. At first glance, all one
noticed was the unadulterated beauty of the blue-green water reflecting the majesty of the
mountain peaks beyond. The scent of pines completed the exhilarating experience.”
Even as Stalin used the Trans-Siberian as a veritable death train, he was hard at work
punishing other people by making them construct new railroads. In 2012 Lucy Ash, a re-
porter for Britain's Guardian newspaper, unearthed remnants of Stalin's “deadly railway
to nowhere,” a thousand-mile Arctic route connecting western and eastern Siberia. “The
labor force was almost entirely made up of 'enemies of the people'—prisoners convicted of
'political' offenses.” Gulags were created every six to eight miles solely to house construc-
tion crews. “Prisoners built their own wooden barracks but the unlucky ones in the front
units had to take shelter in canvas tents.” Ash estimated three hundred thousand people
were “enslaved” to build the project and nearly a third of them died doing it. Many of the
slave laborers thought that by building a railroad they were contributing to something im-
portant, thus experiencing that elevated sense of purpose Shishkin wrote about. Therefore
the cruelest part? The project was abandoned. The Russian woman showing the Guardian
reporter around the remnants of the rail line put it this way:
Of course it was wrong to build the railway with slave labor. But once they'd star-
ted it and there were so many victims, I think abandoning the project was also crim-
inal. I lead excursions and tell people about what happened. One man, a former
prisoner, made a special trip up here and he just started crying when he saw the
rusty engines and old tracks. Many of the prisoners believed they were fulfilling a
useful and necessary deed, and all of it was just destroyed. It's heartbreaking.
Amazingly, the Trans-Siberian route that saw so much hardship and death is now tra-
versed by some of the world's best-off people. One of the trains that speeds along the
track is the Golden Eagle, a luxury liner offering the best caviar and cabins outfitted with
flat-screen TVs and heated floors. A one-way ticket from Moscow to the eastern port
of Vladivostok costs close to twenty thousand dollars. And there are Russians who can
afford that. This is a country with some of the wealthiest people in the world, the so-
called oligarchs. They are often shrewd, politically connected individuals who swooped in
and grabbed ownership of state enterprises as Soviet times ended. When those state-run
businesses—mining, oil, and natural gas companies among them—privatized seemingly
overnight, the people in charge became instant tycoons. And yet, fortunes under this new
regime can be taken away as quickly as they are made. Just ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky,
who once owned a giant energy company, Yukos, and was the richest man in Russia.
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