A Visit
To the

In 1990, the author visited Magadan, NKVD headquarters for the GULAG of the Kolyma district or northeast Siberia. Magadan was the entry point into the GULAG world for millions of political prisoners, and so, for a large part of humanity, the very names Magadan and Kolyma came to have a resonance like that of Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Hiroshima.

I have two books with me: Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales and Alex Weissberg-Cybulski's The Great Purge. The juxtaposition of these authors, of their outlooks and stances, is fascinating. The comparison enables one to penetrate, if only slightly, into Russian thought, into its riddle and its nature. Both books are documents of the same experience --- that of a victim of Bolshevik repression --- but how different are the minds of the two authors.

The Austrian Weissberg is a man of the West, reared in the spirit of Cartesian rationalism, of penetrating and critical thought.

Shalamov is a Russian through and through; he never travelled outside Russia; he encountered Western ideas only sporadically; everything about him is Russian from start to finish.

At the same time, the man of the West, Weissberg, is an ardent and committed Communist, while the man of Russia, Shalamov, is a profound anti-Communist.

Weissberg is convinced that he has found his way into an insane asylum, that the investigating officers of the NKVD are demented people, that the Soviet Union of Stalin's epoch is a world of lunacy, paranoia, of the absurd. Convinced that he is in an insane asylum, Weissberg does not break down; under the most horrifying conditions, in crowded, dirty prisons dripping with blood, his mind, the mind of a Western rationalist, works intensively --- it searches for a rational, reasonable explanation for that which is happening around him. In each cell they throw him into, Weissberg strives to discuss, to question, to exchange opinions.

But it is precisely Weissberg whom his Russian fellow comrades in adversity look upon as a madman! What are you thrashing around for? they say. What are you trying to accomplish here? Sit quietly and suffer!

Shalamov believes that everything that surrounds him is part of the natural world. The camps belong to the natural order of things, and not to the human order. Can a man rebel against the fact of a great frost or a terrible flood? If a flood comes and someone starts to shake his fist at the river, people will say that he is mad. If a flood comes, one must climb the highest tree and wait patiently until the water recedes. Maybe, sometime, the water in the river will recede; maybe, sometime, they will release him from the camp. Nothing more can or even need be done.

In Kolyma Tales, the camp is a complete and logical structure. Why did Weissberg find all this absurd? If the camp were absurd, it would have collapsed instantly. The camp does have a logic, and that is the logic of murder --- a kind of rationality different from the one that the Austrian engineer-Communist was searching for. It is Shalamov's mind that is rational and logical, and Weissberg's mind that is astray, lost in abstractions.

.... I ventured far, right up to the bay. In this place one could no longer hear the city. Above all, one could not hear Kolyma. Somewhere beyond the hill descending toward the bay, in silence and darkness, its dead lay. In one memoir I read that Kolyma's permafrost so preserves corpses that the faces of those buried maintain even their expressions. The faces of the people who saw that which, as Shalamov warns, man should not see.

I thought about the terrible uselessness of suffering. Love leaves behind its creation --- the next generation coming into the world, the continuation of humanity. But suffering? Such a great part of human experience, the most difficult and painful, passes leaving no trace. If one were to collect the energy of suffering emitted by the millions of people here and transform it into the power of creation, one could turn our planet into a flowering garden.

But what has remained?

Rusty carcasses of ships, rotting watchtowers, deep holes from which some kind of ore was once extracted. A dismal, lifeless emptiness. Not a soul anywhere, for the exhausted columns have already passed and vanished in the cold eternal fog.

--- From Imperium
Ryszard Kapuscinski
(Vintage Books, 1994)

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