The Road of Bones
Found in Russia’s easternmost region, the Road of Bones is a well-known and malign roadway. Spanning 1,200 kilometers from Yakutsk to the capital of the distant Magadan Oblast, the route has gained infamy for the dreadfulness of its conditions. Constructed in the Stalin era, prisoners used only their bare hands and primitive tools to build it, and it is estimated that no fewer than 25,000 of them died during its formation. Even today, this road remains an emblem of cruel Soviet incarceration and its hazardous landscape claims new victims every year.
The Construction of the Road of Bones
During the height of Joseph Stalin’s rule from 1932 to 1953, the Road of Bones was constructed to link the secluded parts of Siberia and the Far East to the remainder of the Soviet Union. Imprisoned Gulag system inmates, most of whom were political prisoners or people accused of crimes against the state, were employed to build the road under difficult circumstances with limited materials, machinery, and no defence from the unpredictable weather. Subsequently, countless people died from sickness, fatigue, and malnutrition.
The construction of the road was a monumental task, given the harsh terrain and climate of the region. The route passed through dense forests, swamps, and permafrost, and crossed numerous rivers and mountains. The prisoners were often forced to work in freezing temperatures, with little or no shelter, and were given inadequate clothing and footwear. They were also subjected to brutal treatment from their guards, who were known for their cruelty and violence.
The prisoners were provided only the most basic tools and materials to construct the road, which meant it was often of poor quality, prone to erosion, and dangerous. The prisoners were also forced to work grueling hours, with some pushing to complete the project as quickly as possible. The project was often plagued by accidents, illness and fatalities. Though they were never officially acknowledged, the hard work and sacrifices of the prisoners who constructed the road will never be forgotten.
Owing to the inhumane environment, prisoners were still able to construct a road stretching from Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic, to Magadan, an influential gold mining and industrial hub. This road soon became known as the Road of Bones mainly due to the countless people who lost their lives while constructing it and their bodies which were oftentimes left at the side of the road or buried in shallow graves and to this day, their bones are still visible in areas.
Over the years, the Road of Bones has become an attraction of sorts, as travelers come from far to remember the atrocities which came from Stalin’s Soviet Union rule. Despite having suffered such great despairs, the Russian government and local authorities have taken strides to improve the conditions of the road for travelers, as a reminder of the horrific past that comes with it.
The Humanitarian Issues of the Road of Bones
The tragedy of the Road of Bones, which resulted in the deaths of at least 25,000 prisoners, was of monumental proportions. The dismal conditions and oppressive mistreatment that the prisoners experienced speaks to the ruthlessness of the Soviet prison system, which showed little regard for human life. The atrocities of the road project also had a merciless impact on indigenous populations living in the area, who were forcibly moved to give way to this and other development projects.
To this day, the Road of Bones is fraught with danger, resulting in numerous fatalities each year. The road is unpaved, is mostly not marked, and presents difficulties navigating throughout the winter season. Additionally, permafrost hinders the road’s stability, often causing the surface to become uneven or to split apart. This route is further hindered by deficient infrastructure and services.
There are few gas stations or rest areas on the road, and even those in place are largely beaten-up and are not properly kept up. This lack of access to support creates an environment where motorists experience higher odds of vehicular accidents and being left stranded. The people of the region suffer daily, facing poverty and isolation from basic social services. The indigenous communities, who were already forced out of their homelands, still cope with the rising effects of that decision and the deteriorating of their customary way of life. The Road of Bones is an epitome of the dreary past of the Soviet system and represents the life that was relentlessly taken away.
The Casualties of the Road of Bones
Thousands have become casualties of the Road of Bones over the years due to its notoriously treacherous conditions. Reports claim that at least five-hundred people have perished since its development, with the real figure likely to be much greater. Many of these fatalities have been attributed to vehicle accidents and the brutal weather, as temperatures can plummet to -50°C during the winter months, and extremely hazardous drifts of ice and snow can obscure the narrow and winding roads. Additionally, lacking infrastructure and services along the route can make it a harrowing experience for those who require assistance in an emergency.
The risks of the Road of Bones do not only affect the drivers and travelers. Local communities along the stretch have to suffer due to inadequate access to medical care and economic opportunities, resulting in poverty and social deprivation within the region.
EFFORTS TO IMPROVE THE ROAD OF BONES
To make travel on the Road of Bones both safer and more accessible for travelers and locals, the government has undertaken several initiatives. A new bridge across the Lena River was completed in 2019, which has significantly decreased travel time between Yakutsk and Magadan by hours. Additionally, new road signs and markings, rest areas, and gas stations have been put in place. In order to provide a secure, efficient mode of transportation, the Trans-Siberian Railway has also been developed as an alternative route.
However, in addition to these features, due consideration has been given to the historic importance of the Road of Bones. A monument and museum to commemorate the victims of the road have been established in the village of Khandyga, as well as other memorials.
Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei
The Gulag was a large concentration of labour camps and penitentiaries under the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s. The term ‘Gulag’ is a Russian acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration. The Gulag was employed to incarcerate and reprimand those perceived as a danger to the Soviet state, comprising of political dissenters, intellectuals, religious leaders, and common citizens blamed of deeds such as shoplifting or hoarding food.
Arrests were commonly done without a trial or any substantiation of wrongdoings and those found guilty were exposed to cruel conditions at the labour camps. Those camps were in remote parts of the Soviet Union, like Siberia and the Far East, where detained individuals were coerced to operate in factories, mines and other industries.
The camps’ atmosphere was unforgiving, with the prisoners going without adequate sustenance and suffering from diseases in addition to the forced labour. A great number of the inmates fell victims to executions and tortures along with other forms of physical maltreatment. The Gulag acted as a system of oppression for the Soviet Union’s management over the population and to stifle dissent. It was also adopted as an apparatus for economic development, with the detainees serving as a cheap labour force for the building of infrastructure and to extract assets from secluded areas of the country.
The Gulag was officially abolished in 1960 and yet the memory of this morally regressive system remains in the collective consciousness of the Russian people to this day. Not only are the actual prisoners’ dismal plight and their families adamant, but the remembrance of the Gulag is a dominant chapter of Russia’s past and of its national identity.
Throughout its history, the region of Siberia has been witness to numerous tragic events. A few examples of these include:
The Deportation of Ethnic Minorities
During the Stalinist era, ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, including many in Siberia, were subject to large scale deportations that had catastrophic effects on those affected. Millions of innocent people were forced from their homes to labor camps and other parts of the country where they were forced to settle. The unfortunate victims of these deportations endured terrible conditions, with many of them ultimately dying as a result of malnutrition, inadequate housing and malnutrition. The lingering brutality of these measures still affects minority groups in the region to this day and highlights the vast suffering these people experienced as a result of such a callous decision.
The Tunguska Event
On 30th June 1908, the Tunguska region of Siberia experienced a cataclysmic event known as the Tunguska Event. It is estimated that the explosion was around 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima during World War II. The impact of the event was felt hundreds of miles away and resulted in significant destruction, with an estimated 80 million trees being destroyed and large areas of forest scorched. The cause of the explosion is still uncertain but is widely thought to have been caused by a meteor or comet. Despite the devastating effects it had, no one was reported to have been injured from the impact directly.
The Krasnoyarsk Dam
The construction project of the Krasnoyarsk Dam in Siberia on the Yenisei River in the 1970s-1980s was a devastating consequence for the region’s population. Not only did thousands of people have to leave their homes and communities behind, but the dam had a significant impact on the environment, causing changes in the local ecosystem. This project not only caused physical displacement but also led to a great sense of loss for the people of the region. The disruption of their lives and the destruction of their community had a profound psychological and social impact.
The Siege of Leningrad
The Siege of Leningrad during World War II was one of the most devastating and longest sieges in history, lasting nearly two and a half years. The German forces completely cut off the city, preventing all supply shipments from coming in or going out. This, combined with the brutal winter temperatures, led to the deaths of over 600,000 people due to starvation and disease. The remaining survivors were forced to evacuate to Siberia, and even there they were not safe from the harsh conditions. The Siege of Leningrad left an indelible impact on the world, marking one of the darkest moments of the war.
The Chelyabinsk Meteor
On February 15, 2013, a 17-meter-wide meteor exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia. The sound of the explosion, rated at a staggering 514 kilotons, was heard for miles around and caused shockwaves felt throughout the region. The resulting airburst shattered windows, damaged buildings, and injured more than 1,500 people. Despite the destruction, the Chelyabinsk meteor was a reminder of how dangerous outer space can be and the potential harm it can cause.
This act of random destruction sparked further discussion worldwide regarding how to better prepare for and protect against future similar incidents. As an added precaution, a new system was implemented to detect and inform of possible meteoroids entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The Chelyabinsk meteor’s impact was a sobering reminder of the dangers of space debris, and the world has taken steps to be better prepared for such an event in the future.
Siberia has had more than its share of tragedy over the years. From the enormous death tolls caused by Siberian famines and floods, to the political repressions and wide-scale starvation and deprivation endured by many of its people, the region has been host to some of the most devastating human disasters in modern history. Despite its breathtaking surroundings and immense potential for natural resources, the people of Siberia remain dangerously exposed to the whims of nature and environmental catastrophes, and are sadly all too often the victims of political apathy and economic marginalization.