I'm currently reading Imperium, by Ryszard Kapuściński(recommended by Sheila). When I finish it I'll write something more, but I will say now that there are many places where I have had to set the book down for a moment and literally walk away, even if just briefly. There is much more to the book than the type of terrible(but brilliantly written) passage I'll excerpt below so I don't want to give the wrong impression. He gives many different insights into far-flung parts of the USSR from different travels at different times and there is much to chew on with this book. It is timely reading also, as I read lots of criticism about the role of individualism in America today and to what extent individuals should relinquish their wealth and the fruit of their labors for the common good. Note that I wrote "to what extent" and not "if".
We are nowhere close to the nation described below, so I am not writing in a state of alarm. It took decades for the germ of "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" to explode into a full-fledged plague of evil. Eventually it did though, and that very germ is still being cultured today despite the disaster that it led to.
What Kapuściński describes here is the port of Magadan in the region of Kolyma, gateway to the Gulag camps of the Russian Far East.
We reached the Bay of Nogayev and stopped at the water's edge, near some abandoned, rusting cutters. This is a place-symbol, a place-document, with a symbolic weight similar to that of the gate to Auschwitz or the railway ramp in Treblinka. This bay, the gate, and the ramp are three different stage designs for the same scene: the descent into hell.
Of the millions of people who were disgorged upon this rocky shore covered with gravel, on which we were now standing, three million never came back. The bay looks like a large lake with a calm gray-brown surface. The entrance to it, from the Sea of Okhotsk, which separates it from Japan, is so narrow that even in stormy weather there are no large waves here. In all directions one can see dark gray, almost black hills with gentle slopes, bare, without a trace of greenery, like so many heaps of coal or slag long ago abandoned. A dreary, monotonous, lifeless world. Without trees, without birds. One can see no movement; one can hear no sounds. Low clouds, crawling along the ground, always seemed to be drawing in our direction, straight at us.
This environment provokes extreme behavior, one can fall into a delirium here, into madness, or succumb to the most crushing depression; the most difficult thing is to preserve a sense of normalcy and the faith that nature can be friendly, that it does not want to rid itself of us. In a place like Kolyma, nature pals up with the executioner, helps him in the destruction of the defenseless and innocent victim, serves the criminals, grovels before them, always slipping them new instruments of torture--biting cold, icy winds, banks of snow a story high, enormous, impassable cold deserts.
To this bay came the ships carrying in their hatches prisoners jammed together, half-dead from hunger and suffocation. Those who were still moving walked down the gangplanks to the shore. It was then that they saw the bay for the first time. The first impression, noted in dozens of memoirs: From here I will not return. They were ordered into columns. Then the counting of the prisoners began. Many of the guards were illiterates, and counting large numbers caused them great difficulties. The roll call lasted for hours. The half-naked deportees stood motionless in a blizzard, lashed by gales. Finally, the escorts delivered their routine admonition: A step to the left or a step to the right is considered an escape attempt--we shoot without warning! This identical formula was uniformly applied throughout the entire territory of the USSR. The whole nation, two hundred million strong, had to march in tight formation in a dictated direction. Any deviation to the left or right meant death.
After passing through the street of Berzin-Stalin, the exhausted columns vanished inside the gates of transit camps, of which there were several in the town and its immediate environs. Until recently Magadan had barely a couple of brick buildings, and the whole town, comprising numerous small wooden houses above which rose the watchtowers, looked like one large camp scattered over the hills, covered by snow in the winter, drowning in mud in the summer.
After several days the prison columns set forth once again, pushed along by the shouts of their escorts, by rifle butts, by the baying of dogs. The most important thing was to reach one's final destination, for whoever weakened and fell was finished. The columns shuffled deep into Kolyma, to their designated camps and to primitive gold, platinum, silver, lead, and uranium mines, hollowed out with pick axes. For decades they marched from Magadan sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, one after the other, hundreds upon hundreds, thousands upon thousands, walking toward their appointed places along the town's only road--the northern one--and one after another vanishing into the eternal, thick, and cold fog.