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Touring gulags offers a glimpse into hell

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It was, one prisoner would later remember, like a medieval painter's evocation of the Last Judgment: 600 women, mostly young, all emaciated, half-naked, bald, pouring with sweat and so jammed into the black hold of a ship that "it was impossible to tell where one pair of buttocks ended and another set of breasts began."

Just looking at this slithering mass of humanity was enough to drive a person insane, the same prisoner recalled years afterward.But the tortuous journey was just the beginning of a trip to Stalin's real-life version of hell, one of the gulag prison camps that served the dual purpose of providing slave labor for grandiose industrial projects and of terrorizing Soviet society.

The women were being taken to construction site No. 503, in the remote Siberian north, where most of them would die building a railway that was never completed and never used.

I was making the same odyssey, in the more comfortable Matrosov, an aging yet elegant Russian riverboat that cruises Siberia's waterways for the pleasure of tourists. I had come to the Matrosov via a tiny advertisement in the Moscow press that promised "tours of the gulag."

The idea of seeing the horrors of the Stalinist past through the eyes of post-communist Russian tourists was irresistible, and I was soon on a flight to Siberia.

Arrival at Norilsk airport, north of the Arctic Circle, was an instant lesson in Russian dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn's assertion that "the gulag is everywhere, is all of us."

From the Western reader's cozy perspective, Solzhenitsyn's phrase seems a weighty and wise slice of philosophy. But in Russia, particularly in Siberia, it is the plain truth.

In places like Norilsk, site of the world's largest nickel mine, you don't need a guided tour to find the remnants of Stalinist labor camps. "The zeks (Russian slang for prisoners) built this place; it is a city of prison camps," explains Volodya, 36, a miner with the ghost-white skin and rotting teeth of the Norilsk native.

Near the center of downtown Norilsk, a shabby collection of crumbling, concrete Soviet apartment blocks and a few midget trees fighting a losing battle against the permafrost, barbed wire marks the edge of a Stalin-era prison camp, which now houses Boris Yeltsin's convicts.

The Norilsk mines were first hacked out of the frozen earth by gulag slave labor. Even the roads are a legacy of the gulags: Potapov, a talented engineer sent to the gulags, devised a wind-tunnel that made it possible to build roads in the wind-swept tundra. They are still called potapovtsi.

Potapov's name still haunts the gulag, but there are also thousands of living ghosts. They are people like Ivan, a gnarled creature as stunted as the Norilsk trees, who works alongside Volodya. In the late 1930s, Ivan was sent to the Arctic prisons for gleaning grain after the harvest, an offense which Stalin's courts punished with 12 years of imprisonment and a brutal postscript - an extra 15 years of exile in Norilsk, after which Ivan was too old and too isolated to leave.

It is hard to imagine anything worse than being condemned to a life sentence in Norilsk. It is one of the natural world's cruelest environments: the mosquito-infested summer lasts for just 20 days, a brief recess in a year dominated by the "polar night," when there is no respite from the darkness and way below zero temperatures.

So-called civilization has added to nature's brutality. Norilsk is one of Russia's 10 most polluted cities, a remarkable achievement in a country pockmarked with nuclear and chemical disasters and one borne out by the pools of blood-red sludge that collect in the city's ditches.

We are thousands of miles from any other human habitation, but Stalinist central planners so ingeniously encircled Norilsk with factories and mines that spending a few hours in the city feels like breathing broken glass.

Yet, as Volodya tells me, the gulag inmates are not the only prisoners of this harsh world. As well as slave labor, settlements like Norilsk were populated by the refugees of Stalin's devastating collectivization drive - simple peasants like Volodya's parents who left their village in Kursk, in central Russia, lured by the promise of high wages.

In the Soviet era, they could hope to use a lifetime of savings earned in the far north to finance retirement in the gentler climes of "the earth," the term the people of the Arctic use to describe those Russian lands free from permafrost. But economic reforms wiped out savings and pushed housing prices sky-high, leaving families trapped.

Perhaps taking perverse pleasure from building this prison site near the Siberian village where he had been sent to a far gentler czarist exile, the Soviet dictator was so infatuated with project No. 503 that he gave the order to begin construction in 1949 before any engineering plans or surveyors' maps had been drawn up. Known as "the railway of bones" by its prisoner-builders, it claimed tens of thousands of lives. The railroad was abandoned in 1953, as soon as Stalin died.

Even from the doorway, it is clear that Igarka's gulag museum and its local visitors are a grim lot. In place of the usual injunctions against taking photographs or slurping soft-drinks, a hand-written sign in the foyer warns: "It is forbidden to visit the museum in a drunken state." But as Natalya Grezina, the museum's perky director, describes the somber exhibits, it becomes apparent why visitors might be inclined to turn to drink.

She discusses the "mothers' zone," where children up to 3-years-old were kept in separate prisons next to their laboring mothers, who were punished for not meeting work quotas by being denied monthly visits to their toddlers.

Another of Igarka's specialties was a Serf Theater, an operetta troupe composed of some of the finest singers, dancers, musicians and actors from lands conquered by the Red Army. One inmate was a former artistic director of St. Petersburg's Marinsky Specialties, who hanged himself after a performance when the contrast between the freedom of his creative life and the imprisonment he returned to after the show became too much to bear.

A few hours upstream, at Yermakova, we explore the derelict remains of site 503. Once a prison settlement of several thousand, Yermakova today has largely reverted to the wild taiga forest that greeted prisoners when they were dropped off with axes and a few guards and told to build winter accommodation.

The zeks' biggest summertime complaint was the mosquitoes, which one former prisoner described as "a tortuous mob; there were more of those beasts in the air than raindrops in a thunderstorm. When you waved your hand in the air it would become bloody with dead mosquitoes."

Even though I am drenched in the most up-to-date Western insect repellent, the modern-day mosquito swoops into my eyes, ears, nose and throat. Jogging to keep ahead of the flying mob, we begin to trudge through the dense undergrowth in search of the abandoned prison camp.

Soon we find the railway to nowhere, now just a few rusty railway ties pointlessly moored in the Siberian forest. After a few miles, we reach what is left of the camp perimeter - bits of barbed wire, a weathered watchtower and a sign that warns "Forbidden Zone."

That evening, as we gather in the bar to wash away the ship's stodgy, Soviet-style cuisine, I try to understand my perplexing shipmates who have chosen to visit Stalin's prison camps, but seem curiously unmoved. Theirs is the national ambivalence of a country that has boldly rejected its communist past but still consents to be ruled by the former communist nomenklatura.

As I persevere with my unpopular questions - foreigners are still exotic in this corner of Russia and my new acquaintances would prefer to interrogate me about consumer paradise in the West - I make a discovery. Almost every one of my shipmates has a grandparent, or parent, or uncle, or cousin who was repressed by the Soviet regime.

The tales of personal tragedy are revealed, but no one can agree on what they mean. Alexei, whose family was forever excluded from the communist good life by his grandfather's "sin" of being captured by the Germans, thinks the gulags hold a lesson for the Kremlin: "All the former Communists in our government should be forced to come on this tour."

"We know our entire country was one big gulag and many of the same people are still in charge," says Oleg, a doctor from the local capital, Krasnoyarsk. "But what can we do? It's hard enough just to survive."

Russia's hard-core democrats, the dissidents and human-rights activists whose courage tore the Soviet Union apart but who have now been relegated to the fringes of public life, believe this sense of impotence and apathy is a symptom of the country's lack of civil society. They warn that until Russia fully remembers its past, it risks repetition.

My drinking companions take a more optimistic view. "But look, at least we are talking about it, and with a foreigner at that," Oleg says. "Ten years ago,we wouldn't have dreamed of such democracy."

It is 2 a.m., the Arctic sun is bright, and between shots of vodka my new friends launch into the patriotic songs of communist youth camps.

Catching my uncomprehending gaze, Oleg flashes a smile and explains: "See Chrystia, after a day at the gulags, we can still carry on like this. You can never conquer such a people."