Kolyma: Road of Bones
Germany, Russia, 2017
Last week, a statebacked bronze statue of Joseph Stalin was unveiled in Moscow, hardly a singular act of its kind. Russian history textbooks now tell students that the deeds of the former Soviet leader were rational, while in January 2016, a cultural centre celebrating Stalin opened in the Tver region. The trend of restoring the image of the brutal dictator is disturbing and there is fear that his crimes can be whitewashed by ambiguously changing the narrative, by telling the story of a cruel murderer to one of a strong leader who simply could not please everyone.
On the side of the truth there are the stories of the people who remember. Stanislaw Mucha’s new documentary Kolyma: Road of Bones which will screen at DOK Leipzig at the end of October, brings forward the stories of such witnesses, and is a reminder of the unaccounted pain the Stalinist regime has inflicted. The film takes the viewer on a drive along the Kolyma Highway in Russia’s Far East, exploring the region and what’s left of its past.
No ambiguity whatsoever. This documentary raises questions about how people can cope with the memory of a regime that left scars on an entire society but is now being superficially altered for the sake of national pride. Over time, numerous stories about Stalin’s gulag camps have been told, but the magnitude of their legacy is still confusing and polarizing. Forgiveness can be a form of taking charge, but for a society to move on and never return to such times, it is first necessary to acknowledge that something that shouldn’t have happened actually did, with no ambiguity whatsoever.
Mucha’s film rescues from oblivion life stories from that time. The film takes its viewers on a trip along Russia’s Eastern Kolyma highway, to meet its inhabitants. The region was at the heart of Stalin’s gulag system and the 2000 km long Kolyma highway was built, beginning in
the 1930’s, by prisoners using hand tools. Hundreds of thousands died there. Their exact number is unknown, and can only be estimated. The identities of the people who perished there will remain largely unknown.
No escape. The scenery along the road is beautiful, desolate and wild. It is easy to understand why no one could escape from the camps: the taiga stretches thousands of kilometers all around in every direction. There’s hardly any chance of getting anywhere by foot from there. In winter, the temperature rarely rises above -30 degrees. The region is still rich in coal and precious metals, but many of the mines that used to be active and worked by prisoners are now abandoned.
While the driving force of the film is a 2000 km trail of lost lives, six decades after Stalin’s death, there are people who are still alive to tell their stories. There is a sense of dignity in what they tell, and they seem to have a kind of acceptance that comes with age. Some ended up in the gulag for no reason, some for speaking out loud against Stalin and some were sent there for murder.
Unpredictable and absurd. Driving from one town to another, Mucha talks to gulag survivors but also to many others who inhabit the area. We see a family that has been recently relocated to one of the towns during the war in Crimea, a mine engineer who admires Putin and remembers finding human remains in the ground as a child, and a talented ice sculptor who traveled the world showcasing his craft. There are also many scenes filled with dark humor, when the unpredictable and the absurd seem to pass as normal, such as the story of a man conducting underground experiments using dangerous high voltage devices in search of rejuvenating treatments that he tests on his blind father, or the market vendors who own a varied collection of disturbing animal parts which they exhibit with pride.
The film is dynamic and in its whole is a portrait of the region as it is now. Its narratives are grounded in the present and give insight into how people relate to the past in Putin’s Russia. A recurrent symbolic motif throughout the film is that of community center shows where children dance and sing cheerful songs about the motherland, idealizing life in Russia. Taking pride in the country has been and still is part of Russia’s social fabric, and Mucha uses these images ironically. After all, dysfunction and pain often hide behind this artificial sphere of cultivated nationalism creating the illusion that everybody belongs and there is nothing to worry about. Unveiling a statue of Stalin in Moscow in 2017 can perfectly fit such an illusion. In the end, in a land filled with national pride and with strong leaders who do heroic, hence occasionally unpopular acts, not much can go wrong, and not much really needs to be questioned.