Lovely Magadan and its Not so Lovely past

Gulags & Abandoned Cities & Diving

July 8, 2012

Lovely Magadan & Its Non-Lovely Past

            We have a city tour of Magadan this morning.  As there are very long days now, we are in  no hurry to get up early to get everything seen and done before dark so we haul down to the breakfast room around 8.  Took us a bit to find it.  We’re on the third floor and the bar is on the 4th floor and the breakfast room on floor 2.  We were up and down the stairs a few times before we figured out which door.  Mostly the room is filled with our tour members but there are a few other businessmen staying at the hotel and are in there for their breakfast too.  We weren’t sure of the procedure on the first morning but Julia was already in there to make sure we all knew what to do.  There is a menu that lists everything they can serve you.  It is Russian with little tiny letters underneath in English.  Good thing I have brought my glasses.  It’s a little hard to go through the menu while the lady is standing there impatiently waiting for you to point to something but we managed and apparently, you can get as many items as you want.  Don’t remember what we had that first morning but then we walked over to the buffet type items and there were some meats and cheeses and cereals as well so I ended up with too much.  Still, a good breakfast albeit a bit odd to us on the serving factor.  Coffee was in a pot and nice and strong.

We meet in the lobby for our city tour.  Julia is our tour leader but for Magadan, we have Dave Raizman, a 71 year old gentleman who has lived here and studied Magadan history for many years.  Julia did the translations for him. Olga is with us today as well.  She is one of the owners of the travel agency that arranged our tour.  Dave was quite interesting and I wish we’d been able to understand him in Russian because I’m sure we didn’t get all the stories he had to tell and the ones we did get were great.

We started with a drive down to the harbor, western harbor or Alexey Nagaev harbor in Nagaev bay which is 40 m deep with 2 meters of ice in the winter.  They go ice fishing for smelt.  Magadan actually has two harbors but the major one is on the Sea of Okhotsk.  Magadan is actually much bigger than it seemed at first and distances were quite deceiving.  When we were standing by the sea, the fishermen and the boats and the small ships were miniscule because the area was so large.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Magadan.  I find it easier to quote some sort of “source” rather than try to remember everything that I was told several weeks ago.  Wikipedia might have a rep but I’ve found a lot of their information to be good and reliable so here is Wikipedia’s Magadan info: “”””Magadan (Russian: Магада́н; IPA: [məɡɐˈdan]) is a port town and the administrative center of Magadan Oblast, Russia, located on the Sea of Okhotsk in Nagayevo Bay in the Gulf of Tauisk and serving as a gateway to the Kolyma region. Population: 95,925 (2010 Census preliminary results);[4] 99,399 (2002 Census);[5] 151,652 (1989 Census).[8].””””””

“””””Magadan was founded in 1929 on the site of an earlier settlement from the 1920s.[citation needed] During the Stalin era, Magadan was a major transit center for prisoners sent to labor camps. From 1932 to 1953, it was the administrative center of the Dalstroy organization—a vast and brutal forced-labor gold-mining operation and corrective labor camp system. The town later served as a port for exporting gold and other metals mined in the Kolyma region.[9] Its size and population grew quickly as facilities were rapidly developed for the expanding mining activities in the area. Town status was granted to it on July 14, 1939.[citation needed]

On an official visit in May 1944, U.S. Vice-President Henry Wallace failed to understand the true nature of Magadan.[10] The watchtowers had been temporarily taken down and the prisoners were locked up, while a model farm had been set up for his inspection.[11] He took an instant liking to his secret policeman host, admired handiwork done by prisoners, and later glowingly called the city a combination of Tennessee Valley Authority and Hudson’s Bay Company. Eight years later he apologized for not understanding the true situation.””””””  Interesting side note here, I don’t remember studying any of this in school so when we came across this information about Wallace in the museum, I was clueless.  As usual, the Aussies and Brits in the group knew more about politics than I did but luckily my husband knew this story and explained it to me so I didn’t appear totally brainless.

And finally a bit more Wikipedia:  “”””Ship building and fishing are the major industries. The town has a seaport (fully navigable from May to December) and a small international airport, Sokol Airport. There is also a small airport nearby, Magadan 13. The unpaved Kolyma Highway leads from Magadan to the rich gold-mining region of the upper Kolyma River and then on to Yakutsk.

Magadan is very isolated. The nearest major city is Yakutsk, 2,000 kilometers (1,200 mi) away via an unpaved road which is best used in the winter, especially since there is no bridge over the Lena River at Yakutsk (the choices are: ferry from Nizhny Bestyakh in the summer, when the rest of the road may not be passable due to standing water, or over the ice in the dead of winter).

The principal sources of income for the local economy are gold mining and fisheries. Recently, gold production has declined. [12] Fishing production, although improving from year to year, is still well below the allocated quotas, apparently as a result of an aging fleet.[13] Other local industries include pasta and sausage plants and a distillery.[14] Although farming is difficult owing to the harsh climate, there are many public and private farming enterprises.”””””

There was a monument down by the harbor dedicated to the different professions that built Magadan.  As we were rather on the outskirts of town, there were also plenty of dachas around us, again, many were tarpaper type shacks and others were more substantial houses that would probably stand up in a heavy wind.  Dave, our guide today, told us how the ships would come into the harbor behind an ice breaker carrying prisoners – usually political prisoners from Stalin’s era.  The prisoners would have to walk up the streets to the sorting camps and decontamination camp..  As they are coming in behind an ice breaker, obviously it is bitterly cold and there were always prisoners who didn’t make it due to the weather and ill health.

In the distance on a hillside is rock formation known as Stone Castle because its profile looks a bit like castle ruins.  Sailors would paint below the stone castle the name of their ship and the year they put into port.  This was about 1913 to the 1920’s.  At the beginning of Magadan, there were about 500 people living here.  At the end of the 19th century, gold was discovered and miners started coming.   It was very hard to get here and a very hard life once here.  In 1931-1932 were about 4000 horses here and thousands of miners but there were no roads to the gold fields which were about 500 km north of Magadan so men would have to ride horses or take dog sleds.  We climbed back into our bus and drove the route that the prisoners would have walked from the ships.

From the harbor, our bus climbed up the hill to the Mask of Sorrows monument overlooking Magadan.  It is a rather steep hill and we were told the story of a group of former prisoners who came to visit the monument a few years past.  Most of them were in their 80’s and not in the best of health.  Shortly after the bus turned onto the road leading up to the monument, the bus broke down.  The former prisoners all looked at one another and agreed that it was a sign that they must continue the journey on foot.  They all made it to the top of the hill.  I feel like I can understand their commitment that they started their journey so many years ago off the ship and into the forced labor camps on foot and now they have come full circle and are free men and women now but still needed to complete the circle on foot.

The Russian orthodox church did not like the Mask of Sorrows being built.  So when it was built, nobody was paid any salary and they had to wait for years to get their money.  The artist was going after symbolism, realism and his own style.  The right side of the monument has the people on it or the brain for emotions while the left side is for memory and has the number 937 on it for 1937 when there was wide political oppressions.   1937-1957 some 800,000 people were put into these camps.  They usually came via Vladivostok to the western harbor.  160,000 died of hunger, the cold, and disease.  They all worked in the mines.  11,000 were killed for political crimes.  They were accused of crimes and that’s how they ended up here but while here, they might be accused of a new crime and for the second accusation, they usually got a death sentence.

They were put into the camps where the gold was and there were around 300 camps in this area.  Approximately 2 million were deprived of their freedom.  Some were forbidden from leaving the camps but others worked in town.  Around 3000 are still not “rehabilitated” as they were convicted of violent crimes such as murder.  They now live among the regular people of the area and not many actually know who they are because now they have families and children and grandchildren and such.  This was the translation we got but it didn’t make a lot of sense such as how do they know this and who has the records that 3000 former violent criminals are now happy grandparents and upstanding citizens.

There were about 60 different nationalities in the camps.  In 1953 when Stalin died, many of the prisoners were released and they returned to their home areas.  Gulag is a synonym for the State Department of Camps.

Again I go to Wikipedia to tell the Mask of Sorrows story: “”””The Mask of Sorrow (Russian: Маска скорби, Maska skorbi) is a monument perched on a hill above Magadan, Russia, commemorating the many prisoners who suffered and died in the Gulag prison camps in the Kolyma region of the Soviet Union during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It consists of a large Concrete statue of a face, with tears coming from the left eye in the form of small masks. The right eye is in the form of a barred window. The back side portrays a weeping young woman and a headless man on a cross. Inside is a replication of a typical Stalin-era prison cell. Below the Mask of Sorrow are stone markers bearing the names of many of the forced-labor camps of the Kolyma, as well as others designating the various religions and political systems of those who suffered there.

The statue was unveiled on June 12, 1996 with the help of the Russian government and financial contributions from seven Russian cities, including Magadan. The design was created by famed sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, whose parents fell victim to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s; the monument was constructed by Kamil Kazaev. The mask stands 15 metres high and takes up 56 cubic metres of space.””””

The Mask of Sorrows is a very compelling monument.  Its faces and tears are quite evocative of the prisoners who lived and died in the region and the camps.  I wanted to photograph every inch of it.

Originally 3 or 4 monuments were planned, one in each of the major towns or villages that played a major part in the gulags and prisoners but this was the only one that was completed (I heard both numbers of 3 or 4 so not sure how many were planned).  We were unable to get inside to see the small museum that is in the monument.  We started at the mask and worked our way downhill past the rocks below the monument where the religions are represented and the other camps were spelled out in stone.  We also got a bit of a nature lesson from Julia as she pointed out some of the plants that helped the prisoners and also some of the native plants like the dwarf pine that lays down flat in the winter under the blanket of snow but pops back up in the spring to produce its pinecones.  Usually I didn’t have a problem understanding Julia but I could swear she was talking about “wolf vines” for about half of the day.  We finally got her to spell it because a wolf vine wasn’t making any sense to us.

Dave has published several books on the region and the camps and such but they are all out of print now and none of them are in English either.  Apparently there is a lot of “self-publishing” going on in that part of the world before the internet and such so there were never many of the books as he had to pay for them to get them published.  At least I am fairly sure that is the story of his books.  He showed us his only copy of one of them with photos and graphs.  I believe they told us there was some interest in publishing them again but Julia didn’t think it would happen and it certainly wasn’t going to be translated into English, worse luck.

After the Mask of Sorrows, we drive back into town and stop at the new cathedral that is a centerpiece of worship and is actually not even finished being built.  As we entered, we walked through scaffolding and plastic sheets to keep the dust out of the interior.  Its onion domes in gold and copper are clearly visible and identifiable from the hilltops around town.  We were able to photograph inside which was lovely because so often you can’t take photos in a church and this church was magnificent.  There was an entire golden wall of icons at the front of the church.  The walls were totally covered with brilliant and magnificent frescoes.  It had a wonderful chandelier hanging from the center dome.  There were a few people inside for worship and also a few tourists like us who were busy snapping photos all around.  I don’t know the icons and don’t know the saints but it was beautiful.  I would have spent much longer inside taking more photos but the tour moved on to the next stop.

We went to the museum.  Normally not a big museum fan here and we picked up a museum guide.  Dave, our guide up to this point, left us here as he works at the museum.  He sort of just disappeared so we never really even got to say thank you and how much we appreciated his insight and knowledge.  Our museum lady took us to the gulag display first.  It appeared that she might be going to read us each display and each caption which Julia then had to translate.  As the room was crowded with displays and captions, I was a bit dismayed to think of how long it would take and my interest, while keen, would just not survive a long time at this.  Some of the other tour members were already walking around the room taking photos at other displays and paying little attention to Julia and the museum lady so she sped up and started skipping a few things.  That worked out better and it was fascinating again.  (Oh shame on me, ye of little attention span!).  Typical of museums from former communist states though.  Lights had to be turned on as we walked through and turned off as we left and doors opened and closed as we went along and a great effort made by the museum staff to keep the group together in one room at a time.  Unfortunately, they failed at this.  Intrepid tourists we are and very good about wandering off into rooms that weren’t on the tour.

Of great interest to me in the museum (besides the Wallace display where my husband enlightened me) were photos of the prisoners doing various camp chores and work.  Also was an actual watchtower from one of the gulags.  And the star!  This was a wooden star with lights that was situated on top of one of the main buildings in a labor camp.  A goal or chore was put out for the prisoners to complete.  If it was completed then the star would be lit and a reward of some fashion would be given to the prisoners.  I don’t think it was lit very often.  Still, Pavlov’s dog responses.  It gave hope. There were also copies of death certificates in the museum.  Officially, a death certificate had to give the reason for the death but the old ones just left it out because often reason of death was execution.  After the camps closed, relatives got death certificates with “reason of death – shot”.

Along with the photos of the prisoners doing tasks were some paintings of the ships coming in winter.  The ice breaker plowing through the ice with the prisoner ships following behind was chilling both in contemplation of the weather and also in realization of the hardships facing the men and women who were on the prisoner ships.  There were several faded newspapers as well with the Politburo members on the front page, Stalin being center stage.  Interesting that many of our tour members knew the names of the politburo leaders.  I barely know the names of my own political leaders.

Following the Gulag room, we visited some other rooms of the museum including the animal room which had stuffed animals of the region including a mistakenly wayward polar bear because they don’t have polar bears here.  They have found mammoth bones here and use them to carve beautiful scrimshaw and animals and scenes for sale – not cheap but magnificent.  Another room we visited was the stones and minerals room.  Some lovely geodes and other semi-precious stones.  One of the main products of the area was tin and coal and gold.  Gold mining is still happening and not in an environmentally friendly way either.

Time for lunch!  We stopped at a small café where we just walked through the line and got what we wanted.  It was tasty but was hard to figure out what everything was so I ended up with a mixed meat cutlet (more like a mystery meat cutlet) and potatoes but some great chicken noodle soup.  My hubby had a pork cutlet and then some buns: a cheese bun and a cherry bun.  Could have used another cherry bun.

Next stop was shopping!  I’m very good at shopping but this was a gold and ivory shop.  The mammoth ivory carvings were impressive and expensive.  It was hard to try and find a good one at a reasonable price.  We never even got to look at the gold because the group left to go meet a real ivory carver so we bought a small mammoth carving and then ran around the corner with Simon to the ivory carver’s shop which was a small room in a basement of an apartment block.  Quite dusty inside but he had some nice carvings.  He had a really nice fish that I would have bought but it wasn’t for sale and supposedly a part of a larger piece.  He brought out a musk ox for 10,000 rubles or about $250 but that was too much money and we didn’t have that much on us anyway.  Otherwise, he only had some key chains for sale and I really didn’t like them.  He did have some large ivory tusks and several tour members picked them up and they are quite heavy.  He pays about $150 a kilo.

Finally out of the carver shop and onto the bus where we are going to the beach where it is fisherman’s day.  Seems like the whole town is at the beach!  The bus couldn’t get down to beach as too many cars stopped alongside the road so we walked and was ok down but a bit harder up.  Quite a celebration at the beach with  bouncy castles and other things for kids to play on and many food stalls plus many people were doing their own barbeque on the beach.  We arrived just as they were reaching the conclusion of a lovely  musical on the little mermaid and the evil mermaid was captured shortly after we arrived.    We lost the rest of the group and missed it where Simon and group with him met the mayor of Magadan.  Started our walk back up the hill to the bus so I can get there in time.

Then back to town for free time and everyone decided to meet to go to The Steak House for dinner at 8.  Hubby and I went on a mission to find some fresh fruit.  We had seen vendors in street kiosks while on the bus but now, nothing.  Supposedly there was a store just up the road but when we found it, all the food had been cleared out of it and it was just a liquor store now.  Walked past a WWII monument in the park square where the lady looked like the “heart beating lady” in Kharkov Ukraine (stern “Mother Ukraine” forbidding figure with a sound system of a beating heart – rather creepy).  Finally went back to the  hotel and had the lady write down stores.  We found the first one easily enough but it was a very small store and the fruit was not nice so we walked back to fruit market outside of gold and ivory market and got fruit.

Tomorrow we leave for our overnight camping trip and we are not taking suitcases so I packed.  Then downstairs to meet for dinner  It was a longer walk than I thought but we went through the park with some great carvings like totem poles in one little corner.  We came out of the park through a deserted amusement park with bumper cars and a Ferris wheel and more but no on there.  One ride included a really creepy looking lady as its symbol on the top of the ride.

Dinner at the steak house was good.  We had a very long day though so my hubby and I were about to fall asleep in our plates.  We put our money on the table and left with Simon who had work to do at the hotel.  We didn’t walk back through the park so now we know two ways to get there.  Didn’t take us long to hit the bed and fall asleep.

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2 Responses to Lovely Magadan and its Not so Lovely past

  1. felix says:

    wow amazing u like it there where do u com from, are u close to magadan?… i like it too but not so much into history, i like the outdoor activities there, mountainbiking, hiking, sailing, kitsurf, ski, snowkiting… a playground for adults basically…. if u need information or help about magadan let me know, my parents in law live there and the grandfather did so too and my wife also grew up there…. regs from seitzerland, felix

  2. carpefeline says:

    I’m from the US and nope, don’t live anywhere near there, just travel there for the experience. it’s very different. I go with Koryo Tours who run tours to the area and around and North Korea. just like going places that are different.

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