Russia: The "BAMers"

Global Voices Online
Saturday, July 14, 2007

Russian photographer Oleg Klimov has been on the road since June 23. He wrote this (RUS) about his intended route all the way across Russia:

[...] By the roughest estimates, I plan to take nine trains, two sea ferries, three cargo ships, a few military and border guard boats and only one plane on the way back to Moscow. I have to visit more than 20 cities and settlements, meet with hundreds of people... and cover the distance of about 20,000 km. All this in approximately 90 days. Not too much time, considering that travel in the Far East is extremely complicated. [...]

On July 10, Klimov posted this sketch (RUS) from the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM):


([TYNDA - KOMSOMOLSK-ON-AMUR]). BAM - The Baikal-Amur Mainline. A strategic idea of Stalin (BAMlag) and Brezhnev (Komsomol contruction). A "brilliant" project of the Soviet times.

Today BAM is "[the old woman with her broken washboard]," a fairy tale in which there used to be both an old man and a golden fish. Unfulfilled dreams.

When you ask the local people about "Komsomol volunteers" of the Brezhnev era, they just smile in a slightly embarrassed way. You know, the kind of "smile and embarrassment" at the same time, when you feel uncomfortable to admit that you've been fooled. You feel something similar when they manage to cheat you in some modern [scam]. [...]


There are two types of "BAMers": those who have left and those who've stayed at BAM forever. The former tend to romanticize "the construction of the century" from a place like Moscow or Leningrad, while the latter are, at best, "smiling uncomfortably" from between Tynda and Komsomolsk-on-Amur.

Those who did have the money and a place to go to, they left. The rest stayed, and one of the reasons was that they continued to believe that the gigantic construction couldn't be deserted just like that [...].


At first, BAM was being built by prisoners, who, following [WWII], were being helped by the Japanese POWs. Amazing stories are being told here. People were mainly dying of hunger, cold and impaired cardiac function, a heart attack.

They were burying the dead along the railway, not too deep because of the freezing cold. When Komsomol [volunteers] continued what prisoners and the Japanese foreigners had started, they discovered many open graves. The strange thing about it was that most of the bodies buried there had broken skulls. Later, it turned out that if the guards weren't sure whether a prisoner-laborer was dead or if they believed he was faking death, they used to break his skull with a spade, just to be on the safe side. [...]

Maybe I talk too much about labor camps and prisons, but this is the way it is - outside Moscow and to the East, there are former and current camps and prisons. Settlements. Repressions. Everywhere. If you think about it, you can go crazy from the realization of what kind of country we live in...

BAM is also a "time machine." Self-service cafeterias still exist here, and you can get a cutlet, mashed potatoes with thick brown gravy, and a glass of "Navy-style" compote. There is [Red Presnya] and [Arbat] in the capital of BAM, Tynda. Along the railway, it's easy to recognize train station buildings of all 15 former Soviet republics, which were built by their representatives. People are mistrustful here and ask a photographer more than once whether he has a permission to shoot at BAM. A permission from whom? - is the question that bewilders even the police. They simply don't know who gives permissions to shoot at BAM now. They aren't even sure BAM still exists.

Slava, 37, is a native "BAMer" whose mother came here in 1974 from Kherson region of Ukraine. He can't return to the warm lands because the Ukrainian sea climate is bad for his asthmatic wife.

- Tynda has the best climate for people suffering from asthma, - Slava declares. - Especially if you were born here. All those who came here and have lived here more than 30 years can't go back to Russia because their bodies have adopted to the local climate. I know many examples when people left this place and died within two years - of heart attacks and impaired cardiac function. Everyone knows about it here and everyone's afraid to leave, even when there is a place to leave to. It's very important to do this before you turn 40; it gets too dangerous after that...


I haven't found any medical corroboration of this story, but it's easy to understand the human aspect of it - impaired cardiac function [literally, "insufficient heart" in Russian] is our country's diagnosis.

No comments: