Image: Tomasz Kizny
When Joseph Stalin took control of one of the largest landmasses on Earth, he did not neglect to make his presence felt in even the most remote of its corners. In the early 1930’s, the man of steel decided to embark on a project incredible not only for the scale of its engineering, but for the cruelty and inhumanity with which it would be carried out: the construction of the M56 Kolyma highway – the Road of Bones.
Image: Mikko Paananen
The road runs for over two thousand kilometres through the wildest terrain of the Asian continent, connecting Magadan and Yakutsk, and making an enormous loop through the Siberian mountains in order to reach the hundreds of gold mines that once operated there.
Forced labour was used to construct every inch of this incredible project – at first by inmates of labour camps, but later by the unfortunate denizens of the gulags that began springing up all over these near-uninhabitable provinces of Stalin’s Soviet empire. Many were Russian POW’s, banished to the region after being labelled German ‘collaborators’. Many were Russian Christians who refused to renounce their faith under the Communist regime.
Prisoners were chained except when they were working their twelve-hour shifts. Many died during transport alone, and thousands were shot by the officers for not working hard enough. And any worker who died during construction of the road was ‘buried’ where he fell – survivors’ reports indicate that bodies were as common a sight as fallen logs.
Today, the road is in poor condition, and many parts of it are impassable for ordinary vehicles. It has become a challenge for off-road drivers and bikers to make a complete ‘run’ of the Road of Bones. Given the poor condition of the bridges that occur along the highway, common advice given is that the safest way to cross rivers along the route is to cross the ice when they freeze in winter!