Recently, a geologist acquainted with the Institute was conducting a survey of potential ore sites near Magadan and in the nearby Kolyma river valley. These are in the far north and east of Russia, atop the Sea of Okhotsk. The geologist had been little aware of the grim history of the place, until he kept noticing human remains scattered about campsites and survey locations. There are millions of shallow graves in the region, and the frost is forever bringing bones and skulls up to surface — as if the dead are begging to be remembered. But few people visit this lonely area and almost nobody wants to recall who the dead were and why they died.
Auschwitz (or more properly, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of paired camps) is well remembered. Statesmen who visit Poland are expected to visit the site of the old Nazi death camp and it is a symbol of the many other sites that served the same function – the systemic degradation and destruction of huge numbers of human beings. Other sites associated with the Nazi’s mass murders are commemorated or preserved in one degree or another. Hundreds of histories record what was done, and what was done at Auschwitz will probably be recalled for centuries to come.
There is no such memorial for the victims of Soviet Communism. Their history has been chronicled – such as can be pieced together – but it has not been seared into anyone’s consciousness. Solzhenitsyn, who survived a term in a Soviet labour camp, was exiled for describing the Gulag archipelago. Most of the other books on Soviet mass murder have been written by foreigners, a very few of whom had first-hand experience of the system.
In addition to civilians killed during military operations or as hostages for acts of resistance, the Nazis deliberately murdered 10.5 million Slavs (Poles, Belorussians and Russians mostly), 5.3 million Jews, and 260 thousand Gypsies. All in all, according to Prof. R.J. Rummel – a leading scholar of mass murder — they murdered 20.9 million people. The Soviets were far worse.
From the very first days of Lenin’s rule, until the last days of the regime in 1991, the Soviet system was a deadly one. While more likely to commit homicide through depraved indifference (e.g. through starvation and exposure), the Soviets killed somewhere around 61.9 million people according to Rummel’s estimates.
The bone-studded valleys and forests in the remote Kolyma region are not the only neglected gravesites in the former Soviet Union. The “archipelago” described by Solzhenitsyn was a large one that arched over the whole of the Soviet Union, and most major cities had a nearby site where the security forces could dump hundreds of thousands of bodies. But the Kolyma-Magadan camps were the nadir of the whole system and even Solzhenitsyn feared to describe it.
In 1991, the museum at the Auschwitz-Birkenau site estimated that between 1.2 and 1.5 million people were murdered at the camp, including some 800,000 Jews. Auschwitz remains an enduring symbol of Nazi atrocity and mass murder. The remote labour camps of Magadan and the Kolyma were an interconnected complex that probably claimed 3 million lives — according to the best estimate of Robert Conquest in his book on the subject.
Germany has apologized over and over again for what it did. The vast majority of Germans feel a degree of shame for what was done, and the legacy of places like Auschwitz will hang over them for generations to come. In Russia, the legacy of the Gulags is seldom remarked on in public and most sites are left to decompose unmolested by mourners or monuments. It is extremely unlikely that the Germans will ever repeat the crimes they committed in the 1940s. This cannot be said for the peoples of what was the Soviet Union. Perhaps the soundless warning from the skulls in Kolyma is that the unacknowledged dead can always be joined by more.