Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#13 - JRL 7213
Moscow News
June 4-10, 2003
Ghost of the Gulag
By Sergei Sossinsky

On May 29 I was meeting a train, which was bringing back home several residents of Kostroma who had visited St. Petersburg in the days of the celebration of that exquisite city's 300th anniversary.

Across from the platform, at which the St. Petersburg express was to arrive, stood a long train of mail carriages, what is known in Russia as a postal-baggage train. A small sign on one of the carriages announced that it was traveling from Yekaterinburg to St. Petersburg.

About fifteen minutes before the arrival of the train traveling in the opposite direction from St. Petersburg, I heard a dog barking loudly from the head of the Yekaterinburg train. As an avid dog lover I decided to go and see what was going on.

As I approached the scene of the commotion, I was shocked to see that I was about to witness an episode not of canine but of human life, if the word "human" can be applied to this occasion.

Across from the first carriage of the train behind the diesel locomotive stood two small trucks with big metal boxes in the back of the driver's cab, each with a tiny barred window.

Between the railway carriage and the trucks stood a dozen or so men in army fatigues clutching Kalashnikovs. One of the men just barely managed to restrain a German shepherd that was barking furiously and seemed keen to get a taste of human flesh.

Then a poorly dressed, emaciated man carrying a couple of plastic bags (probably his only possessions in this world) popped out of the carriage door and ran across to one of the trucks. He was urged on by cries of the guards "Double quick! Run!" and the barking of the savage dog.

The stream of prisoners seemed endless. Then the process was reversed, and the jailbirds from the other truck ran over to the train.

I came closer to the scene, although it was obviously dangerous. The guards eyed me suspiciously. And even a railway crew moving along the tracks stopped and waited for the transfer to be completed.

I felt extremely vulnerable; the only thing that separated me from those degraded human beings was the passport with a registration stamp in it. It was so easy for a police officer to demand my passport, then burn it before my eyes or throw it away, and there was not a thing in the world I could do. As a person without a document I could be thrown into prison and kept there as long as the police wanted to keep me. Yes, there are laws nominally protecting citizens from arbitrary police action, but they have little relation to life. In this country an individual is absolutely helpless against the police.

A huge bulk of a man in fatigue uniform, his foot on the steps of the railway car, stood and apparently supervised the process. When the men running from the truck to the carriage seemed to be moving too slowly, he would hit them from behind with all his might. It was a scene from a lousy Soviet film about the Gestapo.

Then a little boy of perhaps eleven jumped out with his bags, he was completely disoriented, and the dozen guards, heavily armed and wearing bulletproof vests, indicated the direction in which he was to run. What was this a scene from?

A few minutes later it was the turn of an old woman. She thrust her bags into the truck and then, pushed from behind by another guard, clambered inside.

Then an officer came out of the train carriage with some papers. Apparently these were the documents according to which prisoners were being routed to different places.

Finally, the guards shut the doors of the trucks, got into the drivers' cabs and into a Russian jeep, and the vehicles drove off.

I was left to think about the scene. I had just seen human beings who looked like pursued animals. The degree of their degradation was difficult to describe. Yet there were nearly a million of them in the country. The tremendous force brought to bear against the prisoners, however, showed that the authorities were afraid of these people, and I think I now know why.

The trucks had hardly left when the two carriages of the train from St. Petersburg arrived.

The Kostroma people who had been in St. Petersburg for the celebrations were unanimous on one point: At least for ordinary people the festivities were a disappointment. All the events seemed to have been designed exclusively for VIPs, and the center of St. Petersburg was filled with people roaming the streets and squares in search of something to look at. The regattas and parades were all too far away for the crowds to see. "I spent the week in St. Petersburg just as I always do when I visit the city," said one lady.

Well, if the visitors to St. Petersburg had gotten no close-ups of the celebrations, I had caught a close-up of grim life at the station in Kostroma that I was not likely to forget in a hurry.

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