Perhaps I’ve been missing references to this book and gulags for years, but now I see them everywhere. The night after I finished this book, I laughed uproariously to find this book (and its movie) being referenced in the new Muppets movie. I think I was the only person in the theater who got the joke when the actress that played Christina in the movie started doing ballet against scene cuts of Muppets treacherously traversing snowy mountains and hot deserts to get to Kermit the Frog in his Siberian gulag. Or maybe I’m the last person to have seen the movie and read the book and the pop culture aspect of it is old news.
I remember my International Relations professor referencing [a:Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn|10420|Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1204127475p2/10420.jpg] and his writings about the Russian gulags (Russian forced labor prison camps), but it was only a vague reference without much background. Somehow I missed that Stalin began placing people in gulags in 1930 and had already imprisoned 1.5 million inmates in gulags by the beginning of World War II with numbers rising as high as 2.5 million inmates in the 1950s. The majority of these camps were located in Siberia. And it’s the journey to and the escape from one of these Siberian gulags to India (by way of the Gobi Desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas) that is the subject of this book.
The history of this book is a convoluted one. The tale within the book occurs from 1941-1942 and was originally ghost written for the author in 1955. A few years ago, it came out that it was impossible for this to have been the true story of the author since he was released from the gulag in 1942 to a refugee camp in Iran rather than escaping to India in 1941. Another man, Witold Gliński, then claimed that the story was true, but that it had happened to him instead.
Regardless of what is true and what is not, it’s a fascinating story of survival and perseverance. The movie and book became instant favorites of mine. I think that, more than anything, I was amazed that the U.S. allied with Russia in World War II when Stalin was very much still reigning terror down upon those whom he saw as a threat to his rule and spread of communism. It was a selfish alliance in some ways, but a wise alliance in others. But what was happening in Russia during World War II (and afterward) isn’t depicted in movies and literature nearly as much as the horrors of Hitler. In toll of lives, Stalin was directly or indirectly responsible for far more than Hitler. Still, I suppose it could have been worse.
I watched the movie version of this book (“The Way Back”) first, and it left out the horrifying fact that a large part of the journey of Russia’s political prisoners to Siberia was done on foot. Prisoners were chained together poorly dressed for the cold weather and made to walk 1000 miles or more with only bread and water to sustain them. Many died along the way. One thing that struck me in the book was the author’s observation that a decade in age made a huge difference in how well a man was able to endure and survive the journey and the work expected up them upon arrival. I suppose that if you’ve already endured and survived a 1000-mile trek, you’re more apt to think that a 4000-mile escape route from Siberia to India might not be impossible.
Once the prisoners escaped into the wilderness, I found it odd that they never found a way of carrying water with them. They could have hollowed out a tree trunk, used the bladder of the deer they killed, rummaged in the garbage of villages they passed for some sort of vessel, etc. But they never had more than a mug between them for cooking or carrying water. At the point that they realized they were wandering into a desert, surely they would have realized their need for a way to carry water. It’s amazing how often they went forward on their journey with simply the hope that they’d eventually encounter food and water if they kept going. I suppose that you do what you have to do. I’m still amazed that more of them didn’t die in the desert with only the occasional mud puddle and snake to sustain them. And I’m amazed, too, that they managed to get to India without a map. I’m thinking about how difficult it would be for me to attempt a similarly lengthy journey from here to Alaska on foot with nothing but a general directional idea and no map. Christopher McCandless’ version of that journey was harsh enough in [b:Into the Wild|1845|Into the Wild|Jon Krakauer|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1388176313s/1845.jpg|3284484]. Luckily, poor peasants are far more accepting of a ragamuffin group of travelers than your average city dweller. If you saw a band of half-starved dirty travelers walking down your street, you'd be more likely to lock your doors than kill a lamb to feed them.
Whether this story was completely, partially, or not at non-fiction, it still stands as a grand tale. I highly recommend it to those interested in history and tales of survival.