Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Daily Bread

July 29th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Last night’s long subway ride afforded us an opportunity to start reading Ian Frazier’s Siberia travelogue in the latest New Yorker. So far, it’s every bit as astounding as we’d hoped—the long digression about Siberian butter, in particular, made our inner magazine geek nearly burst with glee. What can we say, we’re absolute suckers for Frazier’s brand of narrative non-fiction—and, of course, jealous of his gig. What Microkhan wouldn’t give to be dispatched to the frostiest reaches of the globe, and instructed not to come back until we had 20,000 words worth of killer material.

The surest sign of Frazier’s achievement, though, is the fact we spent much of the morning following up on one of his asides—namely, a brief comment that conditions at the Kolyma gold mines had arguably been the worst in human history. We couldn’t let a claim like that just dangle in the wind, so we’ve been busily reading up on Soviet forced labor while getting caffeinated for the day. We’ve been particularly absorbed in the site for The Gulag Museum at Perm-36, which bills itself as “the only Russian museum for the history of political repression.” Then there’s this online exhibit, from which the photo above is taken—that’s how much bread a gulag inmate received each day, assuming he or she had fulfilled their work quota.

If you’re a truly robust soul, also check out this account of female suffering in the gulag system. The color illustrations by former inmate Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia will stick with you for a long, long time.


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    The Gulag/Great Terror is one of the most fascinating, if depraved, things to study. I just completed Antony Beevor’s “The Fall of Berlin,” and I wonder how, after all the purges in the 30’s, the Red Army was able to function much less be a very effective (if crude) force that probably performed 70 percent of the fighting in Europe.

    The uncertainty of the Great Terror, must have been the worst. You could be denounced by a personal enemy or someone looking to save his or her own skin. In turn, the NKVD goons had their day when they would be purged. No one was safe. You had “objective enemies,” – who were guilty as a class; “saboteurs” – essentially fall guys for industrial failure, and anyone associated with a clique that was no longer in favor.

    The State cannibalized itself in a few short years. How it managed to re-construct itself while facing the Nazi onslaught is a mystery to me.

  • Brian

    If you’ve not read Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag: A History” you must do so. It’s exhaustive and absorbing. It’s like a 500-plus page Perm-36 museum.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Brian: Thanks for the rec. I thought of that book while writing this post. Def. need to add it to the to-read pile–though, to be honest, I expect to find the non-stop suffering a turn off. Could be a slog, but sometimes the best books are.

    @scottstev: Yeah, I’m pretty sure Stalinist Russia would’ve made Kafka nod his head and go, “Yep, that’s exactly what I meant.”