TriQuarterly has just published my essay/memoir on visiting the Gulag region of Kolyma with Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, along with a ex-cop who claimed he won a wife in a card game. Here’s an excerpt:
1. The Mask of Sorrow
From a hilltop above the North Pacific seaport of Magadan, Russia, The Mask of Sorrow—a 50-foot monument that resembles an Easter Island head—overlooks the city. You keep glimpsing this concrete memorial from afar as you move about town, passing Stalin-era buildings downtown, skirting abandoned construction sites, puzzling over the sight of two fighter jets perched on a huge steel structure over a creek, as if they had snagged themselves while flying under the radar. The giant face, by the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, is pocked on one side with lesions that resemble the “lion’s mask” of leprosy described by the Gulag author Varlam Shalamov. One of its eyes discharges blobby tears.
The monument honors the victims of the Kolyma Gulag camps, once centered here in Magadan. In Stalinist times, these people—millions, perhaps—were worked to death felling timber or frozen in punishment cells or simply called from their barracks and shot to meet the day’s quota of executions. Certain citizens of Magadan are proud of the monument: camp survivors, their children, people of conscience who preserved the memory of Soviet crimes. Few cities in Russia have ever created such a prominent memorial, and the organizers in Magadan had to overcome a hostile rear guard that asserted the past was a long time ago and never really happened anyway. Now, the organizers longed for the approval of a guest they were showing around town: a Chinese American human rights activist named Harry Wu.
But to his hosts’ surprise, Wu seemed dissatisfied. Wearing an elastic scowl and glasses that magnified his mournful eyes, he marched around with his hands clasped behind his back, in the manner of Chinese prisoners. One of his hosts, Miron Etlis, was a psychiatrist and Gulag survivor with a beard that had slipped down his throat like a muffler. He kept grabbing Wu by the elbow, as if to drag a word of praise out of him. But Wu told his hosts to pack up the monument and truck it down to the city center.
“You have to remove all the Lenin and Stalin statues and put up Gulag monuments,” Wu said, jabbing a finger at his hosts. “That’s the only way to keep it from coming back.”