The great story told by Slavomir Rawicz in the Longest Walk (although doubted by some) has been made into a movie, The Way Back, which got a so and so (rather good, really, but not spectacular) review in the New York Times (below). The beauty of the story is that it highlights how it was possible for 1/3 of humanity and almost as much of the the Earth landmass to became a gigantic prison. Size and distance matters, especially when you are locked up hundreds of miles from the closest train station.
This is a story that deserves to be told because it illustrates how the Soviet Gulag was a phenomenon of universal significance. In other words, it tells us an important story not only about Russians, but about us, humans. It is quite rare to see this type of perspective. The Communist experience is usually treated in the manner described in Edward Said’s book Orientalism, as something that happened to “those people” who eat borscht and potato stew. If Communism was a brutal regime, the cause was not some intrinsic flaw, but essential cultural, intellectual, or ethnic defects of the people who failed to apply it properly.
Speaking of universal experiences and great Gulag escapes. A book of the same caliber and a story as moving as Rawicz’s is Jacques Sandulescu’s Donbas. A mere 16 old when he was forcibly deported to Russia simply for being half-German (he was born in my hometown, Brasov, an old Saxon town of Transylvania), he escaped in 1947 from a forced labor camp in the deep steppes of Ukraine. He stowed away hidden in the coal transported by Russian trains bound for Poland and Eastern Germany. He finally got to Germany and later emigrated to the United States to have a full and exciting life in New York City. Among other things, he was bar owner in the Village and a karate “sensei.” He even played small parts in several movies.
NYT Review: “The Way Back,” a heroically minded survival story from Peter Weir, tells the possibly true tale of a group of prisoners who
fled a Soviet gulag in 1940 and walked, wandered and all but crawled to freedom. For months a veritable league of national types, united by desperation and the English language, push through the cold and the heat, slipping through forests and across mountains and deserts. Surviving on moldering provisions and precious scraps of protein, dodging predators, two-legged and four-, the travelers embody a besieged humanity that might have been more stirring if their torment were in a rather less exquisite frame.
Map of general area of Irkutsk camps