Thursday, August 26, 2010

On the Prison Highway

by Ian Frazier

Since I was little, I've found myself drawn to abandoned places.  It's hard for me to drive past run-down and empty houses on the highway, without wanting to explore.  I would love to go to a place like Detroit, just to climb through some of the buildings there, except fear for my safety keeps me from doing it.  As a teen, my friends and I frequently explored a closed brickworks and quarry (since revitalized as a farmer's market and green-living experiment).

So, there's a lot I can relate to in Ian Frazier's latest article on his journeys in Siberia (there was a two-part article published about a year ago), this time specifically hunting for abandoned lagers, or what we would refer to in the West as Gulags.

He does come across one, and his descriptions of it are lovely, sad, and very evocative of a horrible period of Russian history.  He follows his experience with a description of the growing popularity or nostalgia for Stalin among modern Russians, a strange phenomenon.

What I think attracts me to the idea of traveling through sites like the one he found, is that they are not sanitized through the act of historical interpretation.  He imagines the site turned into a museum, but I feel like that would cause me to lose all interest in it.  I have no desire to visit a place like Auschwitz, Choeung Ek, or that church in Rwanda with all the skulls, as they have been put on display, no matter how much they were also left in their original state.  But to wander through an abandoned lager, covered in snow, and with no one around, one would feel the weight of the history of the place in a much more visceral way.  I envy Frazier the experience.

Apparently, he has a book being released soon about these trips.  I should probably check that out.

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