THE MEN CAME for us in the dead of night. A wind was blowing in from the Sea of Azov and our tents must have looked like great beasts huddled together against the cold. By then we were living beside the burial pit, where we expected to spend the next day brushing dust from the bones of horses. Semyon was pissing into the grass when he saw the guns. He made no sound. Nothing could have saved us.
Sometimes I wonder what it was like for the men who arrested us. They were drunk: you could smell it on their breaths. A few storm lanterns burned between our tents, giving just enough light for them to see the exhumed drinking cups cut from human skulls. Perhaps they viewed us with fear as the avatars of ancient shamans stooped over the remains of a sacrifice. But they were too habituated to relent. Even before their leader spoke, I felt myself age a thousand years.
One of my staff died in the prison where they crammed us forty to a cell designed for twelve. Anton Maximovich – who had come top of his year at the institute, who could recite Pushkin and Goethe and Shakespeare – was crushed against the bars. Semyon made it through to the cattle-trucks and we looked out for each other, for prisoners could be as savage as the guards and the urkas slept with murder in their fists.
‘I can’t understand it,’ Semyon said when our train had stalled for a week in the taiga. ‘We were doing good work – the institute’s work. What changed while we were away?’
I have long ceased asking myself why. The man who seeks an answer to that question – an answer that makes any sense – soon finds himself eating shit with the goners. Best to accept it as you must the weather. In the early days, however, I still believed in reasons. What we had unearthed confirmed Herodotus on the Scythians: they did, indeed, make human sacrifices, which they buried among concentric rings of slaughtered horses. Civilised Russia, this seemed to confirm, had emerged from the barbarism and class inertia of nomads. I did not tell Semyon that he had made the mistake which doomed us. For in that same excavation we found shards of Greek pottery, Florentine marble, Persian jewels: confounding evidence of a cultural sophistication that could not please the Party. Semyon had written to the institute about it; he had even sent an article to the newspapers.
In our second year among the goldmines of Kolyma, Semyon must have understood all this; or else he did not mean to insult the man who tore out his throat.
Every one of my colleagues is dead and I remain – the ruin of our fellowship. Nor will I last long, for every day the blood tide rises in my chest, displacing all hope of breath.
I think about the Crimea. I am a city boy from the forested north: when I first went to the Black Sea, the steppe disturbed me. I long for it now, as I meditate on that burial pit.
We had no doubt that it marked an atrocity. We could not read the bones, only conjecture what suffering they attested to. Lying here, toothless, I wonder what archaeologists will make of these posts, these shacks and mine shafts, when in the future they come to exhume us.
© Copyright Gregory Norminton 2011.