Chersky, a remote corner of the Siberian Arctic.
A place to which only one road goes: Kolyma, the river,
a vein of life and death, frozen 7 meters deep in winter,
carrying enormous barges like toys on its obscure oceanic waves in the brief summers.
A town built on the blood and bones of Gulag prisoners, more than 80 years ago.
A town that gets swallowed by the Arctic night for many long months each year.
A closed town, cut off from the world.
A town in Soviet times, booming and bustling with life, science, art,
the spirit of exploration and of new beginnings.
A town where only the stubborn, the crazy, the strong and the lonely survive.
Each year, fewer and fewer of them.
A town that still harbors warmth, colors and art in its steadfast recesses of life.
A town where people live in waiting.
Chersky, the town where I once left my teenage heart.
In Russia, the area above the Arctic circle is called simply, Sever. In English, 'to sever' means to divide by cutting or slicing, esp. suddenly and forcibly; put an end to; break off. 'Severe' means 1.(of something bad or undesirable) very great; intense. 2 strict or harsh
The small fading settlement of Chersky is all that. Located close to Russia’s northern and easter borders, and to the USA, it is still a closed zone, only accessible to those holding a special permit. Getting there-and out-is prohibitively expensive, and only possible by way of small old airplanes, AH-24s, long out of production.
Chersky was once a wealthy booming town, a pride of the Soviet economy system, a symbol of communist success, a home to zealous youth, eager respondents to the government’s call to conquer the extreme North East frontier of the USSR, a springboard of many Soviet and international North Pole expeditions, a training ground of a generation of remarkable polar pilots, a playing field of geoscientists, biologists and paleontologists, who were digging up prehistoric creatures perfectly preserved by the permafrost, a treasure throve of diamonds and gold, the pride of Soviet gold mining industry, a subject of songs, books and paintings…
Perhaps, the town I lived in as a teenager during Soviet times was never supposed to exist. Nizhnije Kresty - as Chersky was originally called - was built on blood and bones of Soviet forced labor camp prisoners, exiled as far as the vast land would allow, between 1920-50’s, to a place of no roads and no return.
Today, more than half a century after the last of the GULAG camps was dismantled, life there continues. The population of Chersky has dwindled, the buildings and streets stand in disrepair. It is still a closed town, cut off from the rest of the world, accessible only by air and by ice roads. My friend Lyudmila, a native Cherchanka, said to me: “Nobody knows we are here. The world doesn’t know we exist”.