Posts tagged Ronald Downing

Unwritten Places (Part II)

I’m simultaneously reading the very well written book titled “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz which was published in 1956. The real author (in English) of this great story is Ronald Downing, but the Polish army officer, who showed true grit by surviving lengthy interrogations and brutal torture, is Rawicz who walked 4,000  miles to freedom in the early 1940s from a Siberian gulag.  I’ll blog more about this book when I am finished.

For now, I still can’t get over how an index of a book would ignore the place names in Kazakhstan in the other book I’m reading “Till My Tale is Told.”  The name of this book was taken from a poem I found in Afterword. Notice the word “ghastly” was left out of the title.” Perhaps no one would read a book that was that forbidding. Indeed, it is a painful book to read through from 16 women’s perspectives.

“Since then, at an uncertain hour

That agony returns

And till my ghastly tale is told

This heart within me burns.”

Preface to Russian edition “It seemed as if the monstrous Stalinist regime had given birth to a new type of human being, writes Vera Shulz, in her memoirs, “a submissive, inert creature, mute and devoid of initiative…”

I believe what Vera writes is the continuation of a the “slave mentality” that exists today in Kazakhstan, (i.e. bride kidnapping, human trafficking).  However, the old Soviet laws which the women “politicals” were found guilty of that I found in the index of the Vilensky book are telling.  Also, I think it is an interesting quote by Tolstoy that perhaps still holds true today in contemporary Central Asia.

Tolstoy “Russian laws are tolerable only because everybody breaks them; if not one broke them, they would be unbearable.”

Article 7 – measures in public interest

7:35 – socially dangerous elements

35 – specifying public interest measures

58:8 – terrorism

58:10 – subversion – discrediting a Soviet court

58:12 – failure to denounce

70 – Criminal Code

One more quote that refers directly to these unwritten places in the index but are very much in the contents of this book.

p. 164 – “More than a year passed, and I was living in exile in Kazakhstan on the shores of the Aral Sea, working in a local school teaching Russian to little Kazakhs. The town of Aralsk, if this collection of straw and clay huts spread out under the blazing sun could be called a town, drowned in the arid sandy wastelands around the Aral, and I felt completely homesick for the green of central Russia, blinking back the tears when ever goods trucks passed by loaded with Russian birch logs.” By Vera Shulz (this was written @ 1938)

I can only hope that if Indiana University Press plans to have a second edition of “Till My Tale is Told” they should go through and find the places in Kazakhstan that are “unwritten places” which are not found in the index but in the womens’ tales.

Leave a comment »

“The Way Back” or “The Long Walk” of 4,000 miles out of Siberia’s prison

Last night we watched “The Way Back” starring Ed Harris and a superb cast of actors (including one 16 year old girl). The movie is based on a true story of an original group of 7-8 men who walked away from an Siberian prison camp in 1941.  My husband, as a young boy, had read the book that was first published in 1955 titled “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” written by Ronald Downing.  That alone clinched our decision to experience this epic journey through cold, mountain passes and thirsty, Mongolian deserts. My husband wanted to see how close the movie fit to his recollection of reading this book 45-50 years ago.

Interestingly enough, Ronald Downing had started his own quest in Tibet of the legendary abominable snowman. However, he instead started gathering information about a Polish man, Slavomir Rawicz, who had walked across eastern Siberia to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, through China, Tibet and the Himalayans to finally gain his freedom in India. That was more compelling to write about than a snowman.

No doubt the film’s director Peter Weir had some parts of Downing’s book “Hollywood-ized”  However, the main meaning comes across in the special features after the movie.  That is, the inhumanity present in 100s of concentration camps throughout the Soviet Union is little known by people from the West.  I’m guessing for every 100 movies about Nazi atrocities in concentration camps, you have one movie about what Stalin did to his own people of the U.S.S.R. with the Siberian gulags. (That would also include Kazakhstan’s KARLAG system too)

The Soviet system was extremely brutal to their political prisoners who were imprisoned alongside REAL criminals of thieves and murderers.  There is one character, Valka, in this story who owned a knife, he called it “the wolf.” He also had tatooed on his chest the faces of Lenin and Stalin.  Though he believed in communism, he actually helped the other “politicals” survive in the wilds with the use of his knife. Yet he turned back once they got to the Trans-Siberian railway which they thought was the end of the Soviet Union and walking into freedom…sadly Mongolia had been taken over by USSR and so their trek to freedom continued.

The movie skipped over the Himalayans since the over two hour long movie had already shown its audience enough of the bitter cold of Siberia and reaching Lake Baikal and then the dry desert scenes. Also, I don’t think the actors or camera and production crews could fathom doing more marathon type survivalist living in the mountains.

The real hero of this story (played by Jim Sturgess) in both the movie and the book was Slavomir Rawicz, this Polish army officer who had been captured by the Red Army and accused of being a Nazi. His wife had been tortured to create a false testimony against him and Slavomir was summarily imprisoned by the Communists out to Siberia. He successfully trekked 4,000 miles after escaping from a Siberian prisoner of war camp. He survived the ordeal which lasted about a year because he knew how to live in the outdoors and survive on nature’s food and water.  He was accused by the Ed Harris character, known only as “Mr. Smith” of not being able to survive in the prisoner’s camp because he was too kind and helped other prisoners.  Perhaps his kindness and knowledge of how to survive is what eventually prevailed and got the two other men out alive with him.

Apparently, the older American, dubbed “Mr. Smith” had earlier watched his 17 year old son die at the mercy of communists then he was sent to the gulag and once “free” went on the Lhasa, Tibet. We don’t know if he survived once he parted ways with Slavomir and the others.  Also, I’m not sure if the movie ended accurately which showed how Slavomir had waited until Poland was free from the bonds of communist oppression to see his wife again after being separated for almost 50 years.  I would like to get a copy of the old book titled “The Long Walk” to read what my husband had read 50 years ago.  Such a remarkable story had a great impact on him.  The movie may have a profound impact on many other westerners as well.

Why don’t more people in the West know about the gulag system that happened throughout Russia and Kazakhstan?  Little is written because few people survived the cruel brutalities!  I would highly recommend watching this movie “The Way Back.”

Comments (10) »