This week, CWC member, Margaret Barnes takes us across many miles and back more than 100 years, to a particularly harsh time in Russian history.
“The coast of East Russia is so remote I could almost believe the world was flat. The sea and sky merge into one another and the only sound is that of the waves and thousands of birds. In our overcrowded world there are few signs of habitation. But it wasn’t always like that. This is as far away from European Russia as you can get and when Russia acquired Sakhalin Island in 1845 they quickly began to use it as a penal colony. Prisoners, both criminal and political, men and women, made the journey on foot, crossing the Urals and then making their way across the central steppes. It took three years in the wet and cold of the Russian winter and the heat of its summers. There was no going back even when they were released.
There are literary connections even here. In 1889, soon after he was diagnosed as suffering from TB, Chekov went to see the prisons on Sakhalin for himself. It took him three months to get there. Some of his short stories are based on the experiences he had there, such as Ward No 6. He was horrified by what he saw and did what he could for the children born to prisoners and to the soldiers who acted as warders. He established libraries in the schools, donating over two thousand books.
He also wrote about the conditions of the prisoners and his journalism shocked the establishment in Moscow resulting in the authorities ceasing to send prisoners to the island. The reports are published in a book called Sakhalin Island.
I saw the remains of one of the women’s prisons set in a desolate bay by a small lake. The seagulls wheeled overhead round the remains of a lighthouse. An active volcano sent smoke into a dull grey sky. It was hard to imagine anyone had ever lived there.”