First published in 1956, The Long Walk is made for controversy. Allegedly, Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish cavalry officer, was arrested by the NKVD (predecessor organization of the KGB), accused of espionage and violence against the Soviet State, and other vaguely worded crimes, and eventually sent to Camp 303 in eastern Siberia beyond Lake Baikal. Since Rawicz died in 2004, various evidence has turned up in former Soviet archives, disproving Rawicz’s take on things. It remains the case that the Soviet Union had thirty years between the book’s publication and its own collapse to fix its own archives, and they certainly edited their own history to suit their needs over the same period, particularly as concerning the KGB and the leadership of its first few great leaders.
None of that matters, really. Rawicz tells a gripping tale, beginning in the bowels of the Lubyanka Prison, once the headquarters of the NKVD and KGB, and still by all accounts a slice of life in Hell — an unheated prison in Moscow with a modern reputation for tuberculosis and AIDS. The tale continues with a hellish ride on a train across Russia in the winter of 1940, followed by a walk through the blizzards of early January into the deepest parts of eastern Siberia. Each night, the train pulls another few hundred miles east, and the men inside rotate from the coldest spotsalong the cattle car’s walls to the warmer spots in the middle of the mass of men. At last, their numbers reduced by 15-20%, Rawicz’s convoy of prisoners — mostly Eastern Europeans who are all prisoners of war (though treated the way we treat ‘enemy combatants’) yet with a few Russian convicts in the midst.
Rawicz explains the process of life in the Gulag, with enough verisimilitude to invite comparisons with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. First the prisoners build their own huts, and then the work on extracting the wealth of Siberia on 400 grams of bread and some turnip ‘soup’ each day. Rawicz gains an added allotment of food by working in the camp’s ski shop, and eventually receives help from the camp commandant’s wife, who arranges to slip him food and some equipment — on condition that the escape embarrass the political commissar, and not her husband. They depart in April, when her husband flies to an Army conference in Yatkutsk
The tale then focuses on his escape. With seven others, Rawicz makes a daring night escape in early April of 1941, plunging south away from Siberia, towards India. Along the way, their numbers are increased and reduced according to strange circumstances, which form the essence of the book’s message — that people will do anything and everything for freedom.
What captured my attention at the start of the book was how easy the Soviet government imprisoned Rawicz, and with what casual disregard for human life. A prisoner has some human dignity, certainly, but Rawicz is treated with the same indignity that we inflict on our ‘enemy combatants.’ The descriptions of how clothes, food, cigarettes, and decent words are used as rewards — and waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and constant interrogation are used as disciplines — brings to mind the current alleged abuses at Abu Graib, secret CIA prisons, and Guantanamo. One is reminded of Mikhail Gorbachev’s warning to Ronald Reagan, “Be careful. We are about to deprive you of an enemy.”
The prison train travels across the Russian countryside in secret, moving by night, and holing up on an out-of-the-way railroad siding at night. Here is Elie Wiesel’s Night journey on the railroads packed with Jews and other undesirables, headed for Auschwitz, the lines dividing women from men, and children and elderly from hale adults, packed in a half-chapter of horror, across the snows of Russia, across the Ural Mountains, to the shores of Lake Baikal. There is a strong sense of the disapproval of the common people, their outrage to see people shipped around like cattle — like worse than cattle, surely you would not pack cattle in so tightly — so deprived of food and clothing and decency. The journey continued.
The escape is mind-numbing in its relentless progress from Siberia in April to January in India. Through snow-pack, across the Gobi, in search of the holy city of Lhasa, seeking paths over the Himalayas. The story makes the preposterous seem ordinary in extraordinary ways. One of the ways the book grabbed my attention was through the semi-constant itemization of the crew’s tool list. Every object and tool they have is unique, and labeled with the definite article, “the”. As one man lacks teeth, he is forced to use the knife — one between eight — to cut and chew his food before he tries to eat it.
The first book I read on this little vacation of mine, Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi, took most of the week to plough through. This one took less than 24 hours. I found myself carrying it room to room, bathroom to bedroom to kitchen, in order to prolong the amount of time I read it before turning to some other task. The achievement of writing it seems every bit as extraordinary as the journey itself.
It is one of those stories that, whether or not they are true, they ought to be. I’m pleased to have read it.