MAGADAN, Russia (Reuters) - Yelena Zyuzka still doesn’t understand why she was exiled to Magadan, but 62 years later she would happily share the enormous cake baked to celebrate the city’s birthday.
The cream-filled slices were served up for the crowds that gathered in July to watch street performers, open-air concerts and a midnight firework display to mark the 70th year of Magadan, a city in Russia’s Far East that was gateway to the most feared Gulags set up by Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
Too frail to walk on her own to the street party, the 85-year old shows cupboards stacked with biscuits, meat and vegetables. She is one of the few remaining survivors who chose to remain after the Gulags closed.
There was certainly no celebration by the first wave of settlers.
“Oh! How my mother cried when they came,” said Zyuzka of the day when, aged 23 and living in Ukraine, she was taken to serve her sentence of 10 years’ exile.
Stalin needed labor to unearth the abundant gold reserves in this region more than 6,000 km (3,750 miles) northeast of Moscow. For two decades, he sent hundreds of thousands of prisoners to his most feared Gulags.
Magadan today exists on its gold mines, fishing and trade in the goods that arrive across the Sea of Okhotsk from ports further south. Most of the cars on its sloping streets are made in Japan.
The spare room of the apartment where Zyuzka has lived since 1961 is decorated with wallpaper depicting Dumbo, Disney’s flying elephant, just in case her great-grandson comes back to stay. Only three, he now lives on the Pacific island of Sakhalin.
“Age doesn’t bring any joy,” she said. “Before, I could feed myself on my pension and set a little aside. Now, everything — food, medicine — is so expensive.”
About 800,000 people are estimated to have passed through the camps of Magadan between 1932 — seven years before the city was officially founded — and the mid-1950s.
Between 120,000 and 130,000 are thought to have died, said Vera Smirnova, director of the Vadim Kozin museum, named after a singer exiled to Magadan — reputedly because he once said songs about Stalin were not suited for his tenor voice.
They all worked for Dalstroi, the organization set up by the Soviet NKVD — forerunner of the KGB — to build the gold mines and associated infrastructure in the region named Kolyma after a river that runs north to the Arctic.
Zyuzka, the youngest of seven children, left her family behind in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk in 1947. She still speaks with a Ukrainian accent.
Crammed into a train with other women, she crossed almost the entire breadth of the Soviet Union, reaching Magadan by boat from the far eastern port of Nakhodka. She says she wasn’t a criminal — her exile was just a sign of the times.
“I worked in a greenhouse, where we grew food. Other women worked on building sites or in the fish factory. Of course, they didn’t pay us a penny,” she says.
The men had it worse, though. Tens of thousands died digging the road through the mosquito-ridden forests to reach the gold deposits inland. The route is now known as the Road of Bones.
“Out on the road, it was terrible. The conditions were very bad,” Zyuzka said.
“How many people must have died, and for what?”
Zyuzka lives on around 12,000 roubles ($386.2) a month. Her pension is supplemented by her daughter in Sakhalin.
From the window of her apartment, it’s possible to pick out a grey statue on the hillside above Magadan. New York-based Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny completed the Mask of Sorrow monument to the Gulag prisoners in 1996. A faceless, weeping figure shelters in the back of its concrete hulk.
It was from here that prisoners left for the Road of Bones. A crumbling brick building is all that remains of the original camp, but a Gulag cell is recreated inside the monument. Battered boots and pickaxe handles lie in a heap on the floor, covered with barbed wire and withered roses.
Conditions were toughest for the intelligentsia, museum director Smirnova said. The criminals were not perceived as a threat to the state.
Zyuzka says she was neither a criminal nor a threat. Yet she decided to stay in Magadan when her forced exile was ended in 1955, the collapse of the Gulag system cutting two years from her original sentence.
“There was nobody left — my mother had died, my brothers had died.”
She flicked through a photograph album.
“Besides, I had a golden husband. Five years he waited for me.”
Alexei, originally from Krasnodar in southern Russia, was released earlier than his sweetheart but decided to stay on in Magadan. He died in 1964, though his face still looks out from a commemorative plate on the cluttered sideboard.
Zyuzka has seen the last of Ukraine.
“I wouldn’t go there now,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t even walk to the shops without my stick. Besides, I’d need a passport.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith