I prayed every day in Siberia. For seven years, six months, and five days I prayed with fervor. Time was painful. Not an hour or even a second escaped me.
I prayed for death. “Father, take me. Please.” That prayer was all I had, the prayer and the faith that He would answer. Someday. I just didn’t know when.
Salvation finally came, not as the Reaper, but as a box car. Never would I have imagined that both the road to hell and heaven sat on the same rails. Salvation was cold, dark, and empty; but boarding gave me purpose. There was no fight, no resistance. Many others boarded with me, yet I felt alone with my satisfaction to be moving away from this place of the forgotten.
The box car rolled slowly, and rocked back and forth. It was rhythmic, and melodic; an enchantment that brought comfort to some of the others, enough to even talk, “To the front.” One man said. Another, “Kill the German.” “Stalin’s City.” To Stalingrad I thought maybe, but I didn’t know. I hoped it meant death. That thought comforted me. I smiled for the first and only time I was here.
I boarded with many comrades, but they were dead before they even boarded. It was in their eyes. They had given up. Many expired on the way, some right where they stood. They reminded me of the marble statues in St. Petersburg. It was so long ago. I remember onlookers gazing in amazement at those lifeless statues of stone. Their infatuation gave them life, they seemed real. These men had no one to see them. Nobody to give them life, but now they were at peace. They looked happy; I wanted to join them. I envied the statues of men immortalized. I knew then no one cares about us. We are forgotten. There will be no statues.
And so the train continued. Day and night, night and day. The train did its job. It has no memory, only purpose. All I could do was breathe and pray. My recollections of the journey were vague except for the smell. The only way I knew I was alive was the smell: urine, blood, feces. A dehumanizing, vile and repugnant odor. The sense of smell is the last to go. Before death it is most keen. You can smell death. Numbness dulls the other senses. It dulls the knife’s edge of awareness, but that one sense in particular remains aware when your body fights. It is part of breathing, surviving.
I could think about those types of breaths. No matter how hard I tried I could not turn them off. I tried. I wanted to fade, though my body wouldn’t let go. Those breaths are so deep, so pure. My whole body convulsed as it fights to survive.
The train rolled on and on and on. Days or only hours, I didn’t know, nor did I care. I travelled in and out of consciousness. Hallucinations, mirages, and memories of my life played like a movie through the cracks in the side of the car as the sun would pierce the cage.
As light moved slowly across the floor, I could see all my days on the back drop of the darkness. Their realness appeared so clear. Crisp and sharp in detail, but I could not hear their voices. I could see them in conversation; at play and in joy, their emotive expressions made these memories feel real. But they weren’t. There was no sound in my mind. What truly hurts is not being able to remember what they sound like. It was blank, had I forgotten? Tasha. Anatoli. Giorgi. My family.
This is when I knew it was over. Nothing more. Nothing remained of my memories. I was blank. Nothing left. Death had come. The blackness had finally overtaken me. Yet, strangely I could now hear. There were no images. Only the sound of pain. The sound of my son’s agony as I was ripped away from my family. The secret police said I was guilty. My crime? A Bible. I was in possession of “подрывные материалы” (subversive materials). The state prohibited it. Stalin’s purge convulsed and vomited out all faith in anything but the state, including me.
To the state, I had never existed. A criminal now, I was sent to a gulag somewhere in Siberia knowing they burn your property, dissolve your family, edit you from history. Erased. I don’t know where my family is now. I’ve heard convicts talk about what they do to those who aid and abed criminals. I pray for them. Not that they made it, or survived. I pray for death for them, an escape to freedom so that our souls might meet again. Somewhere, someday; just not in this world.
The train slowed. When the first domino fell in front, we shuttered and came to a stop. The door slid open, and a man with a helmet and rifle peered in. He was big, strong, and well fed.
“Come!” He yelled into the blackness and motioned at those who remained to the door. It was only me, one solitary skeleton. Malnourished. Scared. Nothing to give anyone. Nothing to stay alive for.
He helped me down as the sun warmed my face. I hadn’t felt the sun since our departure. Blood pulsed throughout my body. I could see silhouettes. I could hear commotion all around. I could feel and taste the winter air. I could still smell death, but something else too. Life?
Around were hundreds, thousands just like me, convicts, ghosts. Hardly human at all as we were herded together like cattle led to slaughter. A slaughter for which I could only hope. Hope no longer springs eternal, it’s just a word now. No meaning. It died long ago.
Then something peculiar happened. We were ushered into makeshift camp, given tents, hot water, and porridge. Clothes, and a bed roll. They gave us heaven, but also confusion. Did they want us to live or die?
Several days passed. I felt human again, but around me there was no humanity. Animals, that’s all we were to them. A guard yelled, “внимание(attention)!” A short, stocky, well-dressed man in his uniform followed behind. I could tell by the insignias and charms that he was someone important.
“The Motherland calls you, and you will answer her call.” Nobody knows anything, what does he mean? What is he talking about? The Motherland deserted us. Left us behind, abandoned and betrayed. There is no Motherland.
“Операция Uranus (Operation Uranus), you will lead the charge. If you survive, you will have your freedom. If you die, you will have your freedom. That is all.” Smoke from his cigar engulfed his face, and he disappeared.
The guard released his salute, turned and finished, “You are Runners. Tomorrow you run. Get your rest, you’ll need it.” What did he mean? I can hardly stand. Run? How? To where?
There were no answers, only a nervous commotion among the stone faced. It was an emotive silence, a general uneasiness that filled the air. You could not see it, most maybe didn’t even recognize it, I did, it was fear. Like hope, I thought fear was dead. With no hope, there is no fear. For the first time, I was scared, but now hope had a heartbeat.
I began to wonder if I was I the only one. Despair filled the shells of the men around me as I began to feel my humanity again. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized who the uniformed man was. It was General Zhukov.
I could not see far, but the blackness was moving. I just followed as the soldiers led us. We boarded small boats in the early morning to cross the Volga. It was black; there was no moon, no light, just fear. Nor was there talking, just thoughts. What is a runner? Why are we running? Questions begat more questions.
I felt a purpose to what was going on around as we floated across. We were going somewhere; hope beat once more. So, I did what I was told, as did the others. Many pushed ice away. Some rowed. Many boats capsized and were lost. Comrades drown; and those without something to do froze. I had to push a frozen man overboard. I didn’t know him. Someone did, somewhere. Now he’s gone. Forgotten.
My craft was not the first to the other side, as boats were strewn up and down the beach. Thousands stood shivering on the shore dying a slow death. Those who didn’t freeze where they stood, like me and many others, moved as the soldiers stuck bayonets in us prodding us along in utter silence. I didn’t know where or what to. I just did without any consciousness of thought. I was mechanical and numb.
In the clearing were trucks, vehicles of all kinds, including tanks. I had never seen a tank. They rumbled and groaned, beasts waiting to feed. They were hungry. There were drivers and soldiers in each one, waiting, staring at us as we walked by. They didn’t talk. It was somber. They knew what we didn’t. I made eye contact with one; he nodded out of respect, out of honor, out of dignity. I felt it in my soul. Human dignity was still alive.
We were lined up in front of the tanks, like real soldiers forming rank ready for inspection. Shoulder to shoulder we stood. I didn’t know the men next to me, but I saw a look, a momentary glance, a reverence in their eyes. We knew, but we didn’t know. Far off we heard, “беr(run)!” Soldiers behind us struck us with their bayonets, or hammered us with butts of their rifles. “Run! Go! You are free!”
It started with one, far down the line. Slowly up and down the line others ran too. An energy consumed me. I could taste it. I could see it. I could hear it. I could feel it. I wanted it. I ran! Salvation had come. I dreamt of it. Now I had it. Faster I ran. No obstacle could contain me. I had a purpose, an energy I thought I’d lost. I was happy. I was running to my freedom. Hope is alive!
Then it happened. I was knocked to the ground. No sound, just a ringing in my ear. Dazed, I rose and looked beside me and saw a crater, a hole of nothing. I knew. The comrade next to me disintegrated. Stepping on a mine, he disappeared into oblivion. I was brought back from the dream world, where for a moment I slipped, when I realized we were clearing mines. We were useless, a disposable asset. Tanks and soldiers were valuable. Although we were considered a scourge to the utopia, we were still useful.
There were explosions everywhere. An arm. A head. A leg. Bodies littered the ground around me. In the distance tanks were moving. Soldiers followed. I got up, blood streaming, my ear gone, my arm hanging on, but I was smiling. I began again. Running. Running to my death. Salvation had come. I was happy. I ran and ran and ran, with purpose, with passion. Then it was over. No more explosions. No one was left. Just me, on the other side. The morning light cast a ghostly glow through the fog of war. Planes flew overhead. The tanks crawled forward. Soldiers marched in tow. Nothing consumed, except us, the runners. They survived. I survived. I was free. Faith answered my prayer. Hope was breathing again.