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Full Circle

Day 18: Magadan

Magadan, Eastern Russia 
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Identification disc made from the top of a can.
Michael Palin - Full CircleThe remains of the prison cemetery can still be seen. Wooden stakes, bleached by wind, rain and sun, stand in broken rows marking makeshift graves, some overgrown with tenacious pine bushes and trailing clusters of cranberry and blueberry, others open to the sky. Bones are exposed in many of them - even a skull - but the only record of their occupants are marker discs, made from the tops of tin cans, stamped with a number and attached to the top of each post. Nearly all are multiple graves.

I begin to count the posts. I give up after three hundred.

Ivan stands for a moment, perfectly still. His eyes could be full of tears or they could be smarting in the cool gusty breeze. He dabs at them again with his blue handkerchief, still neatly folded, then beckons me over.

We walk down to see what's left of the camp. In one corner there is a pile of old boots, made from rubber tyres, which has survived the forty-five summers and winters since the camp was abandoned. Some sections of the stone walls, including the roofless commandant's house, escaped destruction.

'He had hot water and a balcony built so he could enjoy the view,' says Ivan.

Ironically, it is the punishment cells, the prison within a prison, that have lasted the best. Today, brambles wind decoratively around the bars and coarse grass is clumped around the heavy studded doors.

'No one ever escaped,' Ivan tells me.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 18
  • Country/sea: Eastern Russia
  • Place: Butugychag
  • Book page no: 39

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