It may take another decade or two before we gain access to the records of the organizations responsible for running the Soviet camps and before we are able learn more about the real fate of some prisoners. The history of earlier Siberian exiles has been fully explored by historians studying the nineteenth century Tsarist secret police archives. They are a prelude to the real tragedy of victims who experienced communism.
Some stronger men in their twenties and thirties managed to get away and were able to cross long distances, survive cold, lack of food, shelter, and the hostile environment. It is difficult to determine what percentage of Tsarist era prisoners reached a safe destination and how many perished. In the western part of Russia, prisoners mixed with the crowds on country roads, and stayed close to villages where they could obtain food. In the eastern parts, China was the most obvious destination, though some headed towards Afghanistan and India, countries which offered contacts with European diplomatic services. Englishman Thomas Atkinson described in his book Oriental and Western Siberia, published in 1858, the case of three Polish officers, participants of the November, 1830 Uprising, who escaped from Nerchinsk, and then journeyed a few thousand kilometers across Siberia. When they reached the Okhotsk Sea they boarded a ship to America.
Escape from a country without a developed road network and without a telegraph network was much easier. Luck of roads, signage, maps led to many tragedies with prisoners who after sentencing convoyed by the guards got lost in the woods. No one knew how to deliver them to the place they got sentenced to. Walking routes from Warsaw to a particular destination in Siberia sometimes took from 1 to 1.5 years. Many died on the road.
One 1830 uprising insurgent, Rufin Piotrowski, was deported thousands of miles to Omsk, but escaped by pretending to be a bearded Russian peasant wearing a wig made out of goat hair. He left in February, 1846 when the temperature dropped to minus 50 degrees Celsius and headed north toward Arkhangelsk as “a pilgrim” visiting local churches. In the winter, he slept in snow dugouts; in the summer in the open fields. In his memoirs My Escape from Siberia published in 1863, he complained about banditry and murders committed on rural roads by homeless vagabonds. When he finally found freedom in the west, 6,000 kilometers from his starting point, many doubted his story. After collecting testimonies from witnesses, he wrote a book, which when translated to many languages received attention comparable to The Long Walk.
Among his travel companions, Rawicz mentions an American by the name of "Mr. Smith" who after the group’s arrival in Calcutta was supposed to look for help from his countrymen. In the book, he is described as mysterious man of few words, with some military experience, and speaking excellent Russian.
If he really existed, what was doing in the USSR, and why did he end up in the camp?
Author Linda Willis devoted 10 years of research to identify Smith, which she published in Looking for Mr. Smith. A Quest for the Truth Behind The Long Walk the Greatest Survival Story Ever Told. She claims to have found records confirming his existence even though he hid under many false identities.
According to Willis, Smith traveled to the Soviet Union during the Great Depression when Moscow recruited international specialists to assist in the implementation of industrial plans. In the 1930’s, thousands of mostly young communists and trade unionists showed up seeking employment. Many who decided to accept Soviet citizenship had their U.S. documents taken away. After disillusionment when the Soviet reality set in, they turned back to the American Embassy for help. The U.S. diplomatic service was glad to get rid of the communists and showed no interest in their fate. A lack of passports was an additional excuse. Hundreds if not thousands of were sentenced to the gulag.
On Willis’ account, Smith had good reason to speak the Russian language like a native. He was born in 1890 in the vicinity of Saratov on the Volga River. His real name was Abdul Chumjlakef which he changed later to Shumgalakov/Szumgalakoff. He departed Russia unexpectedly in 1913, perhaps as a deserter from the army or following some violent incident. He received U.S. citizenship in 1926 and changed his name to the easier to pronounce “Smith” and returned to Saratov working as a supplier of tools to Moscow factories. In 1938, after the NKVD suspended the activities of most American business organizations, Smith approached the U.S. Embassy for a new passport but never appeared to pick it up. Most likely he had been accused of spying, and vanished into the prison system. Documents describing his physical appearance mention a scar on his face and neck. Linda Willis who made this discovery asked Rawicz whether he had noticed anything special about Smith’s appearance. He pointed out the scar. Since none of this was mentioned in The Long Walk it was clear that he had met Smith in person. Keith Clarke who wrote the script of “The Way Back” asked Rawicz, two years before his death, about Smith's age at the time of escape and received response: “Fifty one.” Linda Willis' research reveals that this was Smith's correct age at that time. (Looking for Mr. Smith, p. 258)
As an officer serving in British Intelligence in Calcutta during the Second World War, Ruppert Mayne left a testimony about a meeting with three men who claimed to have escaped from Siberia and who had reached India in 1942 by crossing the Himalayas. Mayne’s son provided details in conversation with BBC reporter Hugh Levinson about that. Responsible for security in a region full of axis agents, Mayne identified himself in the last chapter of The Long Walk as being the British interrogator. They were in a pitiable state, utterly exhausted, and close to death. He didn’t remember their names since they sounded very foreign.
How does one explain sudden appearance of Glinski claiming that Rawicz stole his story? In what circumstances could this have happened? Before his death in April 2013 he was willing to provide amplification on every missing detail and answer every question.
Friends of Rawicz who were close to him during the war were surprised when the book was published in 1956. None of them knew about his journey to India. Glinski also remained silent. Until recently, no family member was aware of his past. Glinski and Rawicz never met or never heard of each other but they both claimed to know the same people. Could that be the key to the mystery?
Years after the book’s publication, the Rawicz couple stated in a rather enigmatic way that they were unable to fully convey the whole truth about the escape. Rawicz claimed that he brought it to light out of a moral commitment, not material gain. Was he trying to say that he did it on behalf of others still hiding their identities?
Long Road to Freedom
In August 1941,under foreign pressure, Stalin agreed to declare amnesty for the Polish prisoners in the gulag. Hundreds of thousands of people began to move southward in the fall and winter of 1941-1942, many from very remote areas like Magadan located 6,000 kilometers from Moscow. They traveled on foot, rafts, boats, ships, and freight or passenger trains. They crossed mountain ranges, rivers, and forests in severe winter climate. It took between weeks to months to travel in the transportation chaos caused by the war. Women, men and children roamed about the country, homeless, exhausted, completely destitute, and starved. Mortality was very high. Their journey was the period of the greatest torment. To add to the hardship, one must include the worries about the fate of their families.
Some had left without authorization, by escaping and boarding trains as stowaways, avoiding military police, and doing anything in order to get food and survive. Those who left were only a fraction of the total number of survivors who were liberated after the amnesty.
Poles were the first ones ever to bring eye-witness reports about the Siberian concentration camps to the world. An analysis of their testimonies filed with a special Document Unit of the General Anders’ Polish Corps in the Middle East has allowed a clear picture about the scale of atrocities to emerge (HIA, Anders Collection). They were asked to write down their experiences and fill out questionnaires, and reports on conditions of their confinement. Facts collected by Poles at that time (1942-1945) were very inconvenient to the British and American governments who were eager to suppress evidence to justify their alliance with Stalin. Disclosing them even ten years after the war was too embarrassing. It didn’t fit the war time propaganda scheme.
My own extensive research at the Hoover Institution Archives into these records supports the conclusion that the reality of the gulag was much worse than has often been depicted in other historical sources and literature. The environment created by the soviet oppressors imposed the most terrible and arbitrary rules upon the prisoners in the gulag system.
According to psychologists who dealt with World War Two veterans, as many as one third of them had amnesia of the war events, a condition which is often overlooked in civilian life. Half of them tried to suppress traumatic memories or had large gaps in their memories of the past. Many avoided thoughts associated with their exposure to torture, assault and atrocities. Intense fear, helplessness, and horror compounded by life under the regular threat of death left them as damaged humans. Ronald C. Downing who wrote down Rawicz’s story couldn’t have comprehended that reality.
There are lost episodes in our collective memory caused by the fear of reprisals. “The Long Walk” was written at the peak of the cold war. Former prisoners left families behind the Iron Curtain to fates unknown and speaking in public surely would have put relatives in the East in jeopardy. A concern for their safety prevented those who had escaped to the West from sharing the complete picture. Frequently their experiences in the gulag were deliberately disguised. Many changed their own identities or the identities of people they talked about. That is another truth which has complicated the research over the years.
Rawicz’s road to freedom was long and impeded by many obstacles. He must have met thousands after his release, during the evacuation, in the Middle East, and in the resettlement centers in England. Faces, names, places merged into one shared story. He didn’t have to invent much, for his experiences were similar to that of many others. He spoke on behalf of a group, including those who perished. Many like him immigrated and lived in a tightly closed community in England. He undoubtedly had firsthand knowledge of the accounts of their life experiences and incorporated many of these different strands into his book.
The suffering inflicted on those who fell victim to the Stalinist ordeal was something that continues to elude the comprehension of both the contemporaries of that era and later generations. Our current level of understanding has been shaped by the secrecy of the Soviet state and the unavailability of archival materials deposited by the Soviet state security organizations, and which are still closed to general studies. Many questions will remain open until scholars get access to them.
The Long Walk is mostly the truth, but the truth of many people and different roads they have taken.
Peter Weir was aware of the difficulties in determining the true story and sequence of events. In preparation for the film, he studied dozens of books, and became familiar with hundreds of documents, which composed a picture of the Siberian gulag. He took upon himself the responsibility to tell a story about something much bigger than the fate of a group of escapees capable of deeds that contradicted logic. This film talks about the will to preserve the dignity of man and the desire to live in freedom. The director did not doubt that these are the most important human qualities.
Zbigniew L. Stanczyk