The Gulag Camp Tour: It Ain't Club Med

The helicopter hovers a while before landing, and we get a good look at the barbed wire, the guard towers, the dilapidated wooden huts. It's not a typical tourist attraction, this lonely outpost in Russia's remote polar north. The place we're visiting is the Monogovody gulag, one of a string of work camps built across a stretch of Siberian tundra in the 1940s, when Stalin decided to use prison labor to construct a railroad. The last inmates were released in 1954. Since then, the camps have summoned only the occasional researcher or journalist. Ours is the first foreign tour group to arrive--nine of us, mostly Americans who are living in Moscow.

The Arctic Circle & Gulag Camp Tour is the brainchild of our guide, Olga Dougina, who owns the new Felix Travel Agency in Moscow (7-095-932-3716). A former guide at Intourist, the old Soviet state-owned monopoly, Dougina founded Felix to show foreigners "another Russia, a Russia off the beaten path."

WALL OF NAMES. The Monogovody gulag is about as far off the path as you can get--an hour-and-a-half chopper ride from the town of Salekhard, 1,200 miles north of Moscow. Not one road cuts through the empty landscape, only a half-finished railway bed that serves as a testament to the failed project. Years ago, prisoners either walked the 125 miles from Salekhard or were ferried along one of the nearby rivers. (Monogovody means "lots of water.") Trudging through the camp in foot-high snow in October as the temperature drops into single digits, we get what we came for--a taste of the bitter cold and cruel isolation endured by the inmates. In some ways, the numbing landscape is more horrifying than the dawn-to-dusk work days we learn about, or the mostly bread diet, or the bare barrack "shelves" where prisoners slept, their release dates scrawled on the walls above their heads. Fascinated as we are, we're relieved when it's time to board the helicopter.

Our trip also includes a two-day stay in Salekhard, a city of 32,000 that is cut in half by the Arctic Circle. The swooping, metal monument that marks the precise latitudinal spot is a favorite wedding-photo site for locals, who will tell you that anyone working north of the marker was entitled to hardship pay under the Soviets.

Once the administrative seat for the gulags nearby, the town also houses a remarkably candid exhibit about the camps and the never-completed railway. One section features a wall covered with names and addresses of former prisoners or their relatives. The information comes from museum visitors, who are asked to help researchers dig out more facts of the half-buried history.

Like many Russian cities, Salekhard was off-limits to foreigners until about five years ago. Founded when the Cossacks conquered the region in the 16th century, Salekhard began to grow as a Soviet city in the 1930s and '40s, when Stalin forcibly relocated ethnic Germans and rebellious peasants to the site. The city is on the confluence of the Ob and Palyui rivers, and the Soviets wanted to build a fish-processing industry there. "It's not easy to speak about it," says our local guide, "because old people, women, and babies were left on the bank of a river here and told to build a town. Many died." The canned fish now produced in Salekhard is too expensive for ordinary Russians; most is exported.

REINDEER PEOPLE. While in Salekhard, we also meet people from the region's three indigenous groups. Russians call them the "reindeer people." Their authentic names: Komi, Khanti, and Nyentsi. Thousands still live in "chums," or tepees made of reindeer fur. They eat reindeer meat (we tried it, too--it tastes like venison). And although they were once persecuted for their pagan beliefs, many still practice ritual reindeer-slaughter. We visited some of their sacred places along the river.

Our tour guide also arranges for a sauna at the town sports center--an hour-long event involving brain-frizzling heat, an icy plunge pool, and ample quantities of vodka. A major hit.

This is a remarkable trip. But be warned--it's not for everyone. To enjoy it, you need more than a sense of adventure; you need a sense of what it is to rough it, Russian-style. The flight from Moscow to Salekhard took 16 hours, including two refueling stops and a five-hour layover to wait out a blizzard. In keeping with Aeroflot standards, no food was offered. We brought our own. The hotel in Salekhard was clean and warm, but the plumbing was primitive. There wasn't much shopping.

SUB TENANTS. The tour costs about $410 from Moscow, and is scheduled periodically. It is one of a number of adventure trips in the former Soviet Union, offering everything from ski-and-spa holidays in the Caucasus to white-water rafting in Russia's far east. So far, few of the tour agencies have overseas marketing arms. But Moscow's new English-language dailies carry listings and ads.

Meanwhile, Olga Dougina is hatching other unusual ideas to secure her niche. Her latest: a trip to the northern port city of Murmansk, where the group will board a World War II-vintage Soviet submarine. Don't worry about a hotel; you'll spend the night aboard a nuclear-powered icebreaker.

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