Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Amateur Researcher, Part II

Since Czarist Russia wasn’t big on gathering, or sharing, information, I haven’t found any resources that identified the location of these prison camps. Most of the time, the camps didn’t even record the names of the prisoners in their custody – at least not at the transit camps. I guess they figured that identifying them would be easier when there were many fewer who survived the entire journey.

There are a few clues in the book, however, to help us figure out where the transit camp he had escaped from might have been. Our story so far:

1) When my grandfather and his partner (and 19 other convicts) had escaped from the camp, they were told (by the guards– do you think they’re reliable sources?) that it was only a five-day walk to the railroad tracks.

2)   Considering that my grandfather had escaped with an older comrade (only in his fifties, but back then that was old) who wasn’t in the best of shape, I assumed that they could only walk about 20 miles a day, which would meant they were about 100 miles from a train station (unless the guards assumed they would cover greater distance in a single day)

3) The camp was either in or near the woods, and they spent the first night deep in the forest. The Taiga? That is the world’s largest forest, so it doesn’t help us narrow down their location.

3) After not having eaten for about four days – their meager half-loaf of bread didn’t make it much past the second day of freedom -- they found an isolated cabin in the woods. The woman who lived there fed them and let them sleep in the barn that night.

5) She described living conditions in this remote area as better than the “real” Siberia, which I interpret, and the information supports this, that she lived in Western Siberia.

6) Her home was not far from a military base where her husband, an army colonel who was sympathetic toward the coming revolution, was stationed

7) The colonel and advised my grandfather and his partner to travel east, toward Asia, rather than in the more predictable direction, west, toward Europe and home; in particular, they had been advised to head toward the city of Irkutsk, about a five-day train ride away

8) No fuss was made about it being a long distance to a rail station, so I presume they were pretty close to one of the stops on the TransSiberian Railway, much of whose construction had been completed by this point (1907)

9) Their “guide” put them on a train facing in the wrong direction, so instead of traveling 5 days east, they travelled 2-3 days west, which put them in the city of Chelyabinsk. (Chelyabinsk is not on the current route of the TransSiberian railroad, however it was on the “original” route, the one in use in 1907.)

10) The distance between Chelyabinsk and Irkutsk is 3388km (or 2105 miles). Thus, the city on which they boarded the train was either 2/7 or 3/8 of the way between Chelyabinsk and Irkutsk, or 968 and 1271km, respectively.
The red line on this map reflects the current route of the TransSiberian railroad, whereas the blue line that connects to the red reflects the original route.
Chelyabinsk was the first station on the original TransSiberian railroad.
11) Using the distances from Irikutsk (since Chelyabinsk is no longer on the same rail line), that means we’re looking for a station 2420 or 2217 km from Irikutsk, give or take

12) According to the distances between rail stations shown in Lonely Planet’s The Transsiberian Railway, the stations at which my grandfather and his partner were most likely to have boarded the train were Omsk (2469km from Irkutsk, or 49 miles off our calculation) or Barabinsk (2150km from Irkutsk, 33 miles off our calculation). Both cities had been founded by that time, although Barabinsk was a much younger, and smaller city, having been founded in 1893 when it became a stop on the Transsiberian railroad. According to Wikipedia, Omsk was the administrative center of Western Siberia in the 19th and 20th centuries; currently, it is the second largest city in Siberia (after Novosibirsk). Given that my grandfather and his partner were on the run, I think it’s less likely that they would have boarded a train in a large city, hence, my analysis leads me to conclude that they boarded the train in Barabinsk.

 Now it’s just a matter of trying to find a labor camp about 100 miles from Barabinsk, but as I said, the Russians didn’t keep records of those things, and I’ve already spent too much time on this exercise (thought more of what I’ve learned may come up in future posts). I hope you'll forgive me if I don't pursue it further.

A side note: Omsk is where my goddaughter and her family lived—briefly—when her husband, a famous Swiss goalie, was recruited to play for the Russians, but then the NHL went on strike, and with all of the American (including Canadian) players suddenly available, most other foreign players were displaced. We had planned to visit them in Omsk that summer, but they weren’t there long enough.

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