This is a road with a dark secret. A road that was very much built on pain and misery. The story of the R504 Kolyma Highway, commonly referred to as the Road of Bones, is sometimes a difficult one to hear – where the horrors of the Soviet gulag system are really revealed.
The vast highway isn’t particularly popular, in fact, it connects settlements that are about as out of the way as you could get. What makes this road different is the horror that lies just beneath the surface. It is a road that is quite literally formed over the bones of the thousands who died constructing it.
As I said, a road with a dark secret.
R504 Kolyma Highway
The 2,031 km (1,262 mi) R504 Kolyma Highway snakes across the Russian Far-East, from the port town of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk to the small provincial town of Nizhny Bestyakh further west – a place that has a record low temperature of a bone-chilling -64.4 C (83.9F).
While Magadan is certainly an important town where shipbuilding and fishing are the major industries, its population is little more than 90,000. Nizhny Bestyakh is even smaller, with just 4,000 inhabitants and acts as more of a transit terminus between roads than anything else, but does lie directly across the Lena River from the larger city of Yakutsk, with a population of just over 300,000.
In many ways, the two towns that lie at either end of the Road of Bones are fairly nondescript. Let me put it this way, they’re not exactly places people go for a holiday. And yet, the road that connects them has gained infamy for how it was built.
A Wild Road
The Road of Bones is today most commonly used by foreign adventurists and hardened truck drivers who know better than to ever turn off their engines during the horrifically cold Siberian winter. Just last year, a teenage motorcyclist froze to death on the road after following Google maps down a side road that simply led to nowhere. This is a place where you don’t mess around – especially in winter.
The road is a mixture of paved highways, dusty tracks and rickety bridges that may or may not still be in one piece. In 2008 it was granted Federal Road status and received a new diversion further north. Much of it is now relatively well maintained, but older sections are still accessible for the hardy (or suicidal) travellers.
This is an area of the world with some breathtaking beauty to it. The vast emptiness will likely either be the perfect tonic for the madness of our crazy world or send people completely crazy because of the isolation. It’s a place of extremes and certainly not for everybody.
Ok, I’ve harked on about enough beauty and extremes, let’s get to the crux of it, shall we. The story of the Road Bones begins all the way back in the 1930s, a time of murderous distrust and purges throughout the Soviet Union. It was also when stories of forced labour camps located deep in Siberia, known as gulags, began to emerge. Just a quick tidbit before we move on. The word gulag is commonly associated with just the physical camps themselves, but the word was actually far more wide-ranging and can be used to describe the entire system and the government agency in charge.
The Gulags had been in use since the 1920s and played a key role in the political and social repression seen across the Soviet Union. These camps, thought to number hundreds at their peak along with countless smaller colonies, remained in place until shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the numbers associated with them are simply horrifying. An estimated 18 million people moved through the camps, with roughly 1.6 million dying through starvation, exhaustion, disease and murder.
This is a time that Russia acknowledges without fully acknowledging. In recent years there has been a growing ambition to reframe the dark days of the Soviet Union – and by reframing, I mean twist the truth until the upcoming generations have very little idea of what is true or not. Even the bestial Joseph Stalin appears to be getting a makeover with the Russian government eager to paint him as a true national hero, rather than a tyrant who was responsible for anywhere between 6 million and 9 million deaths in his homeland.
Those who found themselves in the hellish gulags could have been sent for a wide variety of reasons, but just about everybody in the Soviet Union had something to fear. Political and military purges could see highly decorated generals dragged into the labour camps alongside peasants and ethnic minorities. Simply saying the wrong thing or being the victim of a grudge held by somebody else was enough for a trip to the gulag along with the kind of prison sentence that might not have officially been ‘life’, but with the conditions and work requirements being as they were, many didn’t make it out alive – which is exactly what the Soviet regimes were banking on.
The Road of Bones
Another important aspect to understand surrounding the construction of the road was the frenzied industrialisation that took place in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. We’ve already done a video on the first Soviet Five-Year Plan so I won’t go into a great deal of detail here, except to say that the Soviet Union embarked on perhaps the most ambitious industrialized leap forward the world has ever seen. This involved vast new factories, ports and roads intending to increase manufacturing productivity by over 300% – something Stalin hoped would modernise the nation enough to be able to compete with the European nation racing ahead.
Much of the plan didn’t come to fruition, but the progress was quite astonishing nonetheless. Perhaps the most important factor was that it allowed the Soviet Union to develop a series of factories that would eventually play an enormous role in defeating the Nazis during World War II. I’ll stop there, but if you fancy deep-diving into the absurdly brilliant madness of the Soviet Union, take a look at our video on the Five-Year Plan.
One of the key elements of the industrialisation was to improve transportation links throughout the Soviet Union. The Trans-Siberian railway had been finished in 1916 and acted as a vital artery across the country, however, it wasn’t nearly enough and the government set about constructing or improving roads across the largest nation on earth. Much of this was down to a need to move goods quickly and easily, but with the far-east revealing itself to be rich in minerals, the Soviet government were eager to provide links that could reach deep into the wildness where gulags were often located and where prisoners toiled to excavate gold, silver, tin and uranium as well as felling trees for lumber.
Construction on the Road of Bones began in 1932 under the direction of Dalstroy, a company formed the year before to oversee road construction and mining in the far-east and which worked out of Magadan. Initially, the company used paid civilian labour but quickly it became apparent that very few would actively choose such an existence.
Instead, Dalstroy created a vast number of gulags across the region which were steadily filled over time. They also played a key role in the transportation of convicts who would typically travel along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok before taking a ship up to Magadan where they were sent to individual camps. The number of convicts in the camps under Dalstroy’s control grew steadily over the years, from 11,000 in 1932 to 190,000 in 1940. It then fluctuated during the war but hit its height in 1952 when nearly 200,000 people were housed there. It’s thought that as many as 80 individual sub-camps fell under the notorious Sevvostlag gulag branch in the area with many providing labour for the construction of the Road of Bones.
It took the best part of 20 years to complete the route from Magadan to Nizhny Bestyakh with construction ending in 1952. Conditions could range from the mildly hellish to the truly deathly. This part of Russia experiences wild swings in temperature from a summer average of 25C (77F) to -40C (-42F) in winter and inmates were expected to work through it all with barely enough food to keep them going.
Sadly we know very little about how the road was constructed and save for a few images taken, evidence of what went on remains light. But we can presume that with so much free labour on offer and considering the time and remoteness, almost everything was done by hand and incredibly slowly.
It’s impossible to give accurate numbers of those who died during the construction of the Road of Bones, but estimates lie between 250,000 and 1,000,000. And here’s where things become a little unpleasant. You see, this part of Russia is covered in permafrost, meaning that the ground below the surface continually lies below 0C (32F) and with so many people dying during construction it was seen as easier to simply inter the bodies directly into the road than attempting to build graves. The name Road of Bones isn’t some allegory, it is a road that literally contains the bones of those who died while building it.
Today on the Road of Bones
Today the road remains a harsh place to travel, best described by a local proverb “Kolyma, Kolyma, enchanted planet! Winter lasts 12 months and all the rest is summer”
As I mentioned earlier, truck drivers passing along it in winter dare not turn off their engine for fear that they might not be able to turn it back on – a likely death sentence in the harrowing cold of winter. It’s such an issue that the Russian authorities have made it illegal to pass a stopped vehicle without first checking whoever is inside is OK. One side road that leads off the Road of Bones eventually arrives at the small town of Oymyakon wherein 1933 it recorded the lowest temperature ever seen in a continuously inhabited area, -67.8C (-90.4F).
The road passes through areas that give real definition to word isolation and it can be hundreds of miles between settlements. Another measure to try and address the dangers of travelling on the road in winter has been the installation of shipping containers along the route which are heated and contain communication devices, a place where stranded motorists can warm up and call for help. Petrol stations and rest stops vary in frequency, but every 250km (155 miles) seems to be about average.
The remnants of the past are fading now, but if you look carefully you can still see the remains of what is left of the gulags along the way, but many mass graves have never been found (or should I say have never really been looked for).
The story of this part of Russia feels very similar to many others. A world away from the glitz and glamour of Moscow and St Petersburg. Towns like Sinegorie, a once vibrant, albeit small settlement to house workers constructing the nearby Kolyma hydroelectric facility, are now on their last legs, with only a dwindling population still hanging on.
It’s even worse in towns like Kadykchan and Spornaya, which have now been completely abandoned. The last resident of Kadylchan died just three years and it joined a growing number of settlements in the area that are now but eerie concrete shells of past glories.
The ‘Other Road of Bones’
In November 2020 a grim discovery was made near the Siberian town of Kirensk. A skull and several bones, thought to be around 100 years old appeared on a highway in the Irkutsk region. News of the find quickly travelled around social media with many making an immediate comparison to the infamous Road of Bones. Could this be yet another road built over the bodies of the dead?
Maybe, but probably not. Initially, it was explained that a company who was resurfacing the road had managed to inadvertently scoop up bones along with the sand they were transporting which lay close to a cemetery. Another theory was that the sand had been transported from a nearby ravine which was said to contain a mass grave.
Russian authorities are currently investigating the find, which now includes the remains of three separate bodies. While it may be unlikely that something quite like the Road of Bones exists, it’s certainly not impossible. The appearance of bones from around the time of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war in which between 6 and 9 million lost their lives, highlights a ghostly spectre that still very much remains in Russia.
A Road of Tragedy
In many ways, this might be the most tragic Megaproject we’ve ever covered. The construction of such a vast road through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet is commendable, but how it was all done was simply nightmarish.
Few of us will ever travel along or even see the Road of Bones, but it’s important that we never forget what happened there and indeed across many parts of the Soviet Union. While the gulags and the millions of prisoners may have been there under the guise of mining minerals and building roads, in reality, they were there because the powers that be hoped that those who were sent east would never return – and a tragically high number never did. Their remains were simply incorporated into the dusty track that would one day be called the R504 Kolyma Highway – the Road of Bones.