Artom huddled in bed in the evening, knitting socks while his roommates played, unshamed by the eleven-year-old’s industry. His handiwork provides a little comfort from the cold, but is impotent to combat the emotional frigidity that permeates everything. In his region, vodka is a staple and cheaper than milk. Accordingly, children become social orphans when their parents prioritize drink over the needs of their offspring, forfeiting their parental rights. Summers here are short, and vitamin D deficiency rife amongst the inhabitants, who seldom see the sun. The orphanage abuts a prison in this forsaken North Russia village populated by aggressive thieves not yet behind bars. Many orphans’ parents are imprisoned, but not for the political “crimes” that once doomed Soviet-era prisoners to live, work, and die here.
Years ago, there was no industry in the region, but in the 1930s, Josef Stalin brought jobs, of a sort, when he decided to connect five large lakes there by a canal stretching 141 miles from the White Sea to the Baltic. A megalomaniac’s monument, the canal offered the bonus of disposing of Russians whose existences Stalin found inconvenient. While some of the more than 100,000 sent to work on the canal were criminals, more were intellectuals, political prisoners, and victims of reprisals and informants. Ill-equipped with little more than pickaxes, shovels, and rudimentary wheelbarrows, prisoners downed trees, chipped through rock and frozen earth, and hauled it all away, completing the 30-mile artificial stretch of the canal in 20 months.
In the backwards organization of the gulag system, criminals ran the camps; others would have realized, and cared, that much of the workforce was comprised of the persecuted upright. Their families seldom knew where they’d been taken, and whether they’d lived or died. Enduring inhuman conditions, tens of thousands perished from overwork, starvation, disease, and freezing.
One of the ironies is how little the canal benefits shipping, given its insufficient depth for most ships, but how mightily it affects the orphanages of the region. Stalin’s heavy hand populated the area in the early years of the twentieth century but orphaned thousands in the process. Many of the region’s residents are descendants of those who somehow survived the gulag and Stalin’s canal project.
Faith, the translator for all our Lighthouse Project trips, grew up in the Soviet Union long after the canal’s completion, but the surrounding area was such a feared byword for the oppression of the state that her family countenanced no reference to it, so great was the fear of ending up there. When she visited the region in February, interviewed Artom, and saw him at work on his socks, she fought the sensation she was walking on skulls. Gloom smothered everything with a despair denuded of hope. At the orphanage, a strangely invitingly-named shell of a structure, Artom’s teacher welcomed her, exhibiting wooden objects carved and given her by prisoners with the decorum to feel remorse over orphaning their children via their prison sentences.
Meanwhile, palpable despondency reigns. Artom knits his socks, trusting he’ll better himself by the exercise. He likely hasn’t given it much thought, but his busyness with yarn and needle is faith’s defiant act. Even a waif, still hoping adoptive parents seek him out, can play his bit role to help himself, his friends, and his region shrouded in hopelessness.