“It was about nine o’clock one bleak November day that the key rattled in the heavy lock of my cell in the Lubyanka prison and the two broad-shouldered guards marched purposefully in. I had been walking slowly round, left hand in the now characteristic prisoner’s attitude of supporting the top of the issue trousers, which Russian ingenuity supplied without buttons or even string on the quite reasonable assumption that a man preoccupied with keeping up his pants would be severely handicapped in attempting to escape.” That is how the book begins. What follows is an absolutely engrossing narration of a true story – Slavomir’s imprisonment and escape through the frozen tundras of Siberia, the severe Gobi desert, onto Tibet and finally freedom on reaching India. Serving as a Lieutenant in the Polish Cavalry of the Russian army in the 1930s, he is imprisoned after being accused of spying for the Polish. Removed from the Lubyanka, he is packed into a freight car on a train along with dozens of other prisoners. As the train sets off on its long and arduous journey, rumours abound about their destination – the worst case scenarios being The Kamchatka salt mines of Siberia or the Novaya Zemlya islands on the Barent sea. After a month of traveling in a train huddled like cattle, they arrive at a nondescript outpost from where they are made to trek for many weeks to a camp that is hundreds of miles from the North Siberian capital of Yakutsk.
Seven prisoners plan their escape from this freezing prison by crossing the Lena river. Enroute, they run into a seventeen year old girl called Kristina – a fugitive on the run. The bond that these seven men form with this girl – like fathers and guardians, is very poignant and each of them look out for her safety in their own way. The devastation they undergo when the girl dies, unable to take the harsh trek through the Gobi desert with absolutely no food or water, is gut-wrenching. That any human can survive such an impossible situation is amazing and a testament to human spirit and survival.
Only four of them make it to India in the end, where they meet up with the British army. The camaraderie amongst these men and the hardships that they survive makes this a truly fascinating read. Slavomir’s narration is simple and touches the right nerves. Gives a great glimpse into pre-WW II Russia and the paranoia that pervaded the world at the time.
Who should read it: If you enjoy gritty survival adventures (especially real ones), this is one of the best. When the escapees keep a pebble in their mouth and suck on it to substitute for food and water, you can feel the most basal of our survival instincts kick in.
What it is not: Though it is set in pre-WW II Russia and a lot of political battles were brewing, the book gives only a fleeting glimpse of that. So, if you are expecting heroic tales of war or pre-war espionage, this is not the book you want.