Road to Nowhere: The Polish Writer Who Exiled Himself to Siberia

Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori

It  was a touching scene. A bunch of Poles surrounded Jacek Hugo-Bader. Most were fairly elderly and stooped over, and the youthful, tall and lanky writer towered above them. The conversation in Polish was conducted in the formal and polite third person: “Would the gentleman be so kind as to please sign...” “Perhaps the gentleman knows...” “Perhaps the gentleman remembers...”

Hugo-Bader responded very patiently, even enthusiastically, to his admirers. This encounter took place in February at the Jerusalem International Book Fair. Hugo-Bader was there in honor of the translation of his book “White Fever” into Hebrew, as a representative of the genre of contemporary Polish documentary literature.

Hugo-Bader is a well-known author and journalist who writes for Gazeta Wyborcza, the Polish daily newspaper. He’s an outstanding example of a steadily disappearing species: a total journalist. If he’s not eating and drinking what his subjects are eating and drinking, if he’s not sleeping and pissing along with them, if he’s not smelling their sweat from up close − then his story isn’t perfect. And Hugo-Bader will never write a story that is less than perfect.

In addition to compiling dry facts, he has to feel the material. He has to touch it and sniff it. He knows that by doing so he loses his objectivity, but he doesn’t care. He loves his subjects unconditionally − and that includes burglars, thieves and prostitutes. Each beggar, hooligan, drunkard or miserable peasant brings a tear to his eye and is treated like a king. He goes to them, to their natural habitats, and enters their souls. And he knows no end of drunkards, hooligans and whores.

His beat at the paper is Russia and the former Soviet republics, and the writing of each piece entails an expedition that lasts weeks or months. “White Fever” is the tale of a three-and-a-half month journey he made five winters ago (“I prefer to travel in winter”) across snowy southern Siberia, from Moscow all the way to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. He traversed 13,000 kilometers at an average speed of 43.9 kilometers per hour − along a route that tourists never take and travel agents don’t recommend. Not even in summer. It’s a route suited for people with nerves of steel and a very thick skin, people who lack the fear gene.

“White Fever,” first published in 2009, has already been translated into English, Italian, German, Ukranian, Spanish, French, Hungarian and Russian. The term “white fever” refers to a condition caused by excessive alcohol intake. People with white fever exhibit irrational fears, aggression and may experience hallucinations. Their liver is damaged and they many end up dying. It is one reason why Siberia is a paradise for pension-fund managers: The average lifespan for men is just 58 years; for women, 65.

Why do you prefer to travel in winter?

“For several reasons. One is prosaic: As the end of the year approaches, the travel budget of my department at the newspaper has to be used up. Otherwise, we’ll get a smaller budget the next year. A few times my editor has said to me toward the end of autumn: ‘Hey, why don’t you travel somewhere and write something.’ To see if it’s actually possible to tolerate such temperatures, or if it’s all a myth. Also, in the winter, human feelings and human relations, like the air, become sharper and clearer. I knew I’d have to sleep in a tent and a car, and it seemed a lot more interesting to do that in the winter. The harder the trip, the more interesting the story.”

In search of Kalashnikov

The intrepid Hugo-Bader cuts a fragile-looking figure. He is pale and bald, and more liable to be mistaken for a clerk or maybe a pianist. Anything but a tough and fearless journalist. His first Russian assignment was somewhat random. He went to the country in search of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man for whom the rifle is named, and who still lives in the small town of Izhevsk in the Ural Mountains.

He also arrived  at Gazeta Wyborcza by chance. In 1990, the paper was looking for reporters and placed an ad: seeking journalists without a diploma in journalism. People with no formal journalistic training. Hugo-Bader answered the ad and, to his complete surprise, was offered a job.

“I think it’s better not to study this profession,” he says. “It’s a talent you either have or you don’t. Any adult, in my opinion, can get a grasp of the material within three weeks, and academic studies can only mess things up.”

Gazeta Wyborcza, the first unaffiliated newspaper that appeared in the twilight of Polish communism, was founded in 1989 by Adam Michnik, who is still editor-in-chief. The vast majority of the paper’s veteran journalists were active in the Solidarity political movement. The same is true of Hugo-Bader. He started out as a local reporter on the news desk, but his editors soon found that he couldn’t condense a report to just 200 words and transferred him to the features department. Today he is the senior writer for the paper’s weekly magazine.

“One day, in early 1993, the editor said to me: ‘Maybe you could do a piece on Kalashnikov.’ And I said: ‘Okay, I guess the subject doesn’t have to be a person, it could be a rifle.’ I started working and then someone said to me: ‘Did you know the guy’s still alive?’ I couldn’t believe it. In the hallway − all important business takes place in the hallway − I ran into the editor who’d proposed the idea and told him: ‘Did you know that Kalashnikov is still alive?’ And he said: ‘Great! Go see him.’ And I said: ‘How can I go there? It’s in Russia, in the Urals.’ And he said: ‘So what’s the problem?’

“That was the first time I traveled abroad as a journalist and the first time I ever went to Russia. The experience was traumatic. I didn’t know English or Russian. We were taught Russian in school but the more we studied, the less I knew, and I felt like I wouldn’t be able to speak a word. I got his phone number and called him. It was a conversation between a guy who’s nearly deaf and a guy who doesn’t understand Russian. When I got there he had no recollection of ever speaking to some Polish guy on the phone. A friend from the paper helped prepare me. She translated my questions into Russian, and I wrote them out in Polish letters.”

“The interview wasn’t conducted very professionally,” Hugo-Bader recalls. “But the Russians don’t correct you if you make mistakes. They think it’s rude. They’re just pleased that you’re trying to speak their language. After the article came out, everyone wanted to sit at my table at lunch. That’s how I knew I had succeeded.”

About six months later, the deputy editor came upon Hugo-Bader in the hallway and said: “You’re the expert on Russia. Go to Moscow. A revolt has broken out there.” It was October 1993 and Boris Yeltsin had tried to forcibly disband the parliament, dispatching tanks that had fired at the building and set it on fire. The world was shocked and Poland tensed, fearing the tanks might cross the border.

Hugo-Bader, bemused by the way he had suddenly become an “expert,” set off for Russia: “Millions of people were crowding the streets. There was a storm − wind and rain mixed with snow, and everything was covered with umbrellas. And I had an epiphany: I understood that I was the right person in the right place at the right time. That I love Russia and these people, and it was as if I saw a window of opportunity opening up for me. And I thought to myself: ‘Yes, I am going to become an expert.’ And I started learning Russian.”

Liberal spirit

Jacek Hugo-Bader was born in 1957 in Sochaczew, a small town 50 kilometers west of Warsaw. “My mother was a gardener, and my wife is also a gardener. My father was an auto mechanic, and I was a hooligan.”

In what way were you a hooligan?

“I was a terrible student. School was my enemy. I was constantly getting into fights. When I was seven we moved to Warsaw. I spent my childhood and adolescence in the company of skinheads. I wanted to be like them. It was my rebellion against the world. I made trouble for my parents, I was thrown out of school. When it was time to go to high school, no normal school wanted to take me. I was tested and my family was told to send me to a special school. But my mother wouldn’t hear of it. She went to all kinds of experts and psychologists, and they all said I had potential.

“In the end, they found a school for me that taught humanistic studies, and somehow I managed to pass from one year to the next. But I couldn’t even dream about a higher education. I had awful grades. Eventually, I found a seminary for special-education teachers. They didn’t care about my grades, but they tested me. I was asked to write an essay on a literary topic, and writing was something I’d always been able to do. I got a 5, the highest grade, and after that they tested me in history on a subject that I knew and I gave them a good lecture. That was enough for them and I was accepted to the school.”

After completing his studies there, Hugo-Bader began working as a teacher. He taught history at an elementary school. At the same time, he started to get involved with underground activity in the Solidarity movement. His pedagogical career was fairly brief: After a little more than a year, he was dismissed. His liberal and rebellious spirit wasn’t a good fit with the standard education system that demanded total indoctrination.

He married and had two children − a son, now 26, and a daughter, 25. Having to find some way to earn a livelihood, he took on a variety of jobs. He loaded trucks onto train cars; he weighed pigs at an agricultural weigh station; he was a grocer. In 1989, with the big emergence of capitalism in Poland, he opened a company that distributed printed matter like books and newspapers.

The rather Jewish-sounding name Bader is actually German. His forbears moved around Europe and when they arrived in Lithuania, his grandfather added the name Hugo to the family surname as a way of distinguishing them from all the other Baders around. During World War I, the grandfather moved the family to Poland. Although he has no Jewish roots, Hugo-Bader feels Jewish and calls himself an honorary Jew: “I grieve for the loss. We always lived together on the same land. Jews were not guests. This was their land. Their homeland just as much as ours.”

His career in journalism got off to a strong start. The 1990s were a time of plenty, in that field as well, and every idea he proposed for a long and expensive road trip was immediately supported by the paper’s editorial board. “White Fever” grew out of another book, “Report from the 21st Century” (written in 1957 by two Komsomolskaya Pravda journalists, Mikhail Vasiliev and Sergei Gushchev), at the request of their chief editor: “We have to tell our readers about the future. To describe life in the Soviet Union 50 years from now − say, on the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution.”

The two journalists interviewed a host of experts from various fields, asking them how they envisioned the Soviet Union and the world in the 21st century. The bold predictions included electronic brains (i.e., computers), miniature receiver-transmitters (cellphones), virtual libraries (the Internet), cars whose doors could be opened by remote control, electronic cameras and satellite TV broadcasts on flat screens. There was just one thing that these wise prophets didn’t predict: that in less than 90 years, there would be no Soviet Union.

For his 50th birthday, Hugo-Bader decided to give himself a present: a trip to Siberia that would follow-up on the prophecies of that report about the 21st century. He took the idea to his editors and asked for funding.

“They looked at me like I just landed from Mars,” he says. “And I still remember times when I would propose a project and ask for money, and they’d say, ‘Why don’t you take a little more, just to be on the safe side? If you have any left over, you’ll just return it.’ My editor had been with me in Solidarity and among the people in the underground there was absolute trust. He was sure I would return the money.”

But in October 2007, exactly 90 years after the October Revolution, the paper was in shaky financial condition and couldn’t afford to pay for the trip. Hugo-Bader wasn’t willing to give up and started collecting donations: “I was in a big rush because the year was almost over and I still didn’t have a sponsor. I had no money and no car. And I had to get home for Christmas, too, because my wife said that if I didn’t make it for Christmas, I shouldn’t come home at all.”

He contacted all the car companies in Poland, looking for a 4x4 vehicle. Audi was the only one that came through. The company offered money and a big Q7 model, with all the trimmings. “I pictured myself arriving in this car at some shop at the end of the earth in order to buy a beer and chat with the locals about life,” he recalls. “It goes against my journalistic philosophy − not to stand out, to blend into the background. It’s a work method that doesn’t attract the attention of the bad guys.”

He returned to keys to Audi, and accepted money only. Then he went back to the editors: “I told them that if they didn’t give me money I’d be forced to take it from my wife, that she’s the one responsible for the family budget, and that it would be a terrible disgrace if a poor woman had to finance Gazeta Wyborcza. That made an impression on them and they gave me money. The rest – 25,000 zlotys (NIS 37,000) – I took from my wife, and I was on my way.”

Keeping watch

The trip began in Moscow, where he bought a Russian-made 4x4, a Lazhik, with local plates. The jeep had two gas tanks − such an uncomplicated vehicle that any tractor driver on a kolkhoz could repair it with a hammer. Hugo-Bader made a few improvements to the Lazhik − like lining the floor with foam for insulation, arranging a sleeping area in the back, and installing an extra battery.

While driving the very first kilometers of his journey, he made several important mental notes. For example, what is a microsecond? The amount of time that passes from when a traffic light turns yellow until the car behind you starts honking. Also: Russian drivers don’t turn on their lights until it’s nearly pitch-black out. They don’t turn off their high beams, even if the driver coming toward them does. Bigger cars naturally assume the right-of-way, disregarding any smaller vehicles around them. A burning tire is not a sign of a protest demonstration. It’s just a flat tire − Russians prefer to set them alight rather then take them to be fixed − and they simultaneously serve as a warning signal on a dark road.

It turns out that Russian motorists are dropping like flies. In 2007, 33,000 people were killed in road accidents in the country, a number comparable to that of the entire European Union, which has 3.5 times as many residents and six times as many cars. In 2007, readers of the Dark Roasted Blend blog compiled a list of the world’s most dangerous roads that have exacted the highest number of casualties. Three of the top six were in Russia. Hugo-Bader traveled on two out of the three.

East of the Ural Mountains, he found no more than three reasonably decent hotels. They rent rooms for two or four people, by the hour. If you want to wake up calmly in the morning, so as to get back on the road, you’d better hide your clothes, personal belongings and car battery under the mattress the night before. If you forget, you’re liable to awaken to discover that all your stuff has disappeared during the night and your car has been stolen. If you want to feel even more secure about finding your car there in the morning, battery or not, you’ll have to pay someone to stand guard over it during the night.

Throughout the months-long trip, Hugo-Bader’s car was left unguarded just once. Indeed, guarding is one of the most vibrant industries in Russia these days, with millions employed in it. You name it, they guard it: cars, houses, people, parks, farm fields, forests, pets.

“Millions of men,” writes Hugo-Bader in his book, “do nothing but keep watch, inspect, provide security and oversight to ensure that millions of other men don’t steal whatever it is they’ve been entrusted with. If I ask five Russian men what they do, it’s a near certainty that one will say he’s a driver and two work in security. And that’s not including policemen.”

The Russian police employs 1.5 million people, one officer for every 100 citizens. Four times more than in Poland and five times more than in Israel, New Zealand and Canada. The large number of police officers in Russia apparently has many advantages. But there are also plenty of disadvantages, and ordinary folk are the ones affected. The income civil servants make from corrupt practices amounts to about a third of the Russian budget − $125 billion per year. The ones who win the most in this situation are the police, especially the traffic police.

“Inside and outside the city, whether at an intersection, traffic circle or straight road,” Hugo-Bader writes, “one often meets a lone policeman who shows up in his private vehicle, sometimes after work hours, to check drivers’ documents. Usually it’s an older man, an officer or even a inspector, but he’s marrying off his daughter or getting a new car or buying an apartment and is in urgent need of money. No power in the world will free you from him. If he decides you have to pay, you have no chance. Even if you’re sober, your car is in mint condition, your documents are valid and you haven’t broken any laws. The policeman will find something that’s not right and will write in his report: The car is not properly maintained, or the license plates are dirty.”

Hugo-Bader was also compelled to pay a policeman, despite having vowed that he would never do so: One two-lane road in the vast Siberian plains had an uphill segment that went on for several kilometers. A truck towing another truck was moving excruciatingly slowly on a long stretch where no passing was allowed. A long row of testy drivers snaked behind the two trucks. At one point, the drivers started to pass the trucks and Hugo-Bader followed suit. At the top of the hill stood a policeman, who handed out fines of 1,000 rubles (NIS 120). Hugo-Bader paid up and continued on his way, but then stopped and turned around in time to see the two trucks doing a U-turn and going all the way back down, to start slowly climbing up the road again.

Empires fall slowly

“White Fever” is merciless and not the least bit flowery. It is razor-sharp and filled with harsh realism. Hugo-Bader loves his subjects but he doesn’t prettify them. He offers them up unadorned. There is no skimming over the AIDS, violence and alcohol. Rivers of alcohol. “I’m more interested in the people sitting on the bench than those playing in the ‘opening five’ positions. I like the people on the margins and not the beautiful and powerful ones.”

Do you like the Russians?

“I’m crazy about them. I feel them. And I know that I could work there for the rest of my life. Whenever I go to Russia, I find a different country. The changes are incredible and are happening all the time. I’ve got enough topics until 2018 already.”

Like what, for example?

“In Russia, everybody has a story. Take a Russian, sit him down in a chair, and you’ll have a story. The older he is, the more interesting the story will be. And what does a journalist care about? Getting a story.”

So if you traveled to, say, Germany or France, the people there wouldn’t have stories to tell?

“Nothing happens there. It’s boring. In Russia, everything’s stormy and tumultuous. Always changing. Dynamic. I have an unprofessional theory about empires: They don’t fall all at once. It’s a process. And for the past 20 years, I’ve done nothing but describe the fall of the Russian empire. The process isn’t finished yet. It’s impossible to say what Russia will look like a year from now, two years from now, 10 years from now. In France and Germany, there’s nothing to wonder about. It will be the same. Maybe they’ll drive different cars, and maybe the women will dye their hair different colors, but otherwise nothing will change. In Russia, it’s impossible to predict anything.”

What is it that you love about the Russian people?

“That’s a tricky question. Love is always tricky to explain. That’s just how it turned out. We have a certain chemistry. These are people who create a certain atmosphere around them that suits me, and I suit them. They have a huge heart and they’ll help you whenever you ask. I can sit with a person for an entire night and feel like I’ve known him my whole life, that he’s my best friend, and I fall in love in a flash. I know that in the morning we’ll part and never meet again. That’s how I like to work. To embrace my subjects.”

Is it pure documentation or is there more to it?

“Journalism exists in the world to make it better, and I believe I’m playing a certain small role in this. All journalists throw everything they write into one big pot and hope that something good might come out of it. That something will improve. Politicians have no idea what’s happening in the world unless they read about in the newspapers.”

Alcoholism is widespread in Russia, but it hits Siberians particularly hard. Their metabolism doesn’t process alcohol. After two glasses of beer they’re falling off their chairs, and yet they keep on drinking and drinking, says Hugo-Bader, incidentally revealing an ethical-professional problem.

“I like to drink, too, but in moderation. They don’t drink a half glass or small glass, they drink in big glasses, and when I come to them I unravel their soul. They tell me their most painful memories, and then they drink so as not to feel the pain. I can’t let them drink alone, so I have to drink, and in Russia it’s forbidden to leave anything in the glass. There’s a saying that says you match drink for drink until you get to the bottom. And I could have two or three encounters like that a day.”

By living with them you’re affecting the situation, not just describing it from the outside. To what degree would you say that what you do is a provocation?

“That would be true if I just paid a brief visit for an hour or two. Then someone could put on an act and try to curry favor with me, but I’m there with them for many hours; they get used to me and can’t pretend. So, in my opinion, my writing is actually truer, because I’m living their life, sleeping in their bed, eating their food. We chop wood together and develop relations that are based on friendship, so there’s no basis for a fabrication of the situation.”

After “White Fever” (Hugo-Bader’s first book), he published two more about Russia. His third, “Kolyma Diaries,” published in 2011, recounts a two-and-a-half month journey during which he reached the farthest point of northeastern Russia: Kolyma, a notorious site in the Gulag archipelago. Under Stalin prisoners were exiled there, while others came of their own accord, hoping to get rich quick from gold mining. More than a million died of cold, hunger, torture and exhaustion.

“The average survival time in Kolyma was five weeks. When I hear the word Kolyma, I get a creepy feeling down my back,” says Hugo-Bader. “The same kind of thing happens when I hear the word Auschwitz.”

How did you end up going there?

“One day these two girls came up to me and said: ‘Would you go to the ends of the earth for us?’ And I said, ‘Sure, what are the conditions?’ And they said there were no conditions, that I just had to take their cellphone along and say that it worked fine. I asked where I should go and they said wherever I wanted. I said Kolyma and they said ‘Great, where’s that?’ And I said: ‘It’s in Siberia.’ They said great. In 2009 I started to really work on it. I spend months in the national library, I hired two researchers who worked for me.”

And during this time you weren’t writing for the newspaper?

“No, but they knew that when I returned with material, they’d get their share. And when everything was all ready, the girls got back to me and said, ‘We’re canceling the idea,’ but I was so into it at that point, and so keen on it, that I didn’t want to give it up. I said that I would go there no matter what and I would write a dispatch from hell. I started to collect donations. The paper gave me a little and in the end so did my publisher.”

He hitchhiked and it was a very hard trip, not just physically, but mostly mentally. “I hitchhiked because that was the best way to make progress. I crossed the Siberian taiga in winter, and the way it works there is that people stop for you and then pass you on to someone they know in the area, and so on from there. They don’t even leave their enemies on the road, because a car passes just once a day. It’s the region where the lowest recorded temperature was ever measured: -72 degrees Celsius.”

One of the most depressing things on that trip for Hugo-Bader was the sense that he was walking around in a vast cemetery and stepping on bodies.

“I couldn’t even pee there in peace, because of the ghosts I thought I was seeing everywhere,” he says. “There’s only one road that goes there and I had to travel on it. Many, many people died paving that road and they would bury them beneath the snow and cover it with earth. Many, many Polish and Jewish prisoners met their deaths there and I was afraid I was pissing on the head of a skeleton of some Polish Jewish officer.”

Were there moments on your trips when you were in mortal danger?

“Yes. In Kolyma. I had to cross a huge river that has no bridges over it. In summer, there’s a ferry and in winter you cross on foot over the ice. But there’s a short time when it’s impossible to cross it at all because it’s not yet completely frozen, but it’s impassable for the ferry. And there are private entrepreneurs there that look for passengers to make the crossing in small motorboats.

“It was around October when I was there. People told me it wouldn’t be possible to cross on foot for another month, but I didn’t want to wait and was tempted into one of the small motorboats. It was very scary. The river is full of floating icebergs that crash into each other with tremendous force, and I’m sailing there in this little wispy thing, dependent upon a tiny motor that could crash into one of these huge ice blocks at any moment.

“It took a little more than seven minutes but it was awful. There were five of us in the boat. And to make matters worse, the skipper told us that the year before, his brother, who also piloted one of these boats, drowned in the river.”

The only person still living among those who were interviewed in 1957 for the book “Report from the 21st Century” was Prof. Vitaly Ginzburg, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Nobel Prize-winning physicist. He was 93 when Hugo-Bader went to see him at his home in Moscow.

“What was the most important thing that happened in the past 50 years, professor?” an eager Hugo-Bader asked him. “What was the most surprising and special thing?” The professor, sunk deep in his armchair, opened his drowsy eyes, looked around, pointed at his wife Nina and said: “Love.”

Road to nowhere: An atmospheric shot from the book “White Fever.”Credit: Jacek Hugo-Bader
Jacek Hugo-Bader. “In the winter, human feelings and human relations, like the air, become sharper and clearer.”Credit: Emil Salman
A Mongolian child. Hugo-Bader gets up close and personal with his subjects.Credit: Jacek Hugo-Bader
Siberian shepherds under the influence.Credit: Jacek Hugo-Bader
A purifying ceremony at a Shaman clinic. Credit: Jacek Hugo-Bader