What & Where: Mask of Sorrow

In the far eastern port town of Magadan, on Russia’s Pacific coast, lies a sculptural tribute to the victims of Stalin’s brutal regime. From the 1930s to ’50s Magadan was a major transit centre, where prisoners boarded barges to travel the ‘Road of Bones’ to the Gulag labour camps. There the inmates – often jailed for political dissent – were forced to mine for gold in harrowing conditions. The town also played a surprising role in American politics, after Henry Wallace’s presidential candidacy was undermined by his glowing appraisal of the town which was briefly ‘Potemkinized’ for his visit in 1944.

mask of sorrow 1

The Mask of Sorrow was constructed in 1996 by sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, whose history of challenging the Soviet authorities made him an ideal choice for the project. The concrete face stands 15 metres high, perched on a hill overlooking the city. From its left eye, tears form smaller weeping faces, while the right eye holds a barred window. In the rear of the mask, a headless man is depicted on a cross above a black statue of a kneeling young woman, who weeps silently into her hands. mask of sorrow 2The statue holds at its centre a replica of a typical Stalin-era prison cell. On the ground around the Mask, stone markers bear the names of just some of the forced-labour camps of the vast Kolyma region, which were depicted in the Kolyma Tales by former prisoner, Varlam Shalamov.

In 2008 Dmitry Medvedev was the first Russian president to visit the memorial. As he lay flowers at the scene, he spoke of ‘a tragic page in our country’s history’, an indication that Russia may finally be ready to confront the atrocities inflicted on its people by the Soviet administration.

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