The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, an account of the gruelling and tragic escape by six men from the Siberian gulag in 1941, can be read in one of two ways; firstly, as an astounding true story of a desperate bid for freedom, and secondly, as a nail-biting adventure novel.
The reasons for this are the uncovering of documents by the BBC that suggested that the author had in fact been released from captivity in 1942 as part of an amnesty, and the later coming forward of a Polish WWII veteran who claimed that the story told in the book was in fact his, and not Rawicz’s.
The truth may never be known, but what is certain is that either way The Long Walk makes for a truly incredible read. Before we even get to the escape, we learn of the author’s hellish imprisonment by the Soviets, his farcical trial and his horrific journey to the gulag from which he would later abscond.
This would have been a harrowing enough tale on its own. Firstly, the prisoners, in their thousands, were taken by train into the frozen heart of Siberia. They were carried in carriages meant for cattle and had to stand for the entire trip, which took over three weeks. And then, if that hadn’t been torturous enough, they had to walk the rest of the way behind trucks to which they were chained. This second leg of the journey took over a month. And if they were still standing, upon reaching their destination they then had to build their own barracks.
In due course a plan was hatched and six men escaped during a blizzard. Later, they were joined by a further travelling companion, a young Romanian woman escaping torments of her own.
This dogged party of seven hiked through a Siberian winter before crossing the border into Mongolia. There they endured the Gobi desert, crossed over the Himalayas and finally arrived in British controlled India, where they found freedom.
The journey took over a year and, needless to say, not all of the escapees made it.
Of particular interest for me was the episode in which the party encounter two yetis in the Himalayas. A stand-off ensues in which both parties try and wait the other out, neither wanting to be the first to make a move. The author describes these creatures as being around seven feet tall with reddish-brown hair. What makes this account especially noteworthy was the fact that neither the author nor his companions, at the time the incident occurred, had any inkling that such creatures were even rumoured to exist. They had simply never heard of yetis or abominable snowmen, and yet encounter them they did
So, whichever way you choose to read this book, whether as a true story or an epic adventure, you are sure to feel the travellers’ pain as you make the journey with them; you’ll share their thirst as they cross the Gobi, wince as they rub animal fat into their feet to try and ease the pain of their blisters, share in the warmth of the hospitality extended to them by the kindly strangers they encounter on the way, and shed a tear with every passing.
This is an extraordinary book, beautifully written (the author thanks Ronald Downing for his help in this department) and visceral, and it can mean different things to different people, but most of all The Long Walk stands as a testament of man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man, and the unquenchable desire for freedom that burns within so many of us.