“The Long Walk” is the first-person story of Slavomir Rawicz, a Pole who is imprisoned in Siberia by the Russians, escapes, and treks thousands of miles through some of the harshest conditions on earth. It’s an amazing story of survival. The book was published in 1956, and has since been published in a couple dozen languages.
The story begins in 1939, when Rawicz is arrested by the Russians, who suspect him of being a spy. As an officer in the Polish army, he had already been wounded in combat against the invading Germans. His only crime against Russia was living too close to the border.
The “long walk” doesn’t actually begin until page 93, and those 93 pages may be the most gripping part of the book.
- For months on end, Rawicz is brutally interrogated and tortured in Russian prisons.
- He is finally sentenced to prison in Siberia after a show-trial at the Lubyanka prison.
- For weeks, he travels to Siberia squeezed into a railroad car with hundreds of other prisoners. Many die as they travel deep into Siberia.
- Near Lake Baikal, around 4000 prisoners are handcuffed to long chains dragged behind trucks, and they spend weeks marching to the remote camp. Many more die.
- The living conditions in the camp, the work details–we see the worst of the Soviet system.
- We come to understand the desolation of Siberia, and why it should be feared.
Rawicz spearheads an escape, meticulously planned, with six other prisoners joining him–including an American who had come to Moscow to help build the subway system and been accused of spying. Most of the prisoners, in one way or another, had been convicted of spying by the paranoid Stalinist regime.
Camp 303 is located near Yakutsk, deep in Siberia. They decide that the safest way to freedom–though not the shortest–is to head south to British-controlled India. The trip takes a year, starting in March 1941. And they cover it all on foot, usually with little food or water, yet ever pushing onward.
About half the distance merely gets them out of Siberia. Along the way, they come across a Polish young woman who had recently escaped from a labor camp. She joins their party.
Eight people enter Mongolia, but only four make it to India. In Mongolia, they cross the dreaded Gobi Desert. They enter into China, then cross the Himalayas through Tibet during the dead of winter. Finally, they encounter some British soldiers–and freedom, at last–in India.
Rawicz tells the story with the eye of a travel reporter. Some of the most interested passages involve the hospitality of villagers and shepherds in Mongolia, China, and Tibet. They never encounter persons who would do them harm, only persons who take them in, give them shelter, feed them, and stock them with provisions for the next part of their journey.
This “story of survival” resembles, to an extent, “Endurance,” the story of the ill-fated 1914 Ernest Shackleton expedition which spent a year stranded in Antarctica. In that book, which I read several years ago, nothing particularly dramatic happened. Yet it was a riveting story of perseverance, of the human spirit refusing to give up.1 Comment