Sixty-two years ago nine Soviet hikers went off on an adventure together, and tragically crossed over into their final frontier. For the younger ones, most of whom knew each other as fellow students or previous hiking partners, it would not only be to achieve a Level 3 certification, which Igor already had three times over, but to go on holiday and enjoy a sense of fun and freedom, away from both the controlling conformism of a communist system, and of their parental authority.
Igor, the leader, had begged his mother to let him have this 'one last time' before he graduated and was tied down with the working responsibility of being a postgraduate, quite possibly becoming Professor Dyatlov one day, the great inventor, and his mother was to spend the rest of her life regretting she was persuaded he should go. As would Tibo's, after the same discussion over a final trip.
This tragedy will have dominated so many interconnected lives, as dying young always does for those who survive and grow old with their memory, and I'm sure there was never a single day of Yuri Yudin's life went by without him revisiting what happened, trying to make sense of the confounding circumstances, whilst fuelled by survivor guilt, and Lyuda's teddy his shrine to his fallen comrades. Who knows, had she survived, she may have married him and been the loving girl-next-door mother I feel I instinctively know she would have become.
All bar Semyon would be naive in the ways of the world, innocents, they may have been in their early twenties but lived in a closed society and during a pre-internet era where they were still very much kids, their minds full of technical information and study but with as much awareness as an average 'old-before-their-time' 15-year-old has today.
When I learned that Igor sometimes took a radio on his trips, and even a small amplifier to power the sound of a wind-up gramophone typical of those brought back by troops from the war, I liked to imagine him/them either tuning into Berlin radio at altitude and hearing 50s rock & roll, that revolutionary 'lewd' music of youth the world over, just as I had managed to pick up Radio Berlin and Radio Luxembourg on my parents old radiogram, or perhaps they would chill out listening to old records, or heartily sing banned communist songs as the equivalent of their generation's counterculture rap music, and all without parents telling them to turn it down or some sinister character in the background taking notes, or arresting them at a railway station.
Out there in the wilderness, they could be free, be young, be themselves, and talk about anything they liked. The only laws which applied were the particular laws of their physical environment as opposed to those of human ideology. And to enjoy this sense of freedom, in a nation and during a pre-Covid era where enforced staycations were for life, they had to put up with a level of discomfort and a lack of mod con's few young people would tolerate today, where now the right-of-passage is invariably to want their beer, dance drugs and chips for that dirty week in Magaluf. They didn't have social media and spend their days with their heads bowed, glued to a mobile phone screen and having a nervous breakdown if their connection goes down, instead they observed and enjoyed their challenging environment, got some fresh air in their lungs, and some would say they were all the better for it.
On these trips they made do with the ultimate outdoor toilet, no central heating beyond a stove, no bath or shower, no privacy beyond a modesty curtain for the girls to get changed, often in sub zero temperatures, and where the entertainment was at best the chance to watch an obscure movie in a town they passed through. It was the sort of holiday excursion which would rate the lowest on Tripadvisor today, but to them it would be absolute bliss and receive their 5-star reviews. But taking these hiking holidays, during time off from studies and work, was not without risk given the dangers of the environment, and ultimately they were to pay the price of their sense of freedom.
It has intrigued me why I came to care so much what happened to them, for me, relatively new to this mystery, it quickly became something deeper than the opportunity to play armchair detective, and more about the humanitarian angle of a tragedy, an emotion not bound by borders or time. This was amplified when listening to Igor's sister on a podcast, now in her 80s she, and any nephews and nieces Igor never got to see, deserve the truth, for closure, and should there have been any wrongdoing, for justice.
When I was a boy in the 1960s, and I do not claim the following to be at all typical of a Western childhood, I was aware of the "4-minute warning", as it was called in the UK. The idea was sirens and news announcements would go off to indicate an incoming first strike of Soviet missiles where we would pointlessly shelter under tables and away from windows. Of my own decision I never played further than I could run or cycle home in that time, so I could be with my mother, clutching her as the bomb went off, something which was desperately important to me, so that we could, I suppose, be together in any kind of heaven the moment we were incinerated as the house was swept away by a blast like those I'd seen in US bomb test footage on the television.
I was overjoyed when the Berlin Wall fell, and it seemed the Cold War was finally over, and out of it I hoped that risk would never blight any other generation, on either side ever again and that the colossal spend made by both sides when planning to annihilate one another and destroy the planet could instead be directed to a humanitarian use. Only a Cold War kid, on either side, could possibly understand this.
So, given these hikers came from a time when their nation sought to obliterate us, or so we were told, it seems amazing for me to come to care so much about them when I could otherwise see them, especially given what may in some cases have been their technical futures, as the enemy, graduated exponents of a culture which sought to snuff out my own.
A large part of that comes from this web site, where Teddy has created a repository of every known detail about them, turning what may otherwise have been an anonymous bunch of Soviets who died a long time ago into 3-dimensional admirable people, a group of friends with family backgrounds, dreams and ambitions who were not the enemy, they were just like their generation everywhere, and I could, in another life, so easily have been born into them. Thank you for that, Teddy.
So here's to Igor, Rustem, Zina, Lyuda, Tibo, Aleksander, Yuri K, Yuri D and Semyon. You may have died a long time ago but will never be forgotten, and thank you for helping me make peace with peace. A fitting song recorded 36 years ago:
And yes, as this tragedy confirmed, they did, they spent months searching, and they never forgot them.