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The black island of the Arctic

This piece originally appeared in Issue 1/2017 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

June 28, 2017 - Daniel Wańczyk - Articles and Commentary


Today, 86 years from the moment when Stalin, against the opinions of all specialists, decided to build Vorkuta, the city still stirs extreme emotions. They are fear, hate and regret, but also curiosity, admiration and enchantment. With this ambivalence, tragic history and harsh climate, it is easy to lose sober judgment and be carried away by one of the well-worn narratives, repeated versions of history and myths. I ventured to Vorkuta not to unmask or legitimise them but to find out what life used to look like here and what it looks like now. How do people work? How do they rest? What is their everyday life and outlook for the future?

Everyone is a migrant

Vorgashor is one of the towns in Vorkuta’s agglomeration. A few dozen meters from an open tundra, on the ground floor of a socialist-style high-rise apartment building, there is a small bookshop. It is the empire of Anastasia Grigorievna, a short blonde woman with a warm smile and even warmer eyes. Warmth is extremely rare and precious here, so I will not leave the room too soon. Grigorievna is a bit over 50 and comes from Vinnytsia. She came to Vorkuta in 1975 when she was only 14 years old. How did it happen that she ended up in the Arctic? Simply put, she came to visit her sister who had just given birth to a son and needed help in caring for him. How did the sister end up here? She came with her husband. So how did it happen that the brother-in-law ended up in the Arctic? After graduating from his institute, he was allocated to work in the mine. My interlocutor magnetises with her stoicism and simplicity of judgment: that is life; there is nothing to waffle on. In Vorkuta almost everyone is a migrant. “My husband and I are from Ukraine,” she says, “but in this building also live Tatars, Moldovans and God knows who else.”

 Były basen

The bookshop is tiny. There are few fiction books, some classics, romance, a few fantasy novels, cookbooks and two guidebooks. You can even find some poetry, including collections written by local authors. But textbooks and school accessories sell best. As I speak with the owner bundled up children pop in to take a look. The outside temperature is minus 25 degrees Celsius and the Arctic snowstorm begins. The young clients buy notebooks, crayons and greeting cards for the Defender of the Fatherland Day or Women’s Day, both of which are coming up soon. Yet the bestseller is the Komi language textbook. Its sales, however, are not a result of the locals suddenly falling in love with the indigenous language, Grigorievna explains. On the contrary, if they could the parents would send the proponents of this new school requirement to hell, but they also know that what has to be done has to be done.

Vorkuta was to be built!

In the 1920s the Soviet Union began a large-scale process of settlement and industrialisation on the territories located above the Arctic Circle. The main impulse was the discovery of rich deposits of black coal and other resources as well as the will to prove to the world that the new man – the Soviet man – is capable of overcoming all challenges, both natural and mental. The Soviet north was vast, but the Pechor coal basin, a territory of around 90,000 square kilometres spreading on the western slopes of the Arctic Urals, had a special place on the map. Systematic, although initially only theoretical, research of the area was initiated in 1923 by Alexander Chernov. In summer of 1930 it was followed up with a scientific expedition led by Giorgiy Chernov (Alexander’s son) which discovered rich deposits of coking coal at the Vorkuta River. Quite obviously, the name of the river explains the origin of the city’s name.

Until Chernov’s expedition nobody believed that reaching the Arctic areas was possible. Yet, the samples supplied to Moscow left no doubts – deposits of such quality had not been found anywhere before. While few people still believed that it would be possible to organise industrial coal mining in the Arctic and transport it to “the continent”, Stalin’s decision was short and unequivocal: “Vorkuta was to be built!” Since that moment everyone had no choice but to start thinking as how to implement the leader’s order. Costs were not an issue, especially human labour.

 Czekając na odwilż

The first searching and mining expedition – half of which was made up of hired workers and the other half was made up of prisoners – reached the area in 1931. The team had to transport everything on their backs, from boats, tools and construction materials to food. The Vorkuta River area was rich in coal but nothing else. There were no trees and conditions were too harsh for agriculture. With the exception of a few nomads, there were no permanent inhabitants. The first mine with two drifts opened in 1932. The local landscape was diversified by the ever growing piles of black coal, as it was still unclear how to most effectively transport it. Intense extraction required manpower, especially since people’s hands were almost the only available tool. By the winter of 1932 there were already 1,500 prisoners working in Vorkuta. By spring 1933 only 54 survived. The high mortality rate meant there was a need for more prisoners. They were found and sent here. In 1933, after 103 days, a 72-kilometer-long narrow-gauge railway connecting the mine with Vorkuta-Vom (a port) was constructed. It was the world’s first railway built on permafrost. In 1940, ten years after the initial discovery, there were already four mines operating in Vorkuta and 15,000 prisoners extracting a million tonnes of coal a year. However, the real acceleration took place in 1941 when the Germans took over Donbas, thereby depriving Russians access to those mines.

At that time, without coal it was impossible to live, build and, above all, fight. Hence hope and efforts were put into the still crawling Vorkuta. In late autumn 1941, 30,000 prisoners worked in the city and, apart from working in the mines, were involved in building the railway connecting Vorkuta with Koniusha. As a result, 1,875 kilometres of track running through the permafrost, tundra and taiga were put into use in 1942. Now nothing stood in the way of a fast, dependable and effective means of transport. Trains full of Vorkuta coal were pelting from the north to the south. Tens of thousands of prisoners made the same journey, but in the opposite direction. It is worth stressing that until now it is the only land path that can take you to Vorkuta.

Perhaps the most important date in Vorkuta’s history was August 26th 1955. On that day the Council of Ministers of the USSR decided to change the mines’ work system to free hiring. For the first time Vorkuta became a city of free people. Maybe not exactly on that day and not entirely free, but without a doubt it was a symbolic moment. The decision initiated a new paradigm in development but also changed the social perception. Vorkuta began to attract young geologists, architects, construction engineers, as well as outsiders seeking adventure and escape. Alexander Kamylkov – a geologist, sightseer, a walking encyclopaedia of Vorkuta, and co-author of the monumental monograph Vorkuta na ugl’e (Vorkuta on top of Coal) with whom I am drinking tea in a Soviet café right next to the representative Palace of Miners’ Culture – remembers that the heyday of Vorkuta’s development were the 1960s, 70s and 80s, which was possible thanks to the enthusiastic people who wanted to discover life in the Arctic. Albert Bernstein, an engineer who came to Vorkuta in 1962, in his short story Iskorka (The Spark) wrote that there were many pretenders to the title of “inhabitant of the Arctic”, but few passed the harsh test – the majority resigned after a few weeks or months at most. Those who managed to survive two years, stayed for decades.

 Między miastami

Conquerors of the North

Elena Pavlovna had worked as an assembler in a factory in Donetsk for ten years. The work was monotonous and arduous, but she was used to the daily routine and pushed away the idea of changing jobs or place of residence; at least until the spring of 1965, when she bought a ticket to Vorkuta. Pavlovna explains that she always wanted to have a role in taming the Arctic. There she found a job and after a few weeks she knew she would not leave.

“What struck me the most,” Pavlovna says, “was that the people in Vorkuta worked completely differently. They had the zeal, they simply wanted to work.” She continues, “I remember my first Labour Day march. When I passed the tribune, people started chanting: ‘Glory to the builders of the Arctic – the brave conquerors of the North!’ I felt tears well up in my eyes. I was a builder of the Arctic. I had my own place on earth, my purpose.” Today these words sound anachronistic, and feel like Soviet propaganda, but they express real emotions.

A significant role in Vorkuta’s development was played by the “long rouble”, meaning bonuses added to wages for work in difficult conditions. Workers were provided with accommodation, had more time off and were often guaranteed a holiday in Crimea, Sochi or Yugoslavia.  As a result, Vorkuta’s inhabitants travelled more often than people living in other parts of the Soviet Union. They could save money or pay for their children’s education – many of them attended music schools.

In the 1960s, 29 mines were already in use and a new town in the agglomeration came into being. In 1975 the largest black coal mine in Europe was opened in Vorgashor. New mines were being built and extraction increased. Vorkuta and its population grew. By 1989 the agglomeration had over 220,000 people, while Soviet urbanists and engineers predicted it would reach 300,000 in just a few years.

The fall of the myth

Yet, the prognoses never came to fruition. After years of spectacular growth, together with the collapse of the USSR, came the dramatic end to the Vorkuta dream. The mines closed, one by one. Savings were consumed by inflation and there were no funds to pay for current commitments. There were 29 mines in 1960, and by 1991 only 13 survived. Today only four are in operation. Tens of thousands left as a result – in 1989 there were 220,000 people, today there are only 70,000 left. The tragedy of Vorkuta is the tragedy of the whole agglomeration, the whole archipelago, which, apart from the capital, consists of 22 towns spread in the radius of 70 kilometres. Today, 13 of them are ghost-towns, left behind and depopulated. The existence of the remaining ones lies in the balance.

 Salto 1

One of the saddest and most tragic is the story of Khalmer-Yu, a town located 70 kilometres north-east of Vorkuta. In the Komi language Khalmer-Yu means a “place in the valley of death” and before 1940 it was a traditional place of cult for the nomadic Nenets people. The exploration of coal deposits began here in 1942 but due to the extreme conditions, the mine began to operate only in 1957. It improved with time, however. By 1959 the town was home to 7,122 inhabitants, which included a city infrastructure. Khalmer-Yu was connected with Vorkuta by a narrow-gauge railway. There was work, there was money and there was a purpose to life. But when the unprofitable mine closure programme was launched in 1993, Khalmer-Yu turned out to be the first on the list. Strikes, protests, requests and pleads did not help. Those who did not leave on their own were displaced by police forces. The whole operation was finished in 1995 and a military polygon was set up in the town’s territory. On August 17th 2005, within the framework of strategic aviation exercises, a TU-160 bomber with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin aboard fired three missiles, which spotlessly hit the target. It was Khalmer-Yu’s former community centre.

In Nikita Mikhailov’s 1978 film, Pyat’ vecherov (Five evenings) the main character Alexander Petrovych Ilyn, a driver from Vorkuta, arrives in Moscow where he accidentally meets Tamara Vasilevna, his old love from 18 years ago. Despite the time, the old spark is found. Alexander tries to convince Tamara to leave Moscow and live with him in the remote north. The film takes place in the late 1950s. Today, no one in Moscow would consider living in Vorkuta. Remarkably, for over 25 years not a single residential building was constructed there. Though with such a rapid outflow of people it is hardly surprising; over half of the agglomeration’s buildings are empty.

Nevertheless, Yana Ivanovna Zayanchauskaite from the city’s main real estate agency states that the property market has remained at the same level for the past few years. A two- or three-bedroom flat in the city can be purchased for about 700,000 roubles (around 10,000 euros). However, the majority of properties in this price range carry a high risk of being dismantled. At the same time, prices of the most attractive properties can reach up to two million roubles (30,000 euros). Apartments bought by miner families in areas close to the mines belong to a separate category – a 50-metre flat in a decent condition can be purchased for 600,000 roubles. Rental is another issue. For a variety of reasons Vorkuta’s inhabitants never liked to rent and therefore rental prices are relatively high in comparison to those offered for sale. You would have to spend between 10,000 and 15,000 roubles (150-220 euros) to rent a studio flat and between 15,000 and 20,000 (220-300 euros) for a two-bedroom flat. This is a considerable amount given the fact that the average monthly salary in Vorkuta is 24,700 roubles (360 euros), while the Russian average is 35,000 roubles (515 euros). This inclines that people spend a minimum of 40 per cent of their wages on rent. Salaries in the mines are on a similar level – an entry-level miner earns between 20,000 and 25,000 roubles (300-370 euros) while an experienced foreman or engineer earns between 80,000 and 90,000 roubles (1175-1325 euros) monthly. These numbers might sound encouraging for job seekers, but the truth is that there is a high level of danger in the mines. Since 1994 there have been 161 accidents in which 116 people have died. Thus, a fear of further accidents is easily sensed.

The living conditions show that prices of daily necessities are about 20 per cent higher than the central parts of the country. The reason for this is simple: the majority of goods have to be transported a long way and the cost of transport (only by train or plane) increases the price. Other maintenance costs are also higher. Nine months of winter makes everything – electricity, clothing, heating and transportation – expensive.Dworzec Workuta

“What is next for Vorkuta?” I ask Grigorievna from the bookshop. “I don’t know,” she says, “25,000 people used to live in the city, now it may be seven, but the mine still operates, so I hope that I will stay here till the end of my days. This is my place, my home, my tundra. I do not want to leave, but if I have no choice, I will go back to my family in Vinnytsia. I do not want to think about it, anyway, the government is making plans for tourism development in the Arctic and they have built barracks recently, they are setting up a military unit…”

I ask Kalmykov the same question and hear the same answer at first: “I do not know.” But then adds: “Although in 2011 two promising investments were finalised – the Novolipets Metallurgy Conglomerate bought a land located 56 kilometres from Vorkuta, and Severstal (the owner of the Metallurgy Conglomerate in Cherepovets, which is the main recipient of coal from Vorkuta), the owner of all the mines in Vorkuta – land within the city. Both companies announced the construction of new mines. People received the information enthusiastically, but since the announcement no works have begun. I feel sorry for Vorkuta, but let us be honest – all mining towns have a finite lifespan, which ends either with the exploitation of the coal deposits or as a result of market forces. This is what we know before we even drive the first pickaxe. But with the development of mines and construction of towns around them, people want to forget what they know and reject it. But such a rejection does not mean that the facts will change – in the end, life always says “check”. And maybe this is what is happening in Vorkuta today. We are witnessing the collapse of a myth – it turned out to be, as Russians say, “inadequate.”

Translated by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

Daniel Wańczyk has a degree in political science, Russian philology and philosophy. He is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Philosophy, Jagiellonian University. He has received scholarships from the Minister of Science and Higher Education to study at the Moscow University and the European Commission to study at the University in St Petersburg. He researches Russian identity. 

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