A little inside the Arctic Circle, life in Vorkuta is quietly ticking by. The 60,000 or so residents, many of whom still work in the mines that encircle this town in the Pechora coal basin, are getting on with things. Walk into a theatre or café, and you almost forget where in the world you are. Yet you never quite can: like clothes on a withering body, Vorkuta’s own history is too big for it.
Vorkuta’s current town centre is not its first: the original centre from the 1930s, the Rudnik (“Mine”) district, is completely abandoned. Situated across the river from today’s settlement, past the decrepit footbridge, the area has become a ghost town. Even the inhabited part of Vorkuta, with its central Soviet squares and the wide public spaces between housing blocks, seems strangely, perhaps overly, spacious. There is practically none of the post-Soviet infill development that characterises many Russian cities. Not that there is a demand: the population is shrinking, to such an extent that it is almost impossible to imagine a crowd in Vorkuta. The shabby walls of the housing blocks, peeling from the hostile climate, seem to mirror the emptiness of the space they enclose. Then, where the town ends, a desert begins: bare, treeless tundra as far as the Arctic Ocean.
We stopped in Vorkuta during our pokhod (hike) in the Polar Urals, around the Ochenyrd ridge and Khadatinsky lakes. The atmosphere of Vorkuta would become an epigraph to the rest of our journey through the tundra and mountains. Equally, the journey would help us to understand the roots of the town’s problems.
The Polar Urals are replete with reminders of colonisation (of Russian, internal colonisation, to use the expression rehabilitated by the historian Alexander Etkin): Russified Nenets working in collectivized deer farms; ruins of GULAG mines that were closed after Stalin’s death; the carcasses of geological stations built in the late-Soviet period and abandoned in the 1990s; and much besides. Streams, lakes, and ridges have kept their age-old, local names (Ochety, Vorga-Shor, and so on), while the names of the glaciers are strictly Soviet, honouring geologists and institutes connected with the natural sciences: the MGG (International Geology Year) glacier, the MIIGAiK (Moscow State University of Geodesy and Cartography) glacier, the MSU glacier, and so on.
The names of glaciers are reminders us of Soviet scientific research expeditions — for instance, to prospect for minerals or fossil fuels. Vorkuta was an outpost of the state’s economically motivated appropriation of nature and has been witness to its two extremes: on the one hand, the use of forced labour in Stalin-era camps; on the other, the proud conquest of nature by unenslaved researchers and miners. Enthusiasm and violence, heroism and cowardice alternated and overlapped in the appropriation of nature; yet the history of Vorkuta, like many similar histories, has always been driven by an economic logic.
The appropriation of the Pechora coal basin was first proposed in the 19th Century by the Russian industrialist Mikhail Sidorov. Like many projects proposed before the revolution but never realised by the Tsarist government (such as the White Sea-Baltic Canal or the Baikal-Amur Mainline), Sidorov’s ideas were picked up by the Soviet state, including, with especial enthusiasm, by Lenin. The father-and-son geologists and enthusiasts Alexander and Georgy Chernov chose the Vorkuta area to begin the extraction of coal-bearing strata. A monument of Alexander Chernov still graces one of the central squares of Vorkuta.
Following this first, heroic period in the 1920s, when the economy was driven by the pride of researchers and the workers that accompanied them, the history of Vorkuta turned sharply towards the subordination of human pride and dignity. This shift was motivated, as it was supposed at the time, by economic expediency. In 1931, coal in Vorkuta began to be mined almost exclusively by prisoners; later, the settlement would become one of the centres of the GULAG system. Stalin’s government, loath to negotiate the opinions and political will of the population, preferred the use of authoritarian, bureaucratic measures to control the economy and carry out social reforms — a strategy that primarily suited the new social stratum of Soviet bureaucrats. Economic theories were drawn up to support this heavy-handed authoritarianism, proving, from a supposedly Marxist point of view, the utility of using labour in “corrective” camps.
As has now been shown, the theories were erroneous and had very little to do with Marxism. The Vorkuta uprising in 1953 has come to symbolise this period. It marked the moment when people’s pride and self-worth turned against the violence of repression. One of the catalysts for the uprising was the death of Stalin, and the prisoners’ hopes that the regime would be relaxed. Forty-two people died as a result of the uprising. Today, you can visit their burial place near the Yurshor mine — nameless graves in the tundra marked with only the letters and numbers of prisoner serial codes. When you visit Vorkuta knowing the history of the local GULAG, even incidental aspects of the environment can seem to hint at indifference to human plight. Sometimes, this is a matter of imagination; at other times, less so. Take, for instance, the seemingly needlessly strict access to the territories around the mines. It is quite common, without having crossed any barriers or fences, to be intercepted by an officious security guard running in your direction.
After the death of Stalin, however, the ratio of prisoners to non-prisoners working in the mines around Vorkuta continually decreased. The Krushchev thaw was a key period: in 1955, the Council of ministers of the USSR passed a by-law stipulating that a free workforce should be reinstated at the ‘Vorkuta-ugol’ (tr. Vorkuta-coal) industrial complex, a process which was concluded in 1960. By the dissolution of the USSR, the mines in the Vorkuta area were predominantly operated by free citizens. It was around these, post-thaw workers that Vorkuta’s identity was built. Their legacy of working-class pride lends the town its charm today, including on the level of the physical environment: many streets have kept their old slogans, statues, noticeboards, and signs.
Yet the charm is waning. The downturn is once again the result of economic policy, but this time the policy of the post-Soviet state as it winds down coal production. Many mines have now been closed and the population of Vorkuta is thinning fast. For many of its residents, who did not receive adequate welfare support after the dissolution of the USSR and the scaling back of production then, these further closures are a disaster. Not for the first time in Vorkuta’s history, economic policy has come to blows with human pride and dignity and crushed it. This time, though, the fundamental logic is more banal: the accumulation of wealth by the post-Soviet elite. Angry political graffiti on the walls of abandoned districts and satellite villages bear witness to the suppressed anger of this social catastrophe.
One of the most recent and striking examples of chasing profit in the hands of Vorkutaugol, a private equity company which emerged in the post-Soviet era, was the accident at Severnaya mine in February this year. Ignoring the high methane levels in the mine a few days before the tragedy, work continued, while disgruntled miners were told they could always resign — and with that, get rid of their income entirely. A total of 36 people were killed as a result of the gas explosions and subsequent damage. The company announced it would be impossible to cary out rescue work, and despite protests by families of the mine victims, went on prepare for flooding the mine. Flooding was completed in early May, though the fire underground still continues.
The sad lot of Vorkuta is now not so much to withstand nature as to give in to her pressure. In the harsh Arctic climate, houses without regular maintenance decay much faster than in normal conditions while uninhabited, unheated buildings become ruins in just a few winters. From inside these buildings, the smashed-out windows frame a view of other, similar houses, the tundra, and the sky, and – in the villages closer to the Urals, such as the utterly deserted Khalmer-Yu — the distant mountains. Looking out at this desert landscape, on which millennia of natural processes and centuries of human ones have left their traces, the fashionable, posthumanist term ‘“anthropocene” comes to mind. The concept of the anthropocene could only gain a foothold with the birth of post-industrial society or, simply, the death of industrial society, a process Russia is still undergoing.
Is not Russia as a whole running the risk of being consigned to the margins of history, much like this semi-abandoned town?
Today, Vorkuta is a town bereft of its former ambitions, consigned to the margins of history and the economy. However, against the backdrop of a nationwide recession caused by, among other things, the drop in the oil price and Russia’s chronic economic dependence on this natural resource, Vorkuta seems to symbolise more than the decay of Soviet industry. Is not Russia as a whole running the risk — with her economy tied so closely to outdated and non-renewable energy sources while many leading economic powers shift to new, ecologically clean ones — of being consigned to the margins of history, much like this semi-abandoned town, this outpost of internal colonisation? In this context, the message of a huge banner on one of Vorkuta’s streets is especially ambivalent: “Vorkuta is mining Russia’s future!”