Exploring Gulag Remains: Vorkuta

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Komi Republic, Russia

During the Soviet era, prisoners literally built the city in the middle of nowhere.

Although it was just about minus twenty degrees centigrade, it felt more like minus thirty.

It was December of 2015 when I hopped on the train bound for Vorkuta in Nizhny Novgorod. I was going to spend a total of two nights in a cozy Russian sleeper train. In Russia, Vorkuta has an infamous reputation: the city is a former Gulag (Soviet labour camp) and almost all of the residents still living there are descendants of inmates, or former inmates themselves. For this reason, Russians tend to avoid trains coming from and going to Vorkuta, and are known to unjustly stereotype people from Vorkuta as criminals.

The city is situated about 1,900 kilometres from Moscow and 160 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, giving it a subarctic climate. The average lowest temperature in December is -21.6°C, although it often feels colder because of the city’s proximity to the Kara Sea in the North and the lack of any vegetation in the surrounding tundra.

During the Soviet era, prisoners literally built the city – which still had a population of 60,000 inhabitants in 2017 – in the middle of nowhere: the vast tundra of Russia’s “Extreme North.” Most inmates were political prisoners who didn’t lack intelligence, a fact which is unfortunately uncommon knowledge throughout the rest of Russia. The ill-fated new inhabitants of the Arctic also didn’t lack courage, since the camp has been known for its many strikes, including the great uprising of 1953, which was extremely well-planned. Currently, the population is decreasing rapidly; the numbers have halved since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most people still want to leave in search of a better future elsewhere, but are unable to do so, most often because of financial reasons. Alcoholism and drug abuse rates are high.

After arriving in Kirov approximately six and a half hours later, most passengers disembarked, and the train became half-empty. About two hours later, the train continued its journey without hesitation through the thick layers of snow. It would only stop at small settlements after this point, many of them with a similar harrowing past. I was traveling third class – or “platskartny”, as the Russians call it – which means that the whole wagon was open and there were no separate compartments. As I was walking to the front of the carriage about every 30 minutes to refill my cup of tea, my fellow passengers started to notice the unusual presence of a foreigner on the train. Although my Russian was horrible at the time, I engaged in a couple of interesting and funny conversations.

Rudnik – which is Russian for “mine” – is the part of town where it all began. The first buildings were built here, and were purposed for anyone but the unfortunate. Mostly officials and prison guards lived in those buildings, just metres from where the workers toiled. Once, it was the heart of power. Now, years later, only a few abandoned buildings remain, separated from the city by a half-collapsed bridge.

This was the experience I was looking for; exploring the buildings of former Soviet officials and harsh commanders who were obeyed by thousands of people in darker times.

Together with Lyusia, the girl I was staying with in the city, I dared to walk the loose planks that made up the bridge, now and then having to avoid stepping into a hole where planks were missing. We were in complete darkness, of course, since the sun doesn’t rise at all in Vorkuta in the winter. Although it was just about minus twenty degrees centigrade, it felt more like minus thirty. I was easy prey for the unforgiving cold wind from the nearby tundra, standing alone on a bridge without any cover. My “shapka”, bought in Vologda a year earlier, became my best friend. It was that moment I considered the fine print claim, hidden on the inside of the hat – “самый лучший Русский мех” – to be valid.

The girl, Lyusia, recognized me instantly when I got off the train, and at first, I was having a hard time finding a familiar face in the cold snowstorm that welcomed me. With Lyusia and her friends, I had a very good time. Her boyfriend owned a shisha bar, hidden in the basement of an apartment complex. One evening, things got so out of hand that I ended up drunk-driving a snowmobile through the tundra wasteland just outside the city. We also managed to visit one of her teachers, a lady with a golden heart who offered me a warm shower and a jar of mushrooms to bring home that she had collected herself.

Although I had to sacrifice my fingers in the freezing cold every time I wanted to take a picture, the photos I took are unfortunately low-quality, thanks to the ever-present darkness.