Saving Russia’s Armpit

As one might have expected, the 10th anniversary of the Communist coup against Mikhail Gorbachev—whose defeat led directly to the breakup of the Soviet Union—is being marked, in the West, by a mixed bag of intelligent comments, where-are-they-now articles, and the odd spot of dramatic TV footage. Rather than joining this onslaught of theoretical journalism, I suggest, instead, that it might be worth sparing a moment for Vorkuta, where I recently happened to be. Vorkuta is a city built beside a coal mine, north of the Arctic Circle, in barely habitable, treeless tundra. Vorkuta is also the Soviet Union in miniature. Objectively speaking, it’s an awful place, but people lived in it, people got used to it—and now they don’t want it to change.

Untypically, on the day I arrived in Vorkuta, the temperature was climbing into the 70s. The week before, I was told, it had been near freezing—and not long after I left, it dropped again. There are years when the Arctic summer lasts two weeks, and years when it lasts six weeks. In that short period of time, the city’s 200,000 inhabitants are to be found strolling the streets of their city, basking in its perpetual daylight: This is the reward they get for living the other half of the year in perpetual darkness.

True, they can’t stroll very far: Vorkuta is built upon permafrost, which in summer turns into a virtually impassable, mosquito-infested swamp. Nor can they drive anywhere, since Vorkuta and its famous coal mines are not accessible by car: One gets there by train (very crowded) or by plane (very expensive). Nor even, one would imagine, ought the inhabitants of the city to get much pleasure out of contemplating its architecture—click here for pictures—let alone its history. Vorkuta’s first 23 settlers arrived in 1931, via the waterways that run from the Arctic Sea, bringing their wooden picks and shovels with them. This being Stalin’s Soviet Union, these 23 original settlers, were, of course, prisoners, and their leaders were, of course, secret policemen. Over the subsequent two and a half decades, a million more prisoners passed through the city’s coal fields, one of the two or three most notorious hubs of the gulag, the vast labor camp system that once stretched from the Soviet-Finnish border to the Pacific Ocean.

And yet—”Kak vam nravitsa nasha Vorkuta?” I was constantly asked while I was there: “How do you like our Vorkuta?” It is hard to imagine the contemporary inhabitants of Auschwitz asking visitors to share their civic pride, but those who live in Vorkuta do expect praise for their sprawling city. For Vorkuta was not shut down when Stalin died. On the contrary, throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the Soviet authorities built shops and swimming pools and schools, the better to attract inhabitants. They flattered and feted the city’s highly paid miners, telling them they were Soviet heroes of labor. As a result, the city’s inhabitants believed themselves to be patriots, willingly enduring the harsh Arctic conditions in order that the Motherland might have coal. That the price of heating shoddy Soviet apartment blocks for 11 months of the year is astronomical, that the coal from the mines was worth less than the cost of maintaining the buildings and the street, none of that was ever taken into consideration.

Alas, the truth is that Vorkuta, is—and always was—utterly unnecessary. The miners could have been flown in and out on two-week shifts, as they are in Canada or Alaska, spending half their time with their families in the south. Why build kindergartens and university lecture halls in the tundra? Why build a puppet theater? Once constructed, however, such institutions aren’t so easy to dismantle, particularly given the rhetoric that was lavished upon them. In the company of the daughter of former prisoners, I walked around the ruins of the city’s geological institute—a once-solid structure, complete with a columned, Stalinist portico, a red star on its pediment—and listened to her rail against the “thief-democrats” and “greedy bureaucrats” who had, rather sensibly, decided to shut the institute down. If your whole life has been associated with a place, even a place widely famed for atrocity and stupidity, it is hard to admit that it ought to be shut down.

Although they don’t quite come out and say it, the bureaucrats in the regional capital, Syktyvkar, know this perfectly well. “Vorkuta will always exist,” one of them told me: “Forever!” He banged his fist, a touch over-dramatically, on the table. Then he proceeded, more rationally, to agree that it might have been wiser to adopt a different system of exploiting the coal. He also explained that the Russian government is in fact trying to persuade people, especially pensioners and couples with young children, to leave the city, the better to reduce its size and the expense of maintaining it. There is, he told me, a pattern. First, those willing to move are offered flats in more southerly parts of the country. Then, they are helped to move.

But then—they come back. In fact, he said, the majority come back. Whether unable to find jobs, unable to make friends, or unable to tear themselves away from a place that was once so widely praised and celebrated—they come back. In Vorkuta, a young woman with two small children—a classic candidate for resettlement, and herself the granddaughter of prisoners—told me with wide eyes how much she loves her city. “I have been other places, but nowhere else is as good as our Vorkuta.” She showed me the ordinary violets she cultivates in summer—inside, in plastic pots—because nothing but weedy wildflowers grow in the courtyard of her falling-down block of flats during the short Arctic summer.

Of all the obstacles confronting those economists and politicians who would sincerely like to reform Russia, none is more formidable than this: the power of habit. Vorkuta, like the Soviet Union, ought never to have been built in the first place. It required slave labor to construct and an enormous propaganda machine to maintain. From a purely economic and practical point of view, it ought to be dismantled. But it will take more than 10 years—more than a generation—to accustom its inhabitants to something else.