A little more than 40 hours after leaving Moscow’s Yaroslavsky station, the Vorkuta Express pulled into its terminus after a 2,000-kilometer journey through the taiga forests and tundra of Russia’s far north. The city lies 150 kilometers inside the Arctic Circle, seemingly at the edge of human habitation.
Its monochrome extremes overwhelm the senses: vast Arctic ice fields punctured with the scars of creaking coal mines.
The city is dying. The fall of the Soviet Union left Vorkuta vulnerable to market forces. In the 1990s, eight of the 13 coal mines closed, and two-thirds of the residents have left in the past 30 years. In 2016, a series of explosions in one of the largest mines killed 36 people and dealt another blow to Vorkuta’s future.
Largely cut off from the rest of Russia, 70,000 people remain in the decaying city. Amid the decline, Nadezhda Kozhevnikova is trying to run a clothing store. She said Vorkuta has been forgotten.
“As far as I understand, we have enough coal reserves for another 50 years. There is demand for coal. So, why are mines not being set up? None are being developed. Nothing is being done,” Kozhevnikova said.
Politics haven’t helped
And yet, few Vorkuta residents voted for change. Seventy-three percent backed President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party in an election Sunday that international observers said was neither free nor fair.
As his students practiced on miniaturized drills and machinery, Victor Telnov wasn’t interested in debating democracy. As director of the Vorkuta College of Mining and Economics, he’s teaching the next generation the skills that will be vital to Vorkuta’s survival. He said Russians must put their faith in Putin.
“As a well-known public figure recently said, ‘Do not have any illusions. This time, we do not elect a president, but a commander-in-chief.’ This election is emblematic, for Russia and for the world community. We show how much we are united as Russians.”
Built by Stalin’s gulag labor
Vorkuta rose from the ice-bound wastelands in the 1930s, built by the forced labor of Josef Stalin’s gulags. Up to 200,000 political prisoners are buried in the permafrost. Gulag prisoners also built the railway, Vorkuta’s only land link with the outside world. The small airport is often closed because of the weather.
Deep beneath the ice, Anatoly Vorobyov and his colleagues mine the same seams of coal that once powered the Soviet Union. He has a short wish list for Putin.
“At the very least, I hope the current standards will be preserved — wage stability, a steady supply of workers who are given everything they need. I mean a social package and all that,” Vorobyov said. “As an improvement, we would certainly like a salary increase. And maybe a new highway to Vorkuta. That would be cool for all the residents.”
A craving for stability, and yet a longing for a faster escape route from this decaying town.
In the 1990s, miners’ wages in Vorkuta went unpaid for 10 months. Memories of that trauma are frozen in the minds of many voters. Life in Vorkuta may seem bleak under Putin’s Russia, but the people here know it could get a lot worse.