The Great Error

The most unpleasant city in Russia - and why no one wants to leave it.

North of the Arctic Circle, roses do not grow. There are no daisies or lilies; there are no sunflowers or geraniums. Only a few species of charmless wildflower have learned to take advantage of the very short, very hot, northern summers. They grow quickly — from one day to the next, the empty tundra fills up with their weedy stems — and they blossom quickly. Then, just as quickly, they die.

In and around the Russian city of Vorkuta, Arctic wildflowers grow in profusion. They grow in the ruins of the old brick factory, which was also, in 1938, the site of a mass execution. They grow beside the obsolete mine shafts, beside the remains of the barracks, around the hollow shell of what used to be a geological institute. They grow inside the left-over walls of unfinished apartment blocks, begun in the days when the city still believed it would continue to grow, and abandoned when it became clear that it would not.

Vorkuta’s own history is short, too: its first 23 settlers arrived in 1931, by boat, via the waterways that run from the Arctic Sea, bringing their wooden picks and shovels with them. Although even the tsars had known about the region’s enormous coal reserves, no one had managed to work out precisely how to get the coal out of the ground, given the sheer horror of life in a place where temperatures regularly drop to -30? or – 40? in the winter, where the sun does not shine for six months of the year, and where, in summertime, flies and mosquitoes travel in great, dark clouds.

But Stalin found a way — by making use of another sort of vast reserve. Vorkuta’s 23 original settlers were, of course, prisoners, and the leaders of that founding expedition were, of course, secret policemen. Over the subsequent two and a half decades, a million more prisoners passed through Vorkuta, one of the two or three most notorious hubs of the Gulag, the vast labour camp system which once stretched from the Finnish border to the Pacific Ocean. Among them were hundreds of thousands of political prisoners: the “enemies of the state” condemned for telling jokes about party bosses, for joining anti-Soviet partisan movements in the Baltic states and Ukraine, or, just as often, for absolutely nothing at all.

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, ugly city which was, quite literally, built on the bones of Stalin’s victims — in summer, the constantly shifting permafrost often brings them up to the surface — and whose subsequent existence was maintained only thanks to the Soviet Union’s inability to calculate things like “cost” and “profit”.

For Vorkuta was not shut down when Stalin died, and the convenient source of cheap labour dried up. Instead, the Soviet authorities built shops and swimming pools and schools: those who flocked to work in the city in the 1960s and 1970s were not prisoners, but well-paid, highly praised, flattered and fêted Soviet heroes of labour, patriots who willingly endured the harsh Arctic conditions in order that the Motherland might have coal. That the cost of heating shoddy Soviet apartment blocks for 11 months of the year is astronomical; that the city’s infrastructure requires huge efforts to maintain; that the construction of large buildings in permafrost is a risky and costly business; that miners could, instead, have been flown in and out on two-week shifts, as they are in Canada or Alaska: none of that was ever explained.

In truth, Vorkuta, now a city of 200,000 people, is — and always was — utterly unnecessary, completely pointless. Why build kindergartens and university lecture halls in the tundra? Why build a puppet theatre? Yet in Vorkuta you cannot ask such questions, even now. You cannot ask them, for example, of Zhenya, a retired geologist with whom I spent the better part of a day. Together, Zhenya and I walked around the city, around the prisoners’ cemeteries, around the ruined geological institute, a once solid structure, complete with columned, Stalinist portico and red star on the pediment. Although her Polish parents were arrested and deported here in the 1940s, although she knows and willingly recounts the city’s gruesome history, Zhenya nevertheless railed 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, it is hard to admit that the place need never have existed. Even if that place is widely famed for atrocity and stupidity, even if that place is notoriously unpleasant and ugly, it is even harder to admit that it ought to be shut down.

Not that anyone else readily admits that this is what should happen either. “There will always be a Vorkuta,” one of the bureaucrats hated by Zhenya told me a few days later, back in Syktyvkar, the regional capital, which lies hundreds of miles to the south. “For ever!” He banged his fist, a touch over-dramatically, on the table. Then he proceeded, more rationally, to explain how hard the Russian government is trying to persuade people, especially pensioners and couples with young children, to leave the city. First, those willing to move are offered flats in more southerly parts of the country. Then they are helped to move. And then — they come back. In fact, the majority come back. Whether unable to find jobs, unable to find friends, or unable to tear themselves away from a place which was once so widely praised and celebrated, they come back.

In Vorkuta, a young woman with two small children, a classic candidate for resettlement, 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 — inside, in plastic pots — because nothing but the weedy wildflowers grow in the courtyard of her falling-down block of flats. “Eto bolshaya problyema,” the bureaucrat explained. “It’s a big problem.”

It is, though, a problem to which the city authorities have found a solution: Vorkuta is burning. One by one, the administration is destroying the wooden barracks of the old camps, inhabited until recently; the concrete apartment blocks, built for a new generation which never materialised; the factories and workshops designed to support a civilisation which never should have been transplanted to this uninhabitable place.

The remains of wooden houses, still smouldering, line the circular road that leads from the city to the mines and back. Soon, no one will be able to return to Vorkuta, because there will be nothing there. Slowly, Vorkuta will contract, and then Vorkuta may well disappear, sinking back again into the tundra from which it so recently emerged.