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Vorkuta -- A Hardscrabble Town That Is No Stranger To Tragedy

Vorkuta is a brutal place. This Russian city of 70,000 just north of the Arctic Circle is almost completely dependent on coal mining. It was founded in 1932 as one of the most notorious camps of the Stalin-era gulag system. Out of the initial group of 1,500 prisoners who were sent to the barren wasteland, only 54 survived the ordeal. Nowadays, sons continue to follow their fathers into the mines and the city is still no stranger to tragedy. In late February, a series of methane explosions at the Severnaya coal mine left 36 people dead.


Friends and relatives mourn in front of a memorial for missing mine workers at the Severnaya coal mine.
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Friends and relatives mourn in front of a memorial for missing mine workers at the Severnaya coal mine.

Vorkuta locals stand in front of an impromptu memorial for victims of the Severnaya coal mine explosion, near the entrance to the Vorkutaugol mining company office.
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Vorkuta locals stand in front of an impromptu memorial for victims of the Severnaya coal mine explosion, near the entrance to the Vorkutaugol mining company office.

A central street in Vorkuta
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A central street in Vorkuta

The entrance to Vorkuta's Severnaya coal mine
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The entrance to Vorkuta's Severnaya coal mine

An electric carriage used to transport coal in the Severnaya coal mine lies idle in one of its tunnels.
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An electric carriage used to transport coal in the Severnaya coal mine lies idle in one of its tunnels.

A Soviet-era poster still adorns a wall near the Severnaya coal mine.
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A Soviet-era poster still adorns a wall near the Severnaya coal mine.

Mikhail Momot, a brother and co-worker of one of the victims of the Severnaya accident, drives his car through the streets of Vorkuta. He was on vacation on February 25. At about 2:45 p.m., he'd just returned home from shopping when he noticed cars and trucks from the Emergency Situations Ministry speeding through town on their way to the Severnaya coal mine. Without thinking, he rushed to the mine himself. There he learned of a serious explosion in the pit, and until 3 a.m. he labored with rescuers to reach the miners nearly 800 meters below the surface. These frantic initial rescue efforts succeeded in bringing around 80 miners to the surface alive. But four other miners were found dead and 26 more were missing, including Mikhail's older brother, Konstantin.
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Mikhail Momot, a brother and co-worker of one of the victims of the Severnaya accident, drives his car through the streets of Vorkuta. He was on vacation on February 25. At about 2:45 p.m., he'd just returned home from shopping when he noticed cars and trucks from the Emergency Situations Ministry speeding through town on their way to the Severnaya coal mine. Without thinking, he rushed to the mine himself. There he learned of a serious explosion in the pit, and until 3 a.m. he labored with rescuers to reach the miners nearly 800 meters below the surface. These frantic initial rescue efforts succeeded in bringing around 80 miners to the surface alive. But four other miners were found dead and 26 more were missing, including Mikhail's older brother, Konstantin.

A small makeshift shrine in the home of Konstantin Momot, who was killed in Severnaya coal mine gas explosion
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A small makeshift shrine in the home of Konstantin Momot, who was killed in Severnaya coal mine gas explosion

Konstantin Momot's wife and stepdaughter in their Vorkuta apartment. Momot's wife, Svetlana, says he loved to spend hours maintaining the 300-liter fish tank that dominates the apartment's living room.
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Konstantin Momot's wife and stepdaughter in their Vorkuta apartment. Momot's wife, Svetlana, says he loved to spend hours maintaining the 300-liter fish tank that dominates the apartment's living room.

People line up to pay their last respects to rescue workers at a sports hall in Vorkuta. On February 28, another huge blast at Severnaya killed six rescue workers who were trying to find miners who had gone missing in the initial explosion three days earlier. The rescue operation was subsequently halted. A few days later, the missing miners were declared dead and officials decided to flood the mine in order to extinguish the fire and prevent a major collapse.
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People line up to pay their last respects to rescue workers at a sports hall in Vorkuta. On February 28, another huge blast at Severnaya killed six rescue workers who were trying to find miners who had gone missing in the initial explosion three days earlier. The rescue operation was subsequently halted. A few days later, the missing miners were declared dead and officials decided to flood the mine in order to extinguish the fire and prevent a major collapse.

A snow-removal truck at work on the streets of Vorkuta
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A snow-removal truck at work on the streets of Vorkuta

A Tundra native travels to Vorkuta's main square to give paid sledge rides to local children. 
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A Tundra native travels to Vorkuta's main square to give paid sledge rides to local children. 

Local children slide down a snowhill in a central square in Vorkuta. 
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Local children slide down a snowhill in a central square in Vorkuta. 

A street in central Vorkuta at night
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A street in central Vorkuta at night

Artur Kochkanyan directs a rehearsal for a new play at the Vorkuta State Theater. The theater was founded by gulag prisoners in 1943.
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Artur Kochkanyan directs a rehearsal for a new play at the Vorkuta State Theater. The theater was founded by gulag prisoners in 1943.

Vitaly Alexiyevich Troshin, a former chief architect of Vorkuta and co-chairman of the Memorial rights NGO, inside his makeshift museum of totalitarianism
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Vitaly Alexiyevich Troshin, a former chief architect of Vorkuta and co-chairman of the Memorial rights NGO, inside his makeshift museum of totalitarianism

A Vorkuta landcape with smoke rising from a coal-powered electricity plant in the background
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A Vorkuta landcape with smoke rising from a coal-powered electricity plant in the background

A miners' cemetery in Vorkuta overlooking the Vorkutinskaya coal mine
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A miners' cemetery in Vorkuta overlooking the Vorkutinskaya coal mine

A memorial for Polish gulag prisoners at the entrance to the Vorkutinskaya coal mine
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A memorial for Polish gulag prisoners at the entrance to the Vorkutinskaya coal mine

A sign for the now-closed Tsentralnaya coal mine
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A sign for the now-closed Tsentralnaya coal mine

A memorial for all 99 coal miners who have died at the Tsentralnaya coal mine in Vorkuta since 1953
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A memorial for all 99 coal miners who have died at the Tsentralnaya coal mine in Vorkuta since 1953

Smoke rises from a chimney over Vorkuta in the evening.
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Smoke rises from a chimney over Vorkuta in the evening.

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