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Reporter’s Notebook: A Train Trip To The Land Of The Gulag

Even In Former Gulag, Stalin's Popularity Persists
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WATCH: Even In Former Gulag, Stalin's Popularity Persists

Forty hours, 30 minutes, 26 stops, and 2,268 kilometers to the end of the line -- all without crossing into a new time zone. As part of RFE/RL's coverage of the 60th anniversary of the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, correspondent Tom Balmforth took the train from Moscow to Vorkuta, a town just north of the Arctic Circle that was built around one of the Soviet Union’s most notorious Gulags.


21:50: I board the fast train to Vorkuta from Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station. “Fast” train means 40 hours, 30 minutes (instead of 48 hours).

I have the top bunk in a four-person cabin with Aleksandr, 35, and Anya, 18. There's no fourth person yet. I am immediately reminded of Russian train culture. I feel unprepared without slippers and a babushka-selected hamper of chicken, sausages, bread, boiled eggs, and pickled this-and-that. Instead, I have biscuits and a rather severe selection of prison literature, including Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “House of the Dead,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” and Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag.”

Aleksandr is traveling from Rostov-na-Donu to Vorkuta for a job as an underwater diver helping lay a branch of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline along a riverbed. At 60 hours, that’s a long commute. Anya, however, is in her third (soon to be fourth) day of train travel as she journeys from southern Ukraine’s Simferopol to Mikun in the Komi Republic to stay with her aunt.

Like many of Komi’s northern towns, Vorkuta, which is 150 kilometers inside the Arctic Circle, came into existence in 1931 as a Gulag camp. Today, the town is on the wane, its main industry -- coal -- on the decline.

Day 2

10:55: The schedule says we are approaching the town of Velsk. Snow-laden pine trees rush past the window. Occasionally, we pass small settlements of wooden dachas, some of them with bright pastel walls under snowy roofs. I haven’t had a signal on my phone today.

11:40: Pulling into the town of Velsk means we’re already in Arkhangelsk Oblast, which rolls all the way to the White Sea. There is a pocket of network coverage; passengers make phone calls. Total whitewash outside. Thirty minutes later, we pull into Kuloi, working our way further along the southern rim of the oblast. The town’s main feature, at least from the tracks, seems to be a large plant belching out dark smoke. I spot a woman in a green skirt taking a dog for a walk with an ax in her hand. Beside us on the tracks are cargo trains carrying propane gas, timber, and coal south from the resource-rich northern extremes.

Turns out the police (train security) are based in the cabin next door. Half-dressed police officers occasionally amble down the corridor wearing, for example, a blue uniform shirt, orange shorts, and flip-flops. They’ve plugged an extension cord from the communal power point in the corridor leading directly into their cabin and are blasting out Russian rap music.
SPECIAL REPORT: 60 Years After Stalin

14:45: Aleksandr has been showing us a video of himself diving in the Barents Sea to carry out monitoring on the underside of an oil rig. It’s impressive, although slightly dizzying as it goes on for over an hour and is filmed with a camera strapped to the helmet of his cosmonaut-like swimsuit. He’s clearly very proud of his work and Anya is impressed. They end up talking about Russian superstitions linked to water and lakes. For instance, you’re apparently meant to offer something of value to Lake Baikal if you visit it. Aleksandr says there is a lot about water that isn’t explained by the chemical formula H2O and that currents have a mind of their own.

PHOTO GALLERY: Vorkuta -- From Labor Camps To Industrial Decline

We’re now moving onto Aleksandr’s photos. One of them shows him posing in front of Murmansk’s war memorial (a towering Soviet soldier) while standing onboard a boat called the “Anna Akhmatova.” He knows the soldier faces west, symbolically keeping watch, but not who the boat was named after: a dissident poet who lost several relatives to Stalin’s Gulag.

More pines. More birch. It’s clearly not that cold outside because there is slush stuck to the windows, although everything is, of course, white. Must still be part of the warm spell of weather that hit Moscow at the beginning of February.
Aleksandr, 35, is traveling to Vorkuta to work as a diver on the Nord Stream gas pipeline. He says Stalin can be condemned just as easily as he can be praised.
Aleksandr, 35, is traveling to Vorkuta to work as a diver on the Nord Stream gas pipeline. He says Stalin can be condemned just as easily as he can be praised.
Aleksandr explains to Anya that the Scottish are to the English what the North Caucasians are to the Russians. I don’t pipe up. Anya has a slow provincial accent and says “ZVON-yat” and not “zvon-YAT” ("they call"). She says the last leg of her journey was awful. She was pestered by a drunk and got fined for smoking in the wrong carriage.

17:30: We just had a 40-minute stopover in South Kotlas. Under Stalin, the city of Kotlas served as a transit Gulag camp from which prisoners would be transported to Arkhangelsk Oblast’s northernmost camps. The carriage already feels a lot less full as we progress north. The cabins next to us are empty. By 18:00, it is completely dark. Aleksandr reveals this is his second trip to Vorkuta -- he was working there at the end of the year and has the distinction of having spent New Year’s Eve in Vorkuta. He says the sun never rose, although it became light between 10:00 and 14:00.

We’re more than halfway. More pines. More birch. The place names have started sounding distinctly un-Russian. Anya says we must have crossed into the Komi Republic as they’ve started “breaking the language.”

22:50: Anya gets off at Mikun to take a bus to Syktyvkar, the regional capital. The small town was also founded as a Gulag camp. The cops next door are cranking up the volume. A few stops later a large, slightly overweight guy gets in. He’s in the bunk below. He asks where we’re going and seems to smirk when we say Vorkuta. Then he goes straight to sleep.

"We haven’t yet crossed out of the taiga into the tundra, as there are still trees."
"We haven’t yet crossed out of the taiga into the tundra, as there are still trees."
Aleksandr talks for a while about his political views. He believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin requires more power and authority. He says Putin is being thwarted by greedy deputies bickering in the State Duma. He believes Russia should have only two parties because it becomes too complicated with the current four (although he admits they are not classical “opposition parties”). He grows slightly angry when he says that the United States is trying to sell Russia substandard meat that it would not feed its own citizens.

The Komi Republic was badly mapped and explored until the 1920s when the bid to industrialize sparked efforts to exploit its natural resources with Gulag labor. Komi’s towns -- like Pechora, Ukhta, Inta, and its capital, Syktyvkar -- were all planned and built by prisoners. So was the railway. Vorkuta lies at the end of a thin appendage of the Komi Republic that runs northeast into the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Local residents say the railway is built “on bones.”

Day 3

10:40: I rise after an awful night’s sleep with the sun streaming through the window. The new (and already departed) passenger turned out to be a heavy snorer. And Aleksandr (by this time “Sasha”) decided at around 05:00 to start watching a film on his laptop without headphones. Unsurprisingly, he is still sleeping. We haven’t yet crossed out of the taiga into the tundra, as there are still trees. Have been looking out the window (perhaps absurdly) hoping to spy clues of the Gulag that was once here and imagining what it must have been like to build this railway line.

"The landscape is awesome in its bleakness. There are huge plains where the snow lies in drifts, almost like frozen waves."
"The landscape is awesome in its bleakness. There are huge plains where the snow lies in drifts, almost like frozen waves."
11:20: Now the view through the window is bleak, ghostly, and monochrome: white sky, white snowy pines on gently undulating land, and the occasional distant industrial plant. The conductor is already sweeping the corridor and clearly doesn’t expect there to be more travelers heading further north.

12:40: The landscape is awesome in its bleakness. There are huge plains where the snow lies in drifts, almost like frozen waves. We occasionally cross bridges over frozen rivers with swirling snow-dust lit up by the sun.

13:10: I think we just crossed into the tundra. I hadn’t expected it to be such a sudden, clear break. There is nothing growing apart from forlorn bushes. The carriage is mostly empty.

13:35: We just passed a stretch of gas pipeline being laid underground that, according to Sasha, belongs to a second branch of Nord Stream. Every now and again we pass three-meter high wooden barriers, which I am told are to keep reindeer from crossing onto the tracks as they migrate south at the height of winter. A few kilometers later, five gas compression plants are on the horizon.

14:21: We arrive on time after more than 40 hours. It has recently been minus 40 degrees Celsius in Vorkuta, but on this day it is unseasonably warm at minus 17 -- “practically summer,” as a local coal miner would later joke. (Despite the permafrost, the snow here does actually thaw for three months of the year.)

I bid farewell to Sasha. It feels like we’ve traveled so far, but in fact we’ve only made it to the easternmost edge of European Russia. In Russia’s Far East, they are still eight hours ahead and in Kaliningrad, one hour behind.

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Josef Stalin?

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Josef Stalin?

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