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Vorkuta: Gulag Is Gone, But A Virtual Prison Has Taken Its Place

Miner Konstantin Rimenov, an unabashed Stalinist, has worked in the mines around Vorkuta for 27 years.
Miner Konstantin Rimenov, an unabashed Stalinist, has worked in the mines around Vorkuta for 27 years.
VORKUTA, Russia -- Anna Krikun can barely read the yellowing papers that show she was sentenced as a young woman to hard labor in one of Stalin’s cruelest Gulag camps.

At 90, her eyesight is fading. But she remembers everything as if it happened yesterday. She recalls the name of the investigator who tortured her with a sleep-deprivation technique known as the “conveyor” until she confessed to betraying the motherland and agitating against the Soviet Union.

It was 1946, the throes of the Stalinist terror, and Krikun was sent to Vorkuta – a labor camp-cum-city built from nothing on an icebound wasteland by political prisoners from 1931 to 1957.

Today, the city is still a byword for the suffering of the ill-equipped labor brigades that were effectively sent to their death as Stalin used his enemies – both real and imagined -- to tap into vast natural resources in the uninhabited Far North.

And yet here, in this inhospitable outpost, Krikun has remained all these years.

Freed in 1957 and joined by her mother, Krikun could not return home to the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The family house had been destroyed during World War II, their ownership documents were lost, and no friends or family had survived.
SPECIAL REPORT: 60 Years After Stalin

Without the money or contacts to leave, she remained in Vorkuta and grew old. Now too frail to venture out of her little apartment where she lives a life of reflection with ticking clocks and a sleepy ginger cat, Krikun exudes a practiced stoicism.

"Why would I leave? At least here I know what to do if something happens," she says. "What would become of me if I arrived alone to a new city, old and needed by nobody?"

No Way To Leave

Today, the Gulag is long gone and there are only a handful of people like Krikun who witnessed the height of the Soviet repressions.

And yet more than half a century later, Vorkuta has become a prison for a new generation unable to find a way to leave. Many say they lack the money to move away and are trapped in this remote and declining coal town, suffering from the legacy of a Stalinist experiment 60 years after he died.

Many of them even came to Vorkuta willingly.

Vladimir Zharuk is campaigning to have pensioners resettled to the south.
Vladimir Zharuk is campaigning to have pensioners resettled to the south.
Vladimir Zharuk came to the city from Ukraine in 1979 as a 17-year-old aspiring geologist. He was prepared to brave the bleak climate in exchange for "hardship" pay and a shortcut to retirement in the south.

But 34 years after he arrived, Zharuk looks as far as ever from leaving. He calls himself one of thousands of "hostages of the Far North."

His geology work dried up in the 1990s when exploration plans were shelved. Zharuk then took to the coal mines to make a living but suffered a debilitating injury in 2005. He now subsists, with his wife and two sons, on a pension of 15,000 rubles ($490) a month.

Zharuk, who still speaks with a soft Ukrainian accent, enrolled in a federal resettlement program to move his family south in 1997. But over the past 16 years he found that the program is massively oversubscribed and that the resettlement rate is painfully slow.

According to a 2011 count, there were 2,179 disabled persons, 12,802 pensioners, and 7,028 working-age citizens waiting to receive accommodation below the Arctic Circle from the state.

Last year, only 117 pensioners were reportedly resettled. At that rate, it will take more than a century to resettle everybody who is waiting, according to Zharuk, who equates the failure of the resettlement program to a "genocide" of the elderly.

He claims the authorities are deliberately trying to stem emigration to keep the city afloat.

"My children are getting older. I cannot move out of here, and they can’t either," Zharuk says. "They will have to go into slavery. Where? They can be slaves in the mines or somewhere else. The authorities benefit."

Determined To Leave

It wasn't always so hard to leave Vorkuta.

In the 1990s, many young people left to find work elsewhere as eight of the town's 13 coal mines closed, reducing some suburbs to wind-blasted ghost towns. The government helped relocate those who lost their jobs; pensioners moved in with relatives in the south if they had them. Others relocated under a program sponsored by the World Bank.

Abandoned buildings in Vorkuta, where the population decreased by some 120,000 people in 30 years.
Abandoned buildings in Vorkuta, where the population decreased by some 120,000 people in 30 years.
The city's population plummeted from 217,000 in the late 1980s, when Zharuk's 24-year-old son Vadim was born, to 96,000 today.

The suburb of Vorgoshor, where the Zharuks and Krikun live, has emptied precipitously, the front doors of vacant apartments marked by a few nails or planks of wood.

Many of those who remained, especially after the 1998 financial crisis wiped out many Russians' savings, simply lacked the means, opportunity, or wherewithal to get out.

Nevertheless, young people like Vadim Zharuk, who aren’t interested in a life in the mines, are determined to leave, despite the odds. After studying in the Moscow Oblast, he has seen what life can be like outside remote and icy Vorkuta.

He says he is considering moving to Tver, where he has friends.

"I know what it’s like to live in a different city. I can compare life in Vorkuta with life in Zelenograd in Moscow Oblast," he says. "It's two completely different worlds."

But Vadim tempers his criticism with praise of the tundra’s beautiful summers and stunning white nights.

Like many residents, he is also proud of this city, where a deep sense of solidarity and camaraderie has risen out of a brutal past.

'Capital Of The World'

Vorkutlag, the city's Stalin-era labor camp, once heaved with political prisoners from so many countries that it earned the droll nickname of the "capital of the world."

Today, it still has a retro Soviet feel. Vorkuta's central Lenin Street is adorned with signs exhorting citizens to mine more coal for the motherland. Banners from the ruling United Russia party call on citizens to "build the future together."

The camps at Vorkuta were established in 1931 to mine coal deposits.
The camps at Vorkuta were established in 1931 to mine coal deposits.
From 1931 to 1957, 2 million prisoners from the U.S.S.R. and 21 other countries passed through the Gulag system here. Local historians say there are 200,000 political prisoners buried in the permafrost in marked and unmarked graves.

Despite this dark history, there is a strong current of Soviet nostalgia here. The Communist Party marshals a strong following.

In 2011, communist Leonid Gorbachev was briefly declared the winner of mayoral elections. But a recount was held and the United Russia candidate was declared the winner by one vote -- a move that sparked small street protests.

'City Is Dying'

Konstantin Rimenov, an unabashed Stalinist who has a poster of the Soviet tyrant on his kitchen door, has worked in the mines for 27 years.

At 46, he's already drawing a pension but continues to work in the mines. He says his pension is not enough to provide for his family.

Rimenov is grim about the city’s prospects.

"Whatever the government says and however much they deceive the people, the city is dying," he says. "The city really is dying because they are not building any factories, plants, mines, shafts. There’s nothing, and people aren’t coming here."

Rimenov, who is a deputy chairman on Vorkuta’s City Council, says miners’ wages, relatively high in Soviet times, don’t go so far any more -- especially given the safety risks and health hazards.

The entry to the Vorkutinskaya coal pit, where a methane explosion killed 18 men earlier this year
The entry to the Vorkutinskaya coal pit, where a methane explosion killed 18 men earlier this year
He spoke just days before a methane explosion ripped through the Vorkutinskaya coal pit, killing 18 miners, one of them a 22-year-old father of a 3-month-old child.

Nonetheless, Rimenov says the huge remaining coal reserves are a guarantee there will be jobs here.

But jobs or no jobs, many here are clamoring to leave -- and increasingly frustrated at the obstacles in their way.

Svetlana Zatokovenko, 63, a pensioner who worked as an administrator at a coal company, has been on a waiting list to leave Vorkuta for 27 years.

She was 11th in line to receive her apartment elsewhere last year but was never contacted by the housing authorities. When she complained, she says she was told her documents had been lost.

"I am from the Gulag’s second generation – those who can’t leave here because of economic circumstances," she says. "Even the first generation of prisoners were not deprived the right to leave. You served your stint and then you could go where you wanted. We would gladly go anywhere. This is an economic Gulag. We are hostages of the north."

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Josef Stalin?

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Josef Stalin?

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