You never know exactly when your train will cross the imaginary line of the Arctic Circle and arrive at the city of Vorkuta. Over the 48 hours and 26 stops from Moscow, the sky blends with the earth, and the immense frozen wilderness consumes everything else. Just why, exactly, would any group of people choose to build a city here, in the cruelest place in the world? Why and how?
In the midst of a snowy landscape a few buildings appear. This is Yur-Shor—a settlement where, ten years ago, about 5,000 people used to live. Sergei is one of its last three inhabitants. He is a retired miner who suffers respiratory problems from his days in the mines. "We are the last ones," he told me. "They closed the schools, the pharmacies, and there are no shops around. Now we have to drive many miles for a piece of bread."
Sergei has sent many letters to the Supreme Court of Justice, the Court of Auditors, and the UN, asking for a solution to their dramatic situation. But every day he finds his letterbox empty. "It seems like all the letters sent from Yur-Shor are banned from leaving the country," he shrugged from his bed. Although he has always lived in Vorkuta, a couple of months ago he began to consider migrating south like everyone else. The mattress beneath him is the last nod to domesticity in Sergei's room—everything else he owns is packed into boxes, waiting to be moved.
Culture Center in Lenin Avenue, the main street of Vorkuta
Yur-Shor is one of the 13 locations that belong to the city of Vorkuta, in the Republic of Komi, a northern territory in the Russian Federation. These days many of its residents are migrating south, in search of a better climate, a climate where one can actually differentiate the four seasons.
Vorkuta was once an essential part of the old USSR, though. The city is mostly known for once being home to Stalin's most feared gulag labor camps. In fact, it was the camp's prisoners who began to build the city. One of their main activities was the extraction of coal, to feed the imposing Soviet machinery.
Known as Karakats, these vehicles are built to move over the frozen Tundra during the hard Arctic winters.
In the past few years, Russia has shown a renewed interest in its northern territories; The millions of tons of hydrocarbon hidden in the bottom of the Arctic Ocean are too precious to be neglected. Thanks to the arrival of the pipelines, the city has become a gateway to the new wealth of Siberia, but that doesn't mean the demand for human resources has been at all renewed.
The long winters in these Arctic confines make it the perfect place to have twisted dreams. Ideas the local council has come up with in order to boost the town's profile have included a proposal to use the area for nuclear tests and the restoration of the gulag into a leisure park.
Lenin Avenue, Vorkuta main street
Back in the Soviet era, Stalin ordered the installment of giant billboards printed with messages such as "Peace to the World" and "Glory to Those Who Live Beyond the Polar Circle." Now these messages have become an inherent part of the city. Many leave Vorkuta every day, but Stalin's posters stand still in time, fighting not to fade just like the rest.