In Russia’s far north, the city of Vorkuta is slowly being reclaimed by the Arctic tundra. The front lines of this battle between the urban and natural worlds are in the suburbs, where abandoned apartment blocks emerge from the towering snowdrifts. Huge icicles claw over the edges of buildings and emerge through shattered windows, seemingly pulling these brutalist relics deeper into their Arctic grave.
Vorkuta’s population began to plummet in the 1990s as one by one the local coal mines closed, leaving a handful operational today.
The suburb of Sovetsky once housed thousands of miners and their families, the pioneers of the Soviet Union’s push north to exploit Vorkuta’s rich coal deposits. The shells of former theaters and ice-bound playgrounds hint at happier times. Now there is little sound apart from the Arctic gales that whistle through the empty streets.
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Not quite everyone left. Eduard Parshin, a pensioner at 50, tends to his beloved cars in a garage below his apartment. It is a lonely existence.
“There are just three people in the block I live in, and I am the only one living in my section where there are 80 apartments. It is pretty much the same situation in the whole town. What can I say? The settlement is dying. You could say it is already dead,” Parshin told VOA.
Wider far north crisis
Vorkuta’s fate reflects a wider population crisis across the far north. Russia’s Arctic population is shrinking fast, by around 15 percent since 2000. The collapse of the centralized Soviet system led millions to seek better prospects further south, aided by government resettlement programs and money from the World Bank.
Vorkuta authorities want to move the remaining residents into the city center to save on infrastructure costs, and to allow the outlying suburbs to finally succumb to the ice. However, no one will buy the old apartments and there is no money to fund the move – so the remaining residents are stuck in their dying neighborhoods. The mayor of Vorkuta wants Moscow’s help.
“The costs are really high for a local government budget. That is why our task is really to ‘tighten’ the settlements with no prospects, to resettle the residents into the center,” Mayor Igor Gurlev said.
Many of those who fled Vorkuta in recent decades were pensioners, and they left behind a young population. At the local college, mining and geology are top of the curriculum, and many students are fervently proud of their hometown.
“If it had not been for the coal, Vorkuta would not have existed. I believe it is my patriotic duty to be part of this industry,” student Artyom Koltakov told VOA.
At Vorkuta’s School of Art, the cultural talent on display offers a colorful antidote to the bitter extremes of coal and ice outside. Students practice classical music, drama and painting, and many of them hope their skills will lead to an alternative career, very different from that of elder family members toiling in the mines thousands of meters beneath the city.
Sergey Gagausov, the principal of the school, is sanguine about his city’s survival.
“Life is certainly not sweet in this city. The oxygen deficiency. The economic situation. But nevertheless, I believe that cities like Vorkuta — they are not dying cities,” he said.
To survive, Vorkuta must offer its young people a reason to stay in its unforgiving landscape. The remaining mines offer some hope, but there are growing doubts that coal offers a sustainable future.