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Vorkuta

At five in the morning I awoke and looked out the cabin window into a seemingly endless desert of snow and ice. When my host Gosha and I arrived at the station, the temperature was -10°F. I never knew -10°F could feel so cold. The 56 hour train ride from St. Petersburg had taken us through the Russian heartland, into the autonomous Komi Republic, the northern taiga and across the Arctic circle to the mining city of Vorkuta, a living monument to the Soviet experiment.

Soviet mythology has it that in 1919 a Russian trapper named Popov made a campfire along the Vorkuta river with a windscreen of black rocks. When to his surprise, the rocks caught fire, Popov was so impressed that he took specimens down to Lenin in Moscow. The Bolshevik leader was good enough to take the time to explain about coal to the toiler.

Authorities in Moscow ignored the find until 1930, when the scientist Chernov made a geological survey of the area which concluded the Vorkuta basin to be rich with coal. In 1934, Stalin's NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) established the concentration camp called Vorkulag (formed from the words Vorkuta and lager, which means camp), and opened the first shaft. For the next twenty years, the mining community along the shores of the Vorkuta river would form the northernmost tip of the notorious prison camp system which Alexander Solzhenitsyn entitled, the Gulag Archipelago.

Political prisoners, mostly intellectuals, old Bolsheviks, and later criminals, were brought primarily from Leningrad to work the coal mines. (They marched a good part of the way until 1941, when the railroad finally reached the basin.) In 1941 the city was officially established with NKVD overseers making up the main body of the inhabitants. During World War II, when Nazi troops over-ran the Donbas region, Vorkulag became the primary coal producer for Stalin's war effort.

It would be pointless to try to calculate the number of people who perished in Vorkulag, as it would be to count the number of victims who died throughout the USSR during Stalin's reign. Early Soviet society was far more chaotic than many Western observers imagine. KGB archives are still hard to access and not always reliable, but in Vorkuta the locals say that when Spring melting carries away layers of top soil, fields of human bones sprout up out of the ground around the city.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet officials amnestied scores of political and criminal prisoners. With cruel irony, the authorities often made the release date coincide with Stalin's birthday in order to commemorate the memory of the "Father of the Peoples." Camp survivors were forbidden to return home, and forced to remain in Vorkuta to continue the development of the city. Like Australia, the city of Vorkuta became a society of ex convicts and exiles of a vast, multi-ethnic empire. Throughout the 50s, the crime rate remained high, and a sort of outlaw culture was established. In the 60s and 70s newcomers, led to Vorkuta by the promise of high wages supplanted the labor camp culture.

Today the city still has the look, feel, and even distinct, pungent smell of the old, pre-Gorbachev USSR. The women all wear long wool coats in bright, basic colors of green, red, or blue with fur collars and their hair tucked up into fur hats. Men wear long sheepskin coats or thin nylon parkas. There's no Turkish made leather jackets or baseball caps emblazoned with "California, USA," as is the fashion in the big cities down South.

Vorkuta retains its frontier, fast money character, as a new type of crime wave has taken root. During the current reform era, organized crime runs rampant in major Russian cities, and Vorkuta has been one of the hardest hit. The day after we arrived, a detachment of 500 Omon, the newly formed paramilitary police force, arrived from St. Petersburg to restore order. Wearing flack jackets, helmets and automatic weapons slung at the side, the Omon randomly stopped and searched cars and pedestrians. When they questioned me one night for no apparent reason, I presented my only form of identification, my Rhode Island drivers license. The young officer pushed back his helmet, gave a serious look and motioned me away. Besides the heavily armed out-of-towners, one of the only other signs of trouble I noticed were two burned out kiosks. A common sight in St. Petersburg, this is the telltale sign that someone hasn't paid his racketeer.

On Easter Day, the city of Vorkuta held a festival in the town center. Tall modern buildings topped with slogans extolling, "More coal for the Motherland!" and "Long Live The Friendship Of The Soviet Peoples!" lined the mall. At one end stood the statue of a worker in overalls holding a sputnik, as if prepared to slam dunk the orb. St. Nicholas somehow worked his way in as the master of ceremonies. Folk dancers, singers, and musicians performed. The resident poet read some of his work, containing words about the glorious resurrection and strangling Perestroika. He was probably pining for the old system in which artists were paid well for political cheerleading, and there was no market to demand talent or taste. Ignoring the bad verse and the sub zero weather, the city's more hearty souls stripped to the waist to climb a tall greased pole for fabulous prizes. A spirit of "Christ has risen! Let's party!" reigned.

At one point a procession of Cossacks in ethnic dress of caftans, and tall, cylindrical, karakul hats solemnly carried a cross to commemorate the ground breaking for the first church to be built in the city. One woman near by commented, "I've known real Cossacks and these guys aren't them." For some reason the image of Dan Quale in a beard, and full Cossack dress came to mind.

Ten years ago I found on a large map bought in Moscow an archipelago of places bearing odd names like Oktyabrsky (October) Sovietsky (Soviet) and Promyshleny (Industrial.) Struck by the charm, I had always wondered what they might be like. Now finding myself in Vorkuta, at the center of the archipelago, I set out to ride the bus that connects all these places. I soon realized that these were not villages at all, but settlements comprised of rundown, wooden barracks, separated by the emptiness of the Arctic tundra.

Towards the back of the bus, sat a woman perched on a seat with hair dyed bright orange, and teeth of gold, taking tickets and calling out the name of each settlement. Reeking of vodka, miners discussed political events "down" in Russia with thick Ukrainian and South Russian accents. We passed without stopping a military installation with enormous radar domes which snoop on snoopy Americans flying in over the pole. Fallen power lines, telephone poles, and clumps of tilting crosses, some missing the cross bar, littered the side of the road.

At Promyshleny, I hopped out and walked a ways. There were men weaving down the middle of the road, blimpish women weighed down by heavy shopping bags, and children climbing on enormous snowdrifts. I bought a "Snickers" bar, the ubiquitous fast-food, proto-McDonalds of Russia, at "Store #18;" one of two establishments in the settlement. I had tried the other store with no name, but it was closed. Mongrel dogs of the North, showing no trace of any particular breed, strolled up and down the road, or stood watch on the roof of a building half buried in snow. Tall smoke stacks of the mines billowed black smoke into the air, coating the dogs, the children, the snow drifts, everything as far as the eye could see in black coal dust.

In Vorkuta, as elsewhere in former Soviet society, entertainment is a problem. Alcohol, sex and TV make up the primary diversions in Vorkuta. The harsh Arctic environment and brutal work conditions in the mines don't leave a lot of energy or intellect for much else. When my host Gosha called to tell his parents we were coming, his father became so excited that he ran out to buy a case of vodka, started drinking, and hasn't stopped yet as far as I know. He has a warm, gentle manner, and works as a master electrician in one of the factories. Gosha and his mother constantly lectured the father on the evils of alcohol.

"I was the number one photographer in my home town." he snapped at one point.

"Now what are you papa?"

"The number one tippler." came the answer, as a tear swelled and then rolled down a cheek.

Gosha and his family are native Komi, a small former Soviet minority similar to Lapps. Although the Komi Republic is fighting to maintain its independence from Moscow, few speak the language. Gosha's mother speaks Komi with many borrowings, and an intonation identical to that of Russian. Gosha and his sister Lena know only a few words of Komi. Lena is 17, a charmer, pregnant, betrothed to marry a railroad employee "sometime soon," and with her mother, forms the functioning backbone of the family.

The Vorkutitians received Gosha and myself like rock stars. Everyone we met invited us home for tea or a meal. Often this entailed sitting in silence, watching the latest soap opera from Mexico, pirated third rate American movies on cable TV, or thinking up new excuses not to drink vodka. Conversations often took strange and morbid turns. Everyone talked about the murder and dismembering of a family with children in their home. At one gathering a young miner began jamming a needle in his arm, saying "I feel no pain," heightening the David Lynch atmosphere of Vorkuta.

One day after a session at the banya, a type of Russian sauna, Gosha and I visited his cousin Zhenya, a former army officer who had been serving in Siberia. Due to military personnel cuts he had recently been released from the service. For a while Zhenya had unsuccessfully tried his hand at business in St. Petersburg, and then four months ago he returned home to Vorkuta to seek work. When he sold elk meat at prices far below the going rate, racketeers got angry and drove Zhenya into the tundra, where he lost most of both feet from frost bite. Now he is confined to his mother's apartment, and gets about on a cane, or a pillow which he slides upon, digging out old books or homegrown herbal teas for guests. Due to chronic shortages of medical supplies Zhenya's mother can't even find proper salves to stop infection. There is no talk of rehabilitation. He vows not to join the ranks of Russia's urban, homeless handicapped, and says that once his feet heal, he will leave for Siberia. Zhenya wants to enter a monastery in search of a spiritual cure; the only kind available to him.

When it came time for us to leave, the entire family including a horde of aunts, uncles and cousins saw us off. The train station took on a small town atmosphere with half the city sending the other half off on Spring holidays. Friends unexpectedly ran into one another, as looks of possible excuses to stay and have a drink flashed across faces. For many, the train had already left the station.

Clad in full railroad regalia and colorfully flowered stockings, conductor Nadya welcomed us aboard the train with a smile. She started working the rails in January after losing her waitress job when the only restaurant in the city of Kotlas cut back its personnel. During the trip Nadya visited our cabin often to take tea, and prepared a delicious vegetable soup for us. In Vorkuta Gosha and I bought encyclopedias on prison camp culture. Nadya took special interest in the tattoos depicted, matching each one with those worn by past lovers. With big, bulging, faded blue eyes, she gazed out the window at some lonely outpost and commented, "What do these poor souls out here have to live for? They see no fruit, no vegetables, no trees even. The bottle, that's all."

At stations along the way, portly old ladies with railroad tunics or orange smocks stood in front of their huts holding hand signals, waiting for the train to pass. Packs of Northern Russian mongrels wandered up and down the rails sniffing the wheels of the train, or just sat watching events take place. We passed homes made of large cylindrical steel tanks, with chimneys and a door, but no windows. A house at each station bore some sort of sign like "Bon Voyage!," "Glory To Labor!," or "We Toil For You Motherland!" One building wore the slogan, "Our Goal

is ism!" Apparently someone had been told to bring the place up to date, and decided to hedge their bets. You'd call these places widenings in the road, if there were any roads around. Off on the Eastern horizon the Urals followed us south like whales shadowing a ship, drifting in and out of sight.

At one stop an old man walked up to our wagon with five dogs pulling a box. Dressed in a filthy wadded jacket and animal skins, he offered a set of mounted elk antlers. Leaving the stairs to the train up, Nadya called down,

"How much for the antlers pops?"

Through his one good eye he looked up at us to answer, "Three thousand."(The equivalent of $3.75. Today, two weeks later it would be $3.40)

Nadya made the deal for two bottles of vodka, and a thousand rubles(about $3.00). She later bragged she would sell them for ten thousand down South.

"How's your health pops?" Nadya inquired.

"Can't complain. My legs left me, but my dogs take me where I need to go." Without another gesture he knelt down in the box and rode off.

Lena the plump schoolmarm and Volodya, a little man in a suit with a comb protruding from his breast pocket, joined our company at Pechora. With bottles in every pocket that clinked, and a slightly bewildered look on his face, Volodya took a seat on Gosha's bunk. He was ready to talk.

"I can see you are important men with education Wolf Adolphovich {Zhirinovsky, the fascist politician who welcomes comparisons to Hitler, and vows to add Finland and Alaska to the New and Improved Russian Empire.} is the man to save the Motherland." Volodya proclaimed. "I studied at the polytechnic institute in Leningrad with foreigners from Vietnam and Bulgaria."

Lena hopped into her berth, popped open a book, pretending to ignore the rest of us. In vain, she pleaded with the little man to go to bed, but unable to restrain herself added that she voted for Ryzhkov{One of Gorbachev's Prime Ministers, and a conservative neo-communist by today's standards} in the presidential elections in 1991, but now supports Yeltsin.

"The people chose him as Russia's leader, and no one has the right to cancel that mandate."

An announcement taped to the wagon wall proclaimed that all food is a health hazard, and people should give up eating all together. Some offended passengers said it was a treacherous, democratic-communist plot to distract people's attention from skyrocketing food prices. A sailor away on leave walked by with a six-pack of "Old Milwaukee" beer draped over his arm, oblivious to the ad hoc discussion group. It doesn't get any weirder than this.

At Ukhta we passed a three story silhouette of Lenin on a hill overlooking the railroad yard and a prison by the river. Militiamen in long gray wool coats strolled up and down the platform. One babushka who spoke an odd sing-song form of Russian, was selling boiled potatoes wrapped in newspaper. A colorfully painted Soviet crest adorned the crumbling station building dated 1953. Inside a woman sold newspapers amongst the rows of benches. On the wall hung a color poster advertising a Billy Graham meeting. I later learned that the minister appears on big-screen TVs wherever there are theaters throughout Russia.

We said farewell to Nadya in Kotlas, and took a cabin with Pasha, a young, bearded hunter from Vorkuta. He and his partners go out into the tundra to hunt elk and fowl in a converted military tracked personnel carrier. With barbed wire tattoos on his wrists, Pasha told us they would like to expand the business, hire more hunters, and buy more vehicles, but his cooperative must pay 75% of its profits in taxes. This is just one more stark example of the new Russian welfare society, in which a thin, fragile layer of profit making, tax paying entrepreneurs finance inefficient, state-owned enterprises still operating by old Soviet economic myths.

When the train finally pulled into Moscow Station in St. Petersburg and we walked out onto Nyevsky Prospect, I felt for an instant we had arrived in Paris.

 

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