At the end of January 2019, I embarked on my field research in Vorkuta located in the Komi Republic in Russia. Its former mayor, Igor Shpektor, who was one of the powerful and controversial Russian city leaders of the late 1990s-early 2000s, once famously called it “the capital of the world.”
According to the local legend, this pretentious title is a signifier of the city’s GULag past – the Soviet agency in charge of labor camps [Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerey] – with representatives of over 70 ethnic groups being imprisoned and subjected to working at the local coal mines during the first half of the 20th century. Despite its dark history, the slogan has gained significant popularity among the residents, as well as outsiders visiting or working in Vorkuta. Well, if current-day Vorkuta is the capital of the world, it is the capital of the emptying post-Soviet world.
“20 January 2019. During this time of the year, there are only several hours of daylight at the latitude of Vorkuta… In the dusk, I slowly approach the oldest part of Vorkuta – Rudnick district – constructed around the first coal mine. The bridge over the river that separates Rudnik from the rest of the city has been closed off over a decade ago, its boards have long rotten due to the lack of maintenance. So, I cross the river on foot blundering in the knee-high snow. If not for the bush branches, it would be almost impossible to navigate the snow-covered relief.
…In front of me emerge the numerous abandoned greyish buildings that seem to float in some sort of limbo between the ground and the sky… No traces of human footprints by their entrances.
…I enter one of the buildings. Inside, the staircases and walls are frozen… Wooden doors and window frames are withdrawn; window glass broken. In summer, young people probably hang out here, judging by the numerous graffiti and traces of old bonfires. But now there is no one here… just me – Masha and emptiness” (From my field notes).
Developing the mining city
In Russia, during state socialism the large-scale development of the High North was due to the need for natural resource extraction for industrialization. New cities and towns were being established where no permanent settlements had been before. Like many other Russian Arctic cities, the story of Vorkuta’s foundation in the 1930s and its early development was linked to the GULag system that used prisoner workforce in mining and construction activities in remote areas with harsh natural conditions. The rich coal deposit was discovered in the area in 1930 and already in 1931. The state started the construction of the first coal mine and a settlement around it – Vorkuta – where the administration of GULag divisions were situated.
Vorkutlag (1938 – ca. 1960) was one of the largest and most notorious divisions of GULag in the USSR; later on, Rechlag (1948 – ca. mid-1950s) was created on the basis on Vorkutlag as a separated division of the GULag for those convicted under the ill-famous Article 58 of Criminal Code of the USSR “Counter – revolutionary activity” (i.e. political prisoners).
The inhospitable conditions and the lack of a functioning utility infrastructure led to very high costs for the maintenance of the settlements in the far North. Nevertheless, the Soviet state abundantly invested in Vorkuta’s development which contributed to the city’s growth over the whole socialist period. If before the Second World War only one mine was open, during the war another 10 mines started operating with several mining settlements established around them forming the so-called “Vorkuta ring.”
While the first inhabitants of Vorkuta were GULag prisoners and forced migrants, after the decline of the GULag system in late-1950s, voluntary migration set in. Migrants were motivated to live and work in the Arctic through various “northern” benefits (e.g. higher wages, longer vacations, easier access to housing). Moreover, an intensive ideological campaign for exploration of the Arctic was launched, actively using the rhetoric of “nature conquest.” Gradually, by 1989 – at the time of the last Soviet census – Vorkuta reached its maximum population number of 116 thousand people.
To date, Vorkuta remains a mining center. The city is listed among Russia’s monogorods ((post)Soviet company towns) with VorkutaUgol (VorkutaCoal) part of the Severstal metallurgy holding being the core employer.
However, the transition from state socialism to a Russian variant of neoliberalism and merger with the global market at the time of the worldwide declining demand for coal, as well as several tragic accidents caused by methane explosions, have led to operations in Vorkuta’s mines being downscaled. Out of 13 mines at its peak, currently only 4 mines and 1 quarry remain functioning.
The loss of jobs, decline of the Soviet institute of “northern” benefits, as well as overall murky perspectives of Vorkuta’s future being dependent on a single aging industry caused an intensive population out-flow from the city after the collapse of state socialism. In 2019, at the time of my field research, the population of Vorkuta was 54.2 thousand people. According to the Russian Federal Statistical Agency (Rosstat) Vorkuta was ranked 15th among over 700 Russian depopulating cities.
Vorkuta is not the most depopulating city in the country, yet it is the one that is most notoriously portrayed in the media and in the blogosphere as such. Therein it is referred to among other as the “corpse of the monogorod”, “land of free housing”, “ghost city”, etc. The footage from Rudnik is mobilized in support of the above claims. The district is being compared to the “Silent Hill” horror movie, where ruins and rubble of socialist modernity are viewed as otherworldly creatures that creep into and haunt the present-day.
Reshuffling power relations
Yet these ruins are not (merely) “monuments” through which the power of the fallen empire occupies the present. Rudnik was resettled and cut off from utilities in the mid-2000s one decade after the collapse of state socialism, as a part of the city administration’s “controlled shrinkage” approach. The approach emerged as a response to the growing housing vacancies within the city and subsequent increasing maintenance costs on the backdrop of declining tax revenues and financial support from the national government.
Hence, post-Soviet abandonment, idle infrastructures, and decaying Arctic mining settlements (among others) should not be viewed as obsolete remnants of the past. They are rather vivid illustrations of the on-going reshuffling power relations after the end of the Cold War, as well as manifestations of new capitalism forms, such as the shift from extractivism and production-based capitalism to the one that generates profits in financial markets and data environments. Taken together, the latter seem to be increasingly devaluating places those that are rendered unimportant for generating value which leads to spatial polarization at all geographical scales.
Street level governance
Despite the seemingly pitiful picture outlined above, my research in Vorkuta also showcased how on the ruins of cites that the Soviet state created for the sole purpose of mining, new relations between the people, as well as the people and the place emerge, sustaining life and “social order.” Herein, mutual aid begins to constitute a serious alternative to public services and new agreements contribute to reciprocal, collaborative, creative, and anarchistic street level governance. As one of my interlocutors Sergei from the Vorgashor district overviewed the situation at hand:
Living in a semi-empty apartment building in the outskirts of the city implies a close-knit community. It’s essential for managing practical issues. How else? Who will solve our problems? It’s just us… In the mornings we alternately clean the roads and pavements around my house from snow. There is a routine of vacation schedule. Each pod’ezd [unit of the apartment building] communicates on the dates, so that there is always someone who can watch over the apartments and check that communications are working properly… We also take turns escorting children to and from school… you know in the dark it is unsafe here… In the blizzard the ambulance can be stuck on the way, we are lucky that Ivan Andreevich [one of the residents] is a retired doctor. He often comes to help… (Sergei, 67 years. Interviewed in January 2019, Vorkuta)
Thus, decaying mining settlements are not only sites of crises, loss, and nostalgia for past glory, but also exemplary cases for looking at the radically changing spatialities of power and empowerment as well as ways of pursuing everyday life within the new reality that is often being described through the notion of “emptiness.” Analyzing the global-local entanglements that contribute to the abandonment of extractivist sites, one should not overlook how life is being nevertheless sustained there despite the powerful forces that produce ruination.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s After Extractivism text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language After Extractivism website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Maria Gunko obtained an MSc in Human Geography from the Moscow Lomonosov State University in 2012 and a Russian postgraduate degree, Candidate of Sciences in Human Geography, from the Institute of Geography Russian Academy of Sciences in 2015. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography in Leipzig (Germany) in 2015, working on the ira.urban project Urban Reconfigurations in Post-Soviet Space funded by the Leibniz Association. Furthermore, her Visiting Fellowship at the Institute of Geography Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (France) in 2019 was supported by the “Bourses Metchnikov” Embassy of France in Moscow’s short-term academic mobility grant. Her research interests include urban geography and planning studies with a focus on Eastern Europe. Her recent work is devoted to the analysis of governance, planning, and place-making in Russian small- and medium-sized shrinking cities. The results of these studies were published in three journal articles and lay the foundation for an edited volume “Shrinking Cities in Postsocialist Countries” (Routledge, 2022). Currently DPhil student at COMPAS, University of Oxford.