Vorkuta is a city built beside a coal mine, north of the Arctic Circle, in barely habitable, treeless tundra. Vorkuta is also the Soviet Union in miniature. Objectively speaking, it's an awful place, but people lived in it, people got used to it—and now they don't want it to change. -Anne Applebaum, Saving Russia's Armpit
Built by prisoners and maintained by a tremendous feat of the Soviet government, Vorkuta is equally known for its vast coal resources and its miserable climate. Inhabited by approximately 120,000 people, Vorkuta is situated on tundra permafrost in the Komi region of Russia, just North of the Arctic circle in the Pechora coal basin. Soviet mythology has it that Vorkuta's most famous resource was intially discovered by a trapper named Popov, when in 1919 he set up camp, using the abundant black rocks he'd found as a windscreen. When the rocks themselves caught fire, Popov excitedly brought them back to Moscow where they were determined to be coal. The discovery went largely ignored until 1930, when the area was the subject of a geological survey that determined it was in fact extremely rich in coal.
Vorkuta's first settlers were 23 prisoners who arrived via the Arctic Sea in 1931. Their initial purpose was to construct a railway, which today provides Vorkuta's only link to the outside world, aside from an expensive airplane trip. Within two years, Vorkuta's famous labour camps were established, forming the Northernmost tip of the prison camp system dubbed the gulag archipelago by writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.
Over the next two and a half years, an estimated 1 million prisoners passed through Vorkuta, one of the busiest hubs in the labour camp system. It is difficult to estimate the number of lives lost at the camp in Vorkuta, due to the unreliability of KGB records, however, some locals claim that when the active layer of soil is disturbed away by spring melting, fields of human bones sprout up around the city.
Vorkuta was officially established as city in 1942, its population consisting mainly of prison camp labourers and their NKVD overseers. During the Second World War, when the Nazis overran the Donbas region, Vorkuta became the main supplier of coal for the Soviets' war effort.
Following Stalin's death in 1953, the labour camps were ostensibly shut down, although there are some reports that these camps continuted to operate in Vorkuta until the 1980s. While throughout the Soviet Union scores of political prisoners were finally permitted to return home, Vorkuta's inhabitants were forced to remain where they were.
The Soviet propaganda machine swiftly went into action, convincing Vorkuta's miners that by braving Arctic winters and near-perpetual darkness to bring coal to Soviet families, they were leading heroic lives. In truth, the average Soviet family had very little use for coal, as the cost to heat an apartment for 11 months of the year was far beyond most families' means. The perplexing reality of Vorkuta was that the value of the coal unearthed there was miniscule compared to the cost of maintaining the buildings and facilities that constituted the communist façade.
The 1960s and 70s were marked by the rapid construction of shops, theatres, swimming pools, and schools in order to entice new families attracted by the promise of higher wages. The Soviet government's attempts to exploit the natural resources of the region while instilling its residents with a chronically positive, patriotic mentality were extremely successful--too successful, in fact.
Today, the town is a financial drain, a monument to a bygone era. Putin's government is trying its hardest to persuade many of Vorkuta's inhabitants to migrate southward in the hope that a smaller city will be much less expensive to maintain. While these efforts are often successful, the majority of these people somehow find their way back to their cold, miserable, town. Whether it is due to a lack of employment, new friends, an inability to leave behind a town that was once so highly touted, or even simple homesickness, its residents are ensuring that the Russian government will have an extremely difficult time depopulating Vorkuta.