Above the Arctic Circle, a once-flourishing Russian coal-mining town is in rapid decline

By: Kenneth Dickerman andRoman Demyanenko

A little over 90 miles from the Arctic Circle sits the coal-mining town of Vorkuta, Russia. Situated in the permafrost, it is one of the largest cities north of the Arctic Circle and is the easternmost town in Europe. Now a city in decline, Vorkuta was once a place where people voluntarily went, looking for work in the coal industry, and also a place where prisoners were sent to work as forced labor. In 2018 and 2019, Russian photographer Roman Demyanenko went to see how it is faring today.

Demyanenko’s photos paint a portrait of a town in decline, but one where glimpses of a different time punctuate a now-downtrodden landscape. His photos reveal Soviet block housing blanketed in heavy snow or just standing in the distance, crumbling away. Photos of railroad tracks leading to distant smokestacks belching black threads into the sky are paired with photos of children sitting under old Soviet statues, girls dancing, men looking out into decrepit courtyards, and kids being, well, kids.

Vorkuta was once more robust. The place was discovered during an expedition by Russian geologist Georgy Chernov. Coal from there was used to help Joseph Stalin’s efforts to industrialize Russia. Demyanenko also notes that the town was used for darker purposes. After Stalin’s “Great Terror” repressions in 1937 and 1938, political prisoners were sent there to a Gulag camp called Vorkutlag to work the mines.

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