Just over 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 40 hours by train from Moscow, sits the once-bustling coal-mining city of Vorkuta, Russia.
Built by gulag inmates during Stalin’s big purge in the 1930s, this desolate region on the very edge of Europe was given purpose by the rich deposits of coal discovered nearby.
However, what was once the lifeblood of Vorkuta has now disappeared. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the mines were privatized, and within a few years, almost all were shut down.
Surrounded by abandoned mines and filled with derelict apartment blocks, the city – which is the coldest place on the continent (clocking in a record -52 degrees C) – is in steep decline.
The population plummeted from 217,000 in the late 1980s to less than 50,000 today. Vorkuta is now Russia’s fastest dying city.
History of Vorkuta
Vorkuta was discovered during an expedition by Russian geologist Georgy Chernov in the early 20th century.
Once Stalin was aware of the vast wealth waiting to be mined there, the region became vital in his efforts to industrialize Russia.
In tandem with the tyrant’s plans to “re-educate” vast swathes of the population (in the “Great Terror” repressions of 1937 and 1938), Gulags were hastily constructed in the district.
Vorkutlag was the largest camp in European Russia. Political prisoners sent there were forced to work the mines and build the necessary infrastructure. From this, Vorkuta was born above the permafrost.
For 25 years, prisoners and exiles battled the elements to transform the remote arctic landscape into one of the largest coal sources of the Soviet Union.
At its height, the complex had 20 mines, roads, and railroads, power stations, and a small community of mining towns. The city of Vorkuta was the hub between them all.
By the 1960s people from all over Russia moved to Vorkuta for the promise of employment and higher salaries offered by the mining industry and surrounding economy.
So much so, in the 1980s Vorkuta could boast of being one of the richest northern cities in the USSR.
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Then the iron curtain fell. The collapse of the Soviet economy set a chain reaction of chaos through communities like Vorkuta.
Industry dried up as the now Russian Federation scrambled to function in a capitalist market economy. Unemployment and inflation grew, crime was rampant, living standards plummeted.
The exodus from Vorkuta began.
Within a short space of time, whole suburbs turned into ghost towns.
Jobless and with no prospects of work for the foreseeable future, many people packed what measly belongings they could and headed for the southern cities of Russia.
To this day, whole apartments still contain the rotting furniture of the last inhabitants to live there, decades ago.
As the community shrank, schools, hospitals, nursery schools, and many other governmental institutions had to close through lack of numbers and investment.
Today, Vorkuta’s population continues to decline every year. Before long a city that once had close to a quarter-million residents will be down to its last few thousand.
Where is Vorkuta?
Visiting Vorkuta today
Vorkuta today is a depressing, desolate place to be. Decaying Soviet block housing is blanketed in heavy snow for most of the year. In many instances, one family may live in a building meant to house 50.
And that’s where the people still live. Across large parts of the city (particularly along the Vorkuta River), apartments have been abandoned long ago. Derelict and forlorn, they stand windowless looking out onto the frozen tundra.
The few mines that still run and connected by old railroad tracks that are desperately in need of repair.
Positioned at the horizon on the edge of town, their distant smokestacks belch black threads into the pale arctic sky.
The city is full of old folk, too tired to leave and with no other options anyway. They huddle in decrepit courtyards, or outside the stores that remain open.
The few children around, jostle in ruined playgrounds under the shadows of old Soviet statues.
The desolation is almost poetic, only if you are lucky enough to not live there.
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Walking around Vorkuta
A dark tourist making a trip to Vorkuta will find vast areas of the city empty and easy to explore.
Many of the aforementioned abandoned homes can be roamed freely; their shelves, wallpapers, curtains, and lamps relics of the 1980s and before.
Vorkuta cannot be classed as a ghost town mind you. The locals who still number in the tens of thousands, live and work amid the ruins.
To them collapsed buildings on the end of the street, or the empty stairwell on the way to their front door is ordinary life.
The lack of infrastructure means that many turn to fishing and hunting to sustain themselves.
Self-made cars are another strange, yet common sight on the streets of Vorkuta. Resourceful locals have built themselves these large tank-like vehicles, known as Karakaty, that enable them to move through the thick, snow-clogged tundra.
The indigenous Nenets also remain. The dwindling community makes a living through reindeer herding. Every autumn, reindeer in their thousands are brought to Vorkuta to be traded.
Outside the city limits, most of the old mining settlements are completely abandoned.
Some, such as Yurshor and Rudnik are worthy of a visit. Once part of the gulag camp system, the dark history attached to these locations makes for a poignant experience.
Whipped by the wind of the cold arctic, these empty ghost towns are both eerie and beautiful in their decay. Nature has taken over, the white-blue vastness surrounding you is nothing but humbling.
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I have an insatiable wanderlust for the extraordinary. Born with an adventurous spirit, I have spent over the past decade exploring the far reaches of our planet, seeking out the strange and mysterious.