Vorkuta is situated in a permafrost zone near the Arctic Circle. (Roman Demyanenko)

David Dorn, a 95-year-old ethnic German, was deported by the Soviet government in 1943 to Vorkuta for forced labor, working in the coal mines. The ethnic German minority in the Soviet Union was considered a security risk during World War II, and many were sent to the north of the Soviet Union and Central Asia to prevent their possible collaboration with the German offensive. Though considered rehabilitated in 1956, Dorn remained in Vorkuta. (Roman 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 era 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.

In the 1950s, people from around Russia moved to Vorkuta voluntarily, looking for work. Young people were attracted by the prospect of higher salaries and a better life. By the early 1990s, Demyanenko says, Vorkuta was “one of the richest and most promising northern working cities of the Soviet Union.”

Then came the fall of the Soviet government.

The collapse of the Soviet economy set in motion the decline of Vorkuta: unemployment spiked, crime increased and living standards sank. An exodus began. As Demyanenko told In Sight: “Many people left their houses and moved from Vorkuta to more southern cities of Russia. Schools, hospitals, nursery schools and many other governmental institutions were closing down in multitudes. In a short while whole neighborhoods suddenly turned into ghost towns. Today in Vorkuta and at the Vorkuta Ring live 70,000 people. Vorkuta’s population continues to decline every year. Vorkuta became one of the most rapidly dying cities in Russia.”

A boy plays soccer in a courtyard. (Roman Demyanenko)

Anna and her husband, Sergei, celebrate their wedding in their garage. Sergei is a miner. (Roman Demyanenko)

A boy walks on a railway track. (Roman Demyanenko)

A rusty bridge, crossing the Vorkuta River to Rudnik township, is in disrepair and dangerous for walks, but it is very popular among teenagers. (Roman Demyanenko)

A statue of Vladimir Lenin in Vorkuta. (Roman Demyanenko)

Artur's grandfather was sent to Vorkutlag from western Ukraine. Now Artur himself has just come back from prison, where he served a 10-year sentence. He dreams of starting a family, taking up bodybuilding and moving to Crimea. But he doesn't have the money for that. The level of unemployment in Vorkuta is quite high, with fierce competition for existing jobs, and Artur cannot find a job because of his prison record. (Roman Demyanenko)

For many inhabitants of Vorkuta, hunting and fishing are important sources of food. A lot of fishermen and hunters make homemade cars, called “Karakaty,” for trips through the Arctic tundra to the Kara Sea, which flows into the Arctic Ocean. (Roman Demyanenko)

A dance school in Vorkuta. (Roman Demyanenko)

A party in the “Polar Wolves” club in Vorkuta. (Roman Demyanenko)

Alexander works as an electrical fitter. The 30-year-old lives in the Sovetskiy neighborhood, which is about nine miles from Vorkuta's city center. (Roman Demyanenko)

Shooting practice at Vorkuta Mining College. (Roman Demyanenko)

Vitali is a leader of a military historical reenactors club. (Roman Demyanenko)

A man prays before dipping into an ice hole during Orthodox Epiphany celebrations. On this day, there is a tradition to dip three times into a hole with ice-cold water. (Roman Demyanenko)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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