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

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.”

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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