Welcome to Vorkuta

Welcome to Vorkuta

In this former prison town in Russia’s Far North, why can’t the government pay people to leave?

By Suzanne Sataline
May 23, 2004

VORKUTA, Russia – The road from this city in Russia’s far north cuts into the frosty gray bleakness, sweeping past exhausted coal mines and crumbling watchtowers near settlements named “Komsomol” and “Industrial.” One grim housing block is home to pensioner Rasma Pavlovna Stodukh.

Stodukh arrived in Vorkuta in 1947, during the Soviet Union’s second wave of repressions. As a teenager, she was accused of aiding Latvian partisans and convicted of treason. She and two dozen male prisoners were packed into a cage on a train that crawled toward the cusp of the Arctic Circle, bound for one of the most infamous prison camps in the Soviet Union.

For 13 years and four months Stodukh shoveled coal onto a conveyor belt and dreamed of seeing the next day. In January the night winds bellowed 50 below zero, gusting through the slats of the wooden barracks. After she was freed in 1959, Soviet laws prevented her from returning to Riga and so she remained in Vorkuta, marrying and raising a family.

Today, at 76, she lives in a cluttered, dusty apartment with sinking floors and drafty large windows that let in a few hours of meager sunlight in winter. “We hoped to save money here and maybe a little later move from Vorkuta, but then we stopped thinking about it,” Stodukh said.

To some this arthritic grandmother might seem just another one of Russia’s stoic survivors. But in the eyes of the Russian government and the World Bank, she’s a roadblock to the country’s economic reform.

Last year, with $80 million borrowed from the World Bank, the government asked Stodukh and thousands of other residents of three northern cities to leave, offering a one-time payment of $2,400 toward the cost of housing — a huge sum for pensioners who might receive $70 monthly — if residents would abandon their decrepit homes and move south, to what northerners call “the mainland.” To the authorities, the north is a new kind of costly prison, so cold, so remote, and so poor that local governments are going broke trying to provide food and fuel. Just whittling away these outposts, according to World Bank officials, could save these cities $15 million a year — and create a model for evacuating other unsustainable communities across the globe.

But the economists and demographers failed to take into account one thing: the power of the Russian refusenik.

Since the program began signing on volunteers, 2,053 people have taken the payments and moved, and another 4,000 are expected to go soon. But hundreds of families — including former prisoners in Vorkuta, Norilsk, and the Magadan region — said no. Many said their relatives were dead and they had no one to join. Others said the laughably small housing allotments would not allow them to afford shelter elsewhere. Some discovered that the Russian government would cut off their monthly pension if they returned to their now-independent homelands.

Asked about her own decision to stay, Stodukh warbled a patriotic rationale echoed by others stuck in the north. “If a person has been living in a place so long, it’s his motherland,” said Stodukh, who keeps photographs of herself smiling with other prisoners in a field. “That is the best place for him.”

The first thing you notice in Vorkuta is the wind. It howls down from the North Pole, rattling antennae and battering the wood-frame hangar at the tiny local airport. Only when you manage to open your eyes do you see the white tsunamis of snow that curl over apartment houses and consume cars. Standing outside, even for a few minutes, strips the down from your nose and cheeks. The cold rages for 10 months of the year.

The mining villages outside the city cluster off the main road, collections of wood, cement, and steel structures that appear suddenly after miles of ice. Between the villages, the bluish-white moonscape is unblemished by trees or road signs. Sometimes there’s a scattering of wooden crosses, an impromptu cemetery of German prisoners. Not that the dead stay buried. Come spring, the ice melts, the land heaves, and coffins bob to the surface. In July the water gives birth to thick swarms of mosquitoes.

On a bright April day, 22 degrees below zero, Vitali Troshin shrugged off the wind as he scurried out of the limping VW bus he had commandeered for a tour of his adopted city. An artist and town gadfly, he motioned to the

edge of a cliff overlooking the frozen Vorkuta River. Below lay a bowl of frosted earth, the city’s birthplace. The site of the first prison camp, closed in the 1960s, it was plowed under a few years ago. Troshin hopes to raise money to build a memorial that will encourage people to visit.

“The idea is to show this tragedy was vast,” he said. “In the history of the whole world no sitting government killed so many people and sent so many to camps.”

Soviet geologists discovered rich coal deposits just west of the Urals in the late 1920s. Josef Stalin decided the best and fastest way to extract it would be by force. In 1931 a team of prisoners arrived by boat, supervised by secret police agents. Somehow they survived on the tundra and began building what would become Vorkutlag, one of the country’s biggest, most brutal camps. By 1938, during the Great Terror, writes Anne Applebaum in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gulag: A History” (2003), Vorkutlag had grown to 15,000 prisoners, many sentenced there for false crimes such as joking about Stalin. After World War II political prisoners from Poland and Germany swelled the ranks again.

Prisoners built the power plants, schools, apartment blocks, and many of the city’s existing landmarks. More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire, many buildings still bear the hammer and sickle insignia. The interiors of the Mining College, the Palace of Youth & Culture, theaters, and the city’s many skating rinks — all grandiose stone structures — appear untouched since the 1950s. The telephone and telegraph office rely on technology current in Stalin’s day.

Many prisoners were freed after Stalin’s death in 1953. But the Soviet Union’s rules often barred people from returning home and restricted where they lived. So many stayed, mixing and marrying with camp administrators and others who viewed a voluntary northern assignment, with its hardship pay, subsidized goods, and Black Sea vacations, as a path into the middle class.

The freebies ended with communism’s collapse. The government still subsidizes fuel and food, but has allowed prices to climb to market rates. The reevaluation of the ruble in 1998 plunged Vorkuta, like much of the country, into poverty. Retirees like Zhenya Khaidarova, a geologist who moved here in 1973, understand the philosophical benefits of democracy but are bitter about its costs. “For many years Vorkuta was a gulag of political prisoners. Today it’s a camp of economic prisoners,” she said.

Not that she is eager to leave. Asked about the mines that have closed and the beggars on streetcorners in their shaggy reindeer-fur boots, Khaidarova stiffens. “Not only Russians but foreigners say, `If I were free I’d come to Vorkuta with pleasure,”‘ she said.

By the late `90s, government economists realized how fast northern cities were straining the country’s budget. Demographers estimated Russia needed to move 76,000 people from the Komi Republic, where Vorkuta, with its current population of 157,000, is one of the biggest cities. The government’s first program, which offered pensioners new apartments in less expensive regions, got so backlogged that people lost hope of being able to move, said Andrei Markov, a senior human development specialist with the World Bank in Moscow who oversees the program. At the government’s request, the World Bank designed the Northern Restructuring Program to speed things along.

After five years of planning and delays, the government distributed the first housing vouchers last year in the nickel capitol of Norilsk, a gold-mining outpost near Magadan, and Vorkuta. The money would not cover an apartment in Moscow or St. Petersburg, Markov conceded, but it would be adequate for one in the regional capital, Syktyvkar, west of the Urals and a 26-hour train ride from Vorkuta. Officials hoped it would be the largest mass migration since Stalin’s time, when entire populations were shipped thousands of miles across the country.

But so far only 1,700 of the 8,400 people who were eligible have moved from Vorkuta, Markov said. In Norilsk the numbers were worse: 200 out of 23,000.

The World Bank’s efforts weren’t helped by Vorkuta’s pugnacious mayor, Igor Shpektor, who blamed the World Bank and the Russian government for closing mines too hastily and impoverishing his people. Today he laughs bitterly at the inflation-battered housing vouchers. “The program for moving is only for the rich, and most people here are poor,” he said.

Shpektor brags about the region’s tourism and mining possibilities. But analysts say shrinking the cities is the only viable plan. Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy of the Brookings Institution, authors of “The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold” (2003), say that if Russia doesn’t evacuate the north, the country will drain precious assets it needs to invest.

“The fact is, you have millions and millions of people living in the wrong places,” Gaddy said in an interview. “Short of beginning a forced move, where you put everyone in a cattle car and move them to western Russia, you have to depend on incentives. And that’s costly.”

But for most residents the incentives aren’t costly enough. On a visit last spring, Raisa Sevastyanova was one of the last residents in the Sovietskiy development, holed up in a nearly vacant apartment house that was walled in by snow, her barren rooms smelling of sewage.

Sevastyanova was a KGB clerk in Moscow when she was arrested in 1952 and forced to confess that she wanted to kill Stalin. She was shipped to Vorkuta, leaving behind her husband and young daughter. She was freed in 1956 but never got permission to rejoin her family. Years later, the government “rehabilitated” her, wiping out her conviction and boosting her monthly pension to 2,300 rubles, about $76. The 1998 currency devaluation drained her savings. “That’s why today I often say, ‘Russians need their second Stalin,”‘ she said, laughing.

Today Sevastyanova repairs fur coats for a living. She moved up the Russian government’s waiting list and secured an apartment in Tambov, a city in south central Russia. But like many residents of Vorkuta, she is convinced that she will die if she moves to a warmer climate. She ought to go to Moscow instead, she said, but she can’t imagine how she could afford it.

Sevastyanova is pessimistic about the Russia she lives in — and the one she might find if she ever escapes Vorkuta. “Today people don’t have jobs. People with a higher education sell ice cream,” she said. “I’m sure in the camps we lived better than poor people do today.”



Spa? Da!

Spa? Da!

Russian and Turkish ‘banyas’ of Brooklyn provide a little rough relaxation on a winter’s day.

By Suzanne Sataline
January 8, 2003

Lie down, he ordered.

I dutifully obeyed. You do this in the smothering steam of a Russian sauna when a man approaches you clutching a thicket of fresh oak leaf branches. You follow because you are dressed solely in a swimsuit, woozy from the prickly heat and eucalyptus vapors aswirl in the air, and because, with a crowd of Russians staring, you don’t want to look like an American wimp.

I slunk onto the towel spread on the hard benches in the wood-lined room. The air was briny with sweat and the yeasty scent of burped beer. I instinctively covered my head. Alex Dolgolevsky, a man I had met only an hour before, repositioned my arms by my side and instructed me to kick off my plastic sandals. Standing over me, he shook the branches like a talisman. Droplets of water sizzled on my back and evaporated in a blink.

“Are you ready?” he asked in a heavy Russian accent. I held my breath and focused on one thought: I bet they don’t come after you with tree branches at Canyon Ranch.

There is just no equivalent to a Russian steam bath. Be it called a banya or bania in Russian or a shvitz in Yiddish, Russian baths offer the Zen calm of their Finnish and Japanese counterparts, with some hearty Slavic energy. Spend a day at one of New York City’s bathhouses and you experience a welter of contradictions: pain and pleasure, fear and calm, searing heat and Siberian cold. Not to mention a rather twisted notion of maintaining optimum health.

Many men (for most visitors are men) gather weekly with friends as a prescription against urban tensions. For adventuresome souls, a banya is a dirt-cheap vacation. No translator needed. And afterward, your skin looks pink and soft as a baby’s. “It becomes an addiction,” says Michael Gold, a Hasidic salesman at the Russian-Turkish Baths. “It becomes part of your culture, part of your life.”

Right now is the time to discard all notions of mud packs and plush towels and sliced cucumbers alighting on your eyelids. The banya ritual in Brooklyn is more of a do-it-yourself experience echoing pagan, pre-plumbing days when communal sweating was the only cleansing option. And soap was really rare.

There are some differences from bathing in the old country. Russia’s historic bathhouses are opulent temples of gilt and marble, far grander than the simpler structures here. And New York baths are coed, to the discomfort of many older Russian women. In spite of everyone’s scanty dress, though, a banya ritual is a spiritual retreat, not a sexual playground. A woman might draw a few winks, an offer of a massage, but nothing more.

New York spas, in keeping with the polyglot culture, offer a range of ethnic bathing styles: Slavic dry heat, wet Finnish saunas and the water-dousing common in Turkish baths. But in every other way the regimen is decidedly Russian — the bonhomie, the hot tea, the sweaty plunge into cold water (or, when available, snow), and the dumplings and shish kebabs and rich soups. And, yes, the vodka shots.

The whole process “attacks the toxins, increases circulation, it boosts the immune system. It cleanses everything inside of you,” says Alona Kruglak, co-owner of the Russian-Turkish Baths. Then she noticed a table of Georgians working through a two-liter bottle of Stolichnaya. “We’re getting men who don’t go to gyms. This is Russian gym culture.”

The Russian-Turkish Baths are favored by Turkish emigres, religious Jews and post-Soviet yuppies. The heat in the Russian room is not very intense. (Some think it’s downright cool.) The main attraction is the Turkish spa. Small and brightly lit, lined in part with cut stone, the room has several spigots that shoot cold water. One Saturday night everyone agreed that the oven along the wall needed reviving. The banshchik, or attendant, opened the door and ladled water on the hot stones. A Santa Ana wind blew through the room. A young man hoisted a bucket of icy water and dumped it over his head, dousing me as well. I screamed, then tried it myself.

Russians believe the shock forces toxins from the body. “It’s exercise for the cells,” said Boris Kotlyar, owner of the rival Mermaid Spa.

Peace-seekers flock to the Mermaid. Tucked just outside the Hasidic community of Sea Gate, near the festive Russian strip of Brighton Beach, the Mermaid’s owners have just put an $800,000 face-lift on the place. Besides three Russian banyas the spa has a scorching dry sauna, a Turkish bath, a whirlpool and two small but deep tile pools that are machine-fed with chipped ice.

Everyone seems to linger, though, in one compact steam room. Lined with savory cedar, the tight quarters are hemmed in by high, built-in benches, trapping the heat. One Sunday night several men and women gathered on the top tier where the air throbbed. They sat on towels molting until they agreed it was not nearly hot enough. A volunteer flicked water on the stones, nudging the thermometer above 220 degrees. The revelers sighed loudly, sweat pooling on their chests. Four young men slathered their limbs with a mixture of salt and honey to strip and moisturize their skin. Four minutes passed, then five. With a groan each person shot for the door, lunging for the showers or the pools. One young man, head wrapped in a white bandanna, smiled and uttered the wish of good health to all: “S lokim parom!”

You can have a massage or a venik treatment, literally a broom scrubbing with oak or birch branches soaked in water. But strangers will offer to scrub each other, and in the communal spirit of bathing, why not agree?

That was how I fell under the hands of Alex Dolgolevsky one wintry Saturday at the Mermaid. He began softly slapping the oak leaves against my shoulders, working toward my waist. He started gently, as if he were dusting me, then added more vigor. In time he pressed the leaves into my back, the twigs tickling my skin, driving the heat into my pores. With more gusto, the slaps traveled down my back. Fwash, fwash, fwash. I felt like a Chevy advancing through a car wash. After two minutes, I gasped for some cool air. “To the shower!” he ordered. I scurried from the room, gulping air. I stepped directly under the spout and drenched myself. Toweling off, I heard Alex’s command: “Again!”


My limbs felt loose and rubbery, my heart pumping like a piston. The banya, I realized, is about suffering for your redemption. You slog through the heat, you weather the cold, you imbibe strange smells not always associated with cleanliness. Mostly there’s the pain, the blessed pain, that keeps everyone coming back for more.

I looked at Alex with glee and agreed.