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Laugh of God

Stalinism slowly being forgotten in the “polar boiler room”

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Friday, 6 April 2012 | Views [537]

In the endless spaces of “white silence” winter reigns for nine months out of twelve, dark days are followed by white nights, and wild deer make friends with people. Vorkuta blossoms in June, when the splendor of painted houses is most evident, dandelions fill every valley, and young paperboys deliver newspapers in the streets, yelling: “Read all about the MK Vorkuta!” People feed bread to pigeons, rare guests that, like people, arrive here only by train (sitting on the roof). In the summer Nenets reindeer herders arrive in Vorkuta on their sleighs, even though there is grass underfoot.


Vorkuta, the size of Slovenia or Macedonia, covers six percent of the area of the Komi Republic. This is a multinational city, populated by Russians, Ukrainians, Komi, Belarusians, Moldovans, Georgians, and other nationalities. But the Ukrainian diaspora is the largest in this republic.

The intelligentsia is made up of highly-educated, talented people from whom one can learn many things. In various ways they are all enriching the spiritual life of Vorkuta, which is known for its coal mining. Today the city is developing rapidly. There are some city boulevards, amazing theaters, the grand Miners’ Culture Palace, crowded squares, splendid architectural ensembles, various commemorative signs, and a huge fountain. The ice castles built by talented architects adorn the city in winter.

There is a splendid exhibition hall. Employee Olena Morozova explained that this year’s summer season is depicted in the paintings and photos created by talented children in Vorkuta, some of whom attended an exhibit in the US. Ms. Morozova showed me around the city, recounting its history. In the early 20th century deposits of high-quality coal, very good for coking, were discovered near the Vorkuta River, which flows near the foothills of the Ural Mountains, the border between Europe and Asia. At the time, the socialist state needed oil, coal, and ore for industrialization. So in the 1930s the Soviet government developed the almost inaccessible Siberian region and built a new economic base with the aid of political prisoners. This is how the concentration camp city, one of the symbols of the Stalinist era, arose.


In the city I met a wonderful person from Ukraine, the economist Yevdokia Lisova. Our acquaintance began when she greeted me in Ukrainian: “Good afternoon, how do you like our city?” I was overjoyed at hearing my native language. Yevdokia comes from Poltava and is very excited by what is taking place in Ukraine. She reads a lot of Ukrainian books and discusses the nation’s painful problems at meetings of the Ukraina Society.

“On Christmas Day and the Old New Year we visit each other, carrying the star of Bethlehem and singing carols. We sing shchedrivky (ancient New Year’s songs). All this warms our hearts and souls,” this Ukrainian resident of Vorkuta told me.

There is a cultural center in the city called Ukrainska khata (Ukrainian House). This is an authentic Ukrainian village, where everything is handmade: houses, wicker fences, sunflowers, and national costumes. The center also has a collection of Ukrainian literary works. The Ukraina civic organization is also active in the city. Officially founded in 2003, it hosts literary soirees devoted to Taras Shevchenko and Lesia Ukrainka, as well as many other interesting creative activities that are helping to revive Ukrainian traditions and culture.

For the first time the Ukrainians in Russia organized the Chervona Ruta Festival in Vorkuta. The Ukrainian choir Pivnichne siaivo (Northern Lights), which regularly takes part in the Pisenni dzherela (Song Sources) international celebration of literature and art and the festival Ukrainian Songs in the World, was founded in 2003. The choir often tours abroad. When the performers sing the prayer for Ukraine, everyone listens to it standing at attention, and there is always a full house. The Ukrainian language has been taught as an optional subject in Vorkuta’s schools since 1988.


In a way, Vorkuta’s past resembles Armageddon: people’s lives were maimed, families were broken up, children froze to death after being thrown from trains into the winter tundra, prisoners were tortured by hunger, the bones of the dead lie buried in the ground, people were crippled, and many hot tears mixed with blood. Those who survived died without ever seeing either their home or parents: Stalin’s dictatorship dealt efficiently with the “disagreeable.”

I was lucky to talk to a local poet named Maryk Kagantsov, who is an emergency doctor and the author of the book Verses byUkrainian Poets — Political Prisoners of the Vorkuta Concentration Camps. He is the son of victims of the repressions from the Crimea. The poems of unknown Ukrainian poets, including Volodymyr Kosovsky, Yevhenii Cherednyshenko, Ivan Palamarchuk, and Vasyl Petriv, are masterfully conveyed in his Russian translations. These poems are heart-rending and stay with the reader for a long time.

There are also splendid churches in this unusual city. Petro Deputat, a native of Ternopil oblast, is the dean of the Church of Prince Ihor.

“My father was repressed for his membership in the OUN and UPA,” the Reverend Petro explained. “I was born in Vorkuta, and when it came time to choose my future profession, I decided to become a priest, like my grandfather. So I went to Lviv and graduated from the Lviv Seminary. I have been serving the Lord here for 10 years. The first six years I served divine liturgies in the camp commandant’s office, which substituted for a church: the cells were still there. Now I am in the new church. The residents of Vorkuta like to attend church. Most of them come because of some inner compulsion.”

This is what the remote Siberian region is like: everywhere you look gives you the shivers. Nothing grows and everything but coal is shipped in. But people live here and don’t even complain about their fate. They say they have gotten used to it, but they will go to Ukraine to die.

Tags: deer, siberia, vorkyta

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