Life in Stalin's Gulags

Vorkuta - a labor-camp-cum-city -- was built from nothing on an icebound wasteland by political prisoners from 1931 to 1957.

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An undated file photo of the Vorkutinskaya mine in Vorkuta, in Russia's northern Komi region. (Reuters)

VORKUTA, Russia -- Anna Krikun can barely read the yellowing papers that show she was sentenced as a young woman to hard labor in one of Stalin's cruelest Gulag camps.

At 90, her eyesight is fading. But she remembers everything as if it happened yesterday. She recalls the name of the investigator who tortured her with a sleep-deprivation technique known as the "conveyor" until she confessed to betraying the motherland and agitating against the Soviet Union.

It was 1946, the throes of the Stalinist terror, and Krikun was sent to Vorkuta - a labor camp-cum-city built from nothing on an icebound wasteland by political prisoners from 1931 to 1957.

Today, the city is still a byword for the suffering of the ill-equipped labor brigades that were effectively sent to their death as Stalin used his enemies - both real and imagined -- to tap into vast natural resources in the uninhabited Far North.

And yet here, in this inhospitable outpost, Krikun has remained all these years.

Freed in 1957 and joined by her mother, Krikun could not return home to the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The family house had been destroyed during World War II, their ownership documents were lost, and no friends or family had survived.

Without the money or contacts to leave, she remained in Vorkuta and grew old. Now too frail to venture out of her little apartment where she lives a life of reflection with ticking clocks and a sleepy ginger cat, Krikun exudes a practiced stoicism.

"Why would I leave? At least here I know what to do if something happens," she says. "What would become of me if I arrived alone to a new city, old and needed by nobody?"

No Way To Leave

Today, the Gulag is long gone and there are only a handful of people like Krikun who witnessed the height of the Soviet repressions.

And yet more than half a century later, Vorkuta has become a prison for a new generation unable to find a way to leave. Many say they lack the money to move away and are trapped in this remote and declining coal town, suffering from the legacy of a Stalinist experiment 60 years after he died.

Many of them even came to Vorkuta willingly.

​​Vladimir Zharuk came to the city from Ukraine in 1979 as a 17-year-old aspiring geologist. He was prepared to brave the bleak climate in exchange for "hardship" pay and a shortcut to retirement in the south.

But 34 years after he arrived, Zharuk looks as far as ever from leaving. He calls himself one of thousands of "hostages of the Far North."

His geology work dried up in the 1990s when exploration plans were shelved. Zharuk then took to the coal mines to make a living but suffered a debilitating injury in 2005. He now subsists, with his wife and two sons, on a pension of 15,000 rubles ($490) a month.

Zharuk, who still speaks with a soft Ukrainian accent, enrolled in a federal resettlement program to move his family south in 1997. But over the past 16 years he found that the program is massively oversubscribed and that the resettlement rate is painfully slow.

According to a 2011 count, there were 2,179 disabled persons, 12,802 pensioners, and 7,028 working-age citizens waiting to receive accommodation below the Arctic Circle from the state.

Last year, only 117 pensioners were reportedly resettled. At that rate, it will take more than a century to resettle everybody who is waiting, according to Zharuk, who equates the failure of the resettlement program to a "genocide" of the elderly.

He claims the authorities are deliberately trying to stem emigration to keep the city afloat.

"My children are getting older. I cannot move out of here, and they can't either," Zharuk says. "They will have to go into slavery. Where? They can be slaves in the mines or somewhere else. The authorities benefit."

Determined To Leave

It wasn't always so hard to leave Vorkuta.

In the 1990s, many young people left to find work elsewhere as eight of the town's 13 coal mines closed, reducing some suburbs to wind-blasted ghost towns. The government helped relocate those who lost their jobs; pensioners moved in with relatives in the south if they had them. Others relocated under a program sponsored by the World Bank.

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