Staunton, July 4 – The cities in the Russian North in most cases were built as a result of Stalin’s dispatch of GULAG prisoners to develop the natural resources of that enormous region, and they were maintained by the subsidies that the post-Soviet leaderships provided to workers willing to live in the harsh environment there.
But now both of those factors have disappeared, and as a result, and together with the impact of global warming and the ability of people there to move elsewhere, most of those cities are on their way to extinction, a trend that calls into question Vladimir Putin’s economic and geopolitical aspirations (jamestown.org/program/moscows-aspirations-in-north-melting-along-with-permafrost/).
Now, three scholars, Mariya Gunko and Andrey Medvedev of the HSE and Yelena Batunova of Milan Polytechnic University have explored this process in Vorkuta (“Rethinking Urban Form in a Shrinking Arctic City,” Espace-Populations-Societies, 2020/2021, pp. 1-16 at publications.hse.ru/articles/444411902, summarized at iq.hse.ru/news/484160025.html).
Vorkuta, once a major center of the GULAG and industrial development in the Russian North, has been shrinking since the 1970s, with its decline accelerating after the collapse first of the subsidies system under Gorbachev and then the collapse of the USSR. There is no sign that this decline is going to end, the three say.
As rapid as Vorkuta’s decline has been, it ranks only 15th among Russian cities by that measure, and most of them are in the North. It remains a major coal mining center; but only four of its 13 original mines are still working and most at less that full capacity. As a result, the villages around Vorkuta have become ghost towns and the city is at risk of following them.
About 15 years ago, Moscow proposed a program of “administered contraction” so that the departure of people would not lead to urban collapse; but as of now, the three scholars say, that program has not been funded to the point that it has achieved most of its goals. Far more money is needed, and none appears to be available.
One problem in Vorkuta typical of the North, the scholars say, is that Moscow has more or less written off the villages around Northern cities and is playing defense without being willing to put in the money to prevent the depopulation of the countryside from being repeated even in places as large as Vorkuta.
“In order to go along the path not only of ‘administered’ contraction but of ‘intelligent’ contraction,” they write, “Vorkuta needs state support.” But it isn’t getting it because there are so many other cities in the North on their way to becoming ghost towns that the center lacks the resources to save even a few of them.