Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Error

Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Error

Article excerpt

NORTH of the Arctic Circle, roses do not grow. There are no daisies or lilies; there are no sunflowers or geraniums. Only a few species of charmless wildflower have learned to take advantage of the very short, very hot, northern summers. They grow quickly - from one day to the next, the empty tundra fills up with their weedy stems - and they blossom quickly. Then, just as quickly, they die.

In and around the Russian city of Vorkuta, Arctic wildflowers grow in profusion. They grow in the ruins of the old brick factory, which was also, in 1938, the site of a mass execution. They grow beside the obsolete mine shafts, beside the remains of the barracks, around the hollow shell of what used to be a geological institute. They grow inside the left-over walls of unfinished apartment blocks, begun in the days when the city still believed it would continue to grow, and abandoned when it became clear that it would not.

Vorkuta's own history is short, too: its first 23 settlers arrived in 1931, by boat, via the waterways that run from the Arctic Sea, bringing their wooden picks and shovels with them. Although even the tsars had known about the region's enormous coal reserves, no one had managed to work out precisely how to get the coal out of the ground, given the sheer horror of life in a place where temperatures regularly drop to -30 deg or -40 deg in the winter, where the sun does not shine for six months of the year, and where, in summertime, flies and mosquitoes travel in great, dark clouds.

But Stalin found a way - by making use of another sort of vast reserve. Vorkuta's 23 original settlers were, of course, prisoners, and the leaders of that founding expedition were, of course, secret policemen. Over the subsequent two and a half decades, a million more prisoners passed through Vorkuta, one of the two or three most notorious hubs of the Gulag, the vast labour camp system which once stretched from the Finnish border to the Pacific Ocean. Among them were hundreds of thousands of political prisoners: the `enemies of the state' condemned for telling jokes about party bosses, for joining antiSoviet partisan movements in the Baltic states and Ukraine, or, just as often, for absolutely nothing at all.

And yet, `Kak vam nravitsa pasha Vorkuta?' I was constantly asked while I was there: `How do you like our Vorkuta?' It is hard to imagine the contemporary inhabitants of Auschwitz asking visitors to share their civic pride, but those who live in Vorkuta do expect praise for their sprawling, ugly city which was, quite literally, built on the bones of Stalin's victims - in summer, the constantly shifting permafrost often brings them up to the surface - and whose subsequent existence was maintained only thanks to the Soviet Union's inability to calculate things like 'cost' and 'profit'.

For Vorkuta was not shut down when Stalin died, and the convenient source of cheap labour dried up. Instead, the Soviet authorities built shops and swimming pools and schools: those who flocked to work in the city in the 1960s and 1970s were not prisoners, but well-paid, highly praised, flattered and feted Soviet heroes of labour, patriots who willingly endured the harsh Arctic conditions in order that the Motherland might have coal. That the cost of heating shoddy Soviet apartment blocks for 11 months of the year is astronomical; that the city's infrastructure requires huge efforts to maintain; that the construction of large buildings in permafrost is a risky and costly business; that miners could, instead, have been flown in and out on two-week shifts, as they are in Canada or Alaska: none of that was ever explained. …

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