Return to Vorkuta: one photographer revisits his childhood in a crumbling gulag town

24 April 2020
Photography: Roman Demyanenko
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Perched on the outskirts of industrial Vorkuta, the tower blocks of the Rudnik neighbourhood jut out past the edge of the city and into the tundra beyond. Sometimes, the landscape is brightened by herds of reindeer as they pass through nearby mining areas, making for a strange and surreal site. When you picture the easternmost town of Europe, this is probably not the image you have in mind.


Vorkuta sits north of the Arctic Circle. Coal mining began here back in 1931, when some 3,700 prisoners were sent to the area to make use of the untouched resources. Only 54 of them survived that first winter. More prisoners arrived to the previously uninhabited territory over the years, until it grew into Vorkutlag, one of the Soviet Union’s deadliest labour camps.


Abandoned residential buildings on the Vorkuta Ring
A man prays before dipping into an ice hole
A cemetery for killed gulag prisoners

Roman Demianenko’s great-grandfather was captured by Germans during the Second World War, and later sent to Vorkutlag as a traitor — the fate many prisoners of war faced upon their return to the USSR. “The house we lived in was situated on the former gulag territory where author Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sent — a fact my father proudly talks about. On walks as a child, I remember wondering what might have been here before, as I passed scattered barbed wire and gravestones sinking into the mossy mire.

An abandoned residential building
An abandoned residential building
A five-storey residential building, known as a Khrushchyovki, developed in the 1950s-1960s
A five-storey residential building, known as a Khrushchyovki, developed in the 1950s-1960s
A bridge over the Vorkuta river to the Rudnik neighbourhood
A bridge over the Vorkuta river to the Rudnik neighbourhood
Airsoft gamers in the abandoned Vorkuta neighbourhood of Rudnik
Airsoft gamers in the abandoned Vorkuta neighbourhood of Rudnik

Demianenko left Vorkuta for Voronezh in southern Russia when he was 18. After graduating with a history degree, he trained as a photojournalist. He has travelled back to Vorkuta only twice — in January 2018 and July 2019 — during which time he found himself roaming abandoned but fully furnished apartments. “The flats I saw were almost identical: they had the same shelfs, wallpapers, curtains, lamps,” which is how they had stayed since the 1980s, when Vorkuta had a flourishing industry. “The book collections all had Alexander Duma, Mikhail Sholokhov, Valentin Pikul,” he adds. “As though all Vorkutans read and thought the same.”

David Dorn, 95 years old. David is a ethnic German and, in 1943, he was deported by Soviet government to Vorkuta for forced labor in coal mines
A statue of Vladimir Lenin near Vorkuta's Palace of Culture
A boy walks on a railway track. Since the mid-2000s, many of Vorkuta's schools and kindergartens have been abandoned and closed
An abandoned Palace of Culture
Alexander, 30 years old. He works as an electrical fitter. Alexander likes rock music and to be alone. He lives in the Sovetskiy neighbourhood, 15 km from Vorkuta city centre
Herds of reindeers are led from tundra to Vorkuta for slaughter

It was difficult for Roman to see Vorkuta’s shocking decay. “The locals live and work amid the ruins. Abandoned buildings keep tumbling down. Nature is reclaiming the town. You have the sense that soon enough you feel there won’t be any future here.”

In the past, the younger generation would talk about relocating to Moscow or St Petersburg; now competition there is too high. Today, Vortutans set their sights on Vologda, Yaroslavl, or Kirov. Those without work turn to fishing and hunting to sustain themselves.

Self-made cars are common in Vorkuta — large tank-like vehicles, which can move through thick tundra. The indigenous Nenets community still dedicate themselves to reindeer herding despite the fact that the mining industry has seriously damaged the natural landscape. Every autumn, thousands of reindeers are brought to Vorkuta to be traded.

A museum in Vorkuta
A museum in Vorkuta
 The Vorkuta river. Until 1942, the river was the only way to reach the city
The Vorkuta river. Until 1942, the river was the only way to reach the city
For many inhabitants of Vorkuta, hunting and fishing are important source of food. A lot of fishermen and hunters make homemade cars, locally known as Karakaty for trips through the tundra to Kara Sea, which flows into the Arctic Ocean
For many inhabitants of Vorkuta, hunting and fishing are important source of food. A lot of fishermen and hunters make homemade cars, locally known as Karakaty for trips through the tundra to Kara Sea, which flows into the Arctic Ocean
Workers at a garage for tracked vehicles. During frequent strong snowstorms and snowfalls, driving in Vorkuta is very difficult. Inhabitants can move only by using vehicles with tracks, or tractors
Workers at a garage for tracked vehicles. During frequent strong snowstorms and snowfalls, driving in Vorkuta is very difficult. Inhabitants can move only by using vehicles with tracks, or tractors
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The local House of Culture still runs a programme of gigs and concerts, though these are a faint echo compared to the punk scene that once existed here. Demianenko says it’s only natural that the children of gulag prisoners, many of whom were victims of political repressions or freedom activists, inherited the rebellious streak from their ancestors which manifested itself through punk music. “I met one guy at one of the punk gigs in Vorkuta. He was wearing a Discharge T-shirt and torn jeans. He was just 15 years old. I decided to include a photo of his tattooed hand holding a cigarette in the project, to capture this side of Vorkuta too.”



Artur, 38 years old. His granddad was sent to Vorkutlag from Western Ukraine. Now, Artur himself has just come back from prison, where he served a 10-year sentence. Artur dreams of starting a family, taking up bodybuilding and moving away from Vorkuta
An abandoned school
Danila, 15 years old. Each year, many young people leave Vorkuta and move to more southern cities Russia because they see no chances for professional advancement and social prospects
Shooting practice at Vorkuta Mining College
A billboard for the Vorkutaugol coal mining company
Vitali is a leader of a historical reenactors club

Demianenko reveals he found it hard to detach himself from his hometown. “I tried to be true to the documentary genre and remain neutral. But in the end, I think it was my connection with the place, and the stories of my ancestors that helped me to finish the project.”

Today only 1 or 2 families live in many residential buildings on the Vorkuta Ring

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