Arctic Circle: A Gulag Tourist Nightmare? Jul 4, 2005 0:07:36 GMT -5
Post by Bozur on Jul 4, 2005 0:07:36 GMT -5
Above the Arctic Circle, a Gulag Nightmare for Tourists?
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
Published: June 6, 2005
VORKUTA, Russia, May 30 - This broken-down Arctic coal town does not offer much when it is comes to economic prospects. The mayor works with what he has.
Heidi Bradner for The New York Times
A graveyard for gulag inmates who were shot during an uprising in 1953.
Heidi Bradner for The New York Times
Soldiers celebrating a holiday in Vorkuta, a city built by prisoners.
"My dream is to build a gulag," the mayor, Igor L. Shpektor, declared the other day in an outburst that stung like the bitter chill of late May in a place whose history is inseparable from the Soviet Union's notorious system of penal labor.
He meant a gulag for tourists. "Extreme tourism," he explained.
Then he spun an improbable vision of hard times and hard bunks, where tourists could eat turnip gruel and sleep in wooden barracks in a faux camp surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, patrolled by soldiers and dogs.
"Americans can stay here," he went on. "We will give them a chance to escape. The guards will shoot them" - with paint balls, naturally, not bullets.
Whether Mr. Shpektor's idea is madness or an act of civic desperation is hard to say, but reaction to the idea, which he first floated in 2003 at a town meeting that included survivors of Vorkuta's camps, has been mixed.
"I think it is sacrilege," said Tatyana B. Andreyeva, a teacher who conducts expeditions for schoolchildren to the ever-disappearing remains of Vorkuta's camps.
"It is worse than sacrilege," said Yevgeniya A. Khaidorova, the co-director of the local branch of Memorial, the human rights organization that has done more than any other to chronicle the horrors of the gulag.
Mr. Shpektor, though, is not easily daunted. He is blunt and brusque, governing this city with an authoritarian fist and a mercurial temper. (He publicly excoriated aides at a parade honoring children and border guards and furiously berated a group of foreign visitors for arriving late for a meeting with him.)
A dictatorial will might have been enough for Stalin to build the gulag - the vast networks of camps that swallowed millions during the Great Terror of the 1930's and afterward, often for little more than offending the man in charge - but Mr. Shpektor faces hurdles Stalin never could have imagined.
"We need investment," he said, articulating what might prove to be the project's biggest hurdle.
The most significant foreign investment in Vorkuta (pronounced vor-ku-TA) since the collapse of the Soviet Union, after all, has been a program by the World Bank to relocate people out of here, encouraging them to abandon the Far North for better prospects elsewhere.
Vorkuta, a city built by gulag labor in the tundra 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow and 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, is slowly dying - and those who remain in many cases cannot afford to leave.
A Soviet-era sign that remains atop a central building exhorts people to mine more coal, the resource that first attracted the gulag's architects in the 1930's and resulted in forced labor by two million prisoners before the camps shut down in 1950's.
The mines, however, are closing.
Once, 13 mines were arrayed in settlements around Vorkuta like the hours of a crazy clock. Only six still operate. The other settlements have been abandoned to the Arctic elements, their services cut and their buildings intentionally gutted or leveled, lest the truly desperate try to reoccupy them. In 1990, just before the Soviet implosion, 217,000 people lived here; today about 130,000 do.
Mr. Shpektor's plans remain vague, but he cited one of the abandoned settlements as a prime spot for his gulag. It is called Uzhny - which means simply Southern - and was one of 132 camps that existed in and around Vorkuta at the gulag's peak.
It stands on a bend of the Vorkuta River, abutted by a looming escarpment and marred both by the detritus of Soviet economics and the new Russian ones. A recreational park still operates nearby. Or did - a recent flood swept away most of the park's facilities.
Mr. Shpektor said he had blueprints for his gulag camp, but neither he nor his aides produced them. The idea generally, he explained, was to recreate the sensation of Arctic imprisonment.
"It should look like the Stalin camps," he said, "so that people today can understand what those prisoners went through."
He brushed aside questions of whether the idea would offend. "People should see what should not be repeated again," he said.
Plus, once here, visitors might use the camp as a base for trekking, hunting or fishing in the tundra around Vorkuta. There is precedent of a sort. Outside of Perm, a city in the Urals, a group has preserved the remains of Perm-36, the only camp of the gulag system that remains more or less intact. A few years ago they began to offer a handful of rooms for rent, but mostly for scholars and mostly to raise money for preserving the site as a reminder of a past not often discussed in today's Russia.
Ms. Andreyeva, the teacher, welcomed any effort to recognize the Vorkuta's grim history, but she accused the mayor of hypocrisy, saying that almost nothing, officially, had been done to preserve the remnants of the camps that were here.
She would like to see a museum built. So far the only acknowledged memorial to the gulag's victims here is a weed-choked graveyard, near the abandoned settlement called Industrial, where 53 prisoners were shot and buried after an uprising in 1953.
A theme camp is different, though. "It is like restoring Buchenwald," she said.
The gulag is not Mr. Shpektor's first outlandish proposal. In 2001, he created a stir with a proposal to open Russia's first legal brothel. Political opposition to prostitution - and a failure to attract investors - doomed the idea. He also dreams of using a nearby military airfield, built for the Soviet Union's space shuttle program, as a layover for trans-Arctic passenger flights. That idea, too, has failed to attract investors.
With the mines privately owned and managed and not sustained by the state, the need to diversify Vorkuta's economy is indisputable.
Vorkuta will not survive otherwise, Mr. Shpektor said.
"Capitalism in its worst form," he said, "has come to this place."
FOREIGN DESK | June 6, 2005, Monday
Vorkuta Journal; Above the Arctic Circle, a Gulag Nightmare for Tourists?
By STEVEN LEE MYERS (NYT) 1071 words