Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Russia's frontier people
Russia is to resettle thousands of people living in the far north of the country. Most come from remote communities which were established in the Stalin era. The BBC's Kevin Connolly recalls several trips he made to these far-flung settlements north of the Arctic Circle.

There was always something unsettling about the long flights through the featureless black of the polar night from Moscow to the cities of the north.

Before you left, Russian friends in the capital would make sure you understood as a foreigner that it was not the north as you found it in other countries. It was not just a word that told you where a place stood on a map relative to everywhere else.

It was a land where the sun never rose in the long winter, and never set in the short summer. A place of a coldness so profound that the engines of trucks were left on round the clock from November to March because if you switched them off, you'd never be able to switch them back on.

It was a place of Stalin's slave camps where the cities built on the tundra were haunted by the dead beneath it.

Just as a compass becomes less reliable as you near the polar ice cap, so your sense of history became distorted too.

Secrecy and misery

Your plane took off in the Soviet Union of the late 80s or early 90s, when communism was clearly disintegrating all around you.

But, when it touched down again, you were back in a land of secrecy, brutality and misery that belonged to the 50s or even the 30s.

I hear the names even today - Syktyvkar, Yakutsk, Vorkuta - and I see it all again.

An aircraft with its lights throwing a pool of yellow light onto an ice-bound runway, stranded because at -51 degrees even Aeroflot reckoned it wasn't safe to fly.

The meal of smoked reindeer and reindeer stew in Yakutia that was rounded off by an ice-cream with a curious metallic flavour.

"Why worry what gave it that nice red colour if you liked it?" asked my hosts, who then told me it was reindeer blood.

The young businessman on the Kola peninsula dismayed because I didn't think the Pepsi Corporation would be interested in sponsorship of the huge frozen wasteland where he lived.


Even then, you sensed, time was running out for the cities that communism built.

And no one else would have built them.

Many of the settlements in the north grew around the prisons and slave labour camps of Stalin's gulag and were peopled by prisoners, guards and a tiny handful of communist true-believers - the kind of people who told their children that the illuminated red star on the top of the party building was filled with rubies.

When the gulag collapsed, they were all still trapped together because none had the internal passport which they needed to live legally somewhere else.

In Vorkuta, we met a Ukrainian woman, a former political prisoner who had married a former guard.

"Well, who else was there?" she said, and anyway, while thousands of inmates had died, they'd mostly been killed not by the jailers but by the unbelievable cold, the lousy food and the backbreaking work.

I didn't entirely see the distinction myself but she was a woman who commanded respect for her views.

Ferocious pride

So they mined coal, processed metals and buried their dead.

While communism was still thriving they were joined by workers lured by that most capitalist of tactics, bribery - high wages, holidays on the Black Sea coast, decent food supplies.

When it finally fell apart, they were more trapped than ever. They'd spent a lifetime saving their high rouble salaries to buy apartments in the sunny South, but a few months of hyperinflation meant their life savings wouldn't even buy a tube of sun cream.

Still, there was always a ferocious, bitter-edged pride to the people of the North - people who regarded Siberians as hopelessly soft and Muscovites as barely Russian at all.

They saw themselves as a frontier people who wanted to tell you not how stupid the economy was but how nearly their incredible determination had come to making it work.

I got to know a policeman in the Komi region called Viktor. He was a man who spent his life navigating the dark undercurrents of violence, alcoholism and despair which were also a part of the North.

He and his wife came to visit me in Moscow on some day in January when the temperature was a Mediterranean -20.

My gift to them was a set of Lada spark plugs (look, they were delighted with them, they were very hard to get hold of at the time). Theirs to me was an extraordinary work of art. A sheet of wood dyed black into which Viktor had cut delicate images of northern life. Prison camps, arctic wildlife, mines and Inuit camps stark against the blackness.

It will all be swallowed again in the snow and the ice one day, he said, and no one will believe how we lived there. Look at the picture and remember.

And, you know, more often than he might have imagined, in the wet warmth of our winters, I stand in front of the picture in my house and let my imagination conjure up those ghosts of a haunted land.

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