Discovering HSE and Russia: Exploring Russian Far North

In addition to interviews with international faculty members The HSE Look launches a new format – a column on how they discover different cities and interesting venues in university and beyond. If you have an interesting experience to share, please, contact us at We present the column by Michael Rochlitz, former Assistant Professor at the School of Political Science.

Exploring Russian Far North

“Good morning!” Olga greets us with a radiant smile and a steaming cup of tea in her hand. It’s our second morning on board of train No. 042B, the Moscow-Vorkuta Express. Outside the sun is slowly rising over the white, almost treeless polar landscape, but inside the train it’s warm and cozy.

This isn’t the first cup of tea we have shared during the last 35 hours. Olga is on her way to visit a friend in Vorkuta. A teacher in Moscow, she has taken 4 weeks of holidays to experience the polar night. “It’s very different from life in the big city, simple but beautiful. And if you are lucky, you can even see the polar lights.” Our other travel companions are NadezhdaPetrovna, on her way back from a holiday in Pyatigorsk, and Sergey, still sleeping on the upper bunk. Slowly the train advances through the icy landscape.

When we arrive 5 hours later in Vorkuta, the sun has already set, and we step out into the polar night. After a temperature of almost 30 degrees in the train, the cold hits you like a solid wall of ice. Fortunately, Pyotr is already waiting outside, happy to bring us in his taxi to the city, Olga to her friends, and me to the Hotel Vorkuta where I have booked a room. On the way, he tells his story: “I was working as a miner in Lugansk, and moved to Vorkuta in the early 1990s because the pay was so much better. Now I’m retired, but why leave? The fish here is good, and I have nowhere to go anyway.”

In the afternoon, I put on all my clothes and go for a walk. Just opposite the hotel are the headquarters of the regional coal company, Vorkutaugol. A big sign with the company’s logo is shining through the night. Across the street, another sign indicates the temperature: - 27 degrees Celsius. But at four o’clock in the afternoon, the city center is full of people in thick fur coats, and nobody seems to be bothered by the cold. 

A couple of streets further, the city is much quieter. Small houses stand in the yellow light of the street lamps, and there is almost no sound apart from the crunching of the snow that comes with every step. The houses have been built by prisoners from Stalin’s Gulag in the 1940s and 1950s, when Vorkuta was a booming coal mining town, as well as a center of the Soviet Union’s vast system of forced labor camps. Today, the scary history of the place stands in stark contrast to the peaceful streets.

Early next morning, I meet Pyotr on the parking lot in front of the hotel. Yesterday he proposed to show me around a number of mining towns that are situated like a ring north of Vorkuta. After a cup of coffee, we are off to our first stop, a Gazprom basecamp. From here, Gazprom’s engineers leave by helicopter to installations further up in the north, and just as we pass by a huge helicopter is taking off in a flurry of white snow.

The next stop is the Severnaya mine, where 36 miners lost their lives in February last year because of a methane gas explosion. Pyotr, who had worked in the Severnaya mine himself and had known some of the miners that lost their lives, is visibly touched when removing the snow from some of the nameplates. After the accident, the mine was flooded and is now closed.

From the 14 coal mines that were working around Vorkuta during the Soviet Union, only 3 are still working today. As we move on, many of the towns have been partially or completely abandoned, leaving behind a landscape of eerie ghost-cities.

And still, despite all the harshness the landscape is sometimes of great, otherworldly beauty. The next morning, a storm is blowing from the north, and temperatures are down to minus 33. On a half-broken bridge across the river, I take some pictures of the rising sun, before catching the weekly plane back to Moscow. Where else than in Russia’s far north can you find such utter harshness and great beauty, so close together?        

Read more articles in The HSE Look October 2017 issue