Out of Russia: Stalin's Satanic city of death that few escape

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PROPPED up on a filing cabinet in the Vorkuta City Architectural Bureau is an oil painting of what looks like a skull. It is a skull. It is also a map of Vorkuta - the city's main road tracing with uncanny accuracy the bumpy curve of a cranium, the indent of an eye socket and the jut of a human jaw.

The similarity is a freak of nature: the road loops around Vorkuta to join 13 collieries along the rim of a coal basin. But it is more than just an accident, says Vitaly Troshin, chief architect and amateur painter. He calls it Stalin's 'Satanic joke'.

The skull-shaped road, like everything else in this godforsaken Arctic town, where snowdrifts bury entire buildings and the river can stay frozen until June, was built by slave labour. Stalin sent up to a million prisoners here to mine a rich coal seam which still provides the only reason for Vorkuta's existence.

Four decades after Stalin's death on 5 March 1953 the whole town is still a sad Satanic joke, a place fearsomely cold but where Mr Troshin designs buildings with refrigeration rods to keep the tundra beneath them firm; a place so bleak and soaked of colour that an insipid winter sky blends seamlessly with an endless expanse of snow- covered earth.

Relics of Stalin's prison camps are everywhere: ramshackle wooden barracks converted into family homes; watchtowers abandoned in the snow; strands of rusty barbed wire twisted, like contorted arthritic limbs, by decades of blizzards. Even the modern concrete apartment blocks, says Mr Troshin, copy the layout of old camp compounds.

Then there are the graveyards: every coal-mine was a concentration camp and every camp had its own cemetery. You can't see them now, though everyone knows where they lie: on an embankment next to the Vorgoshorskaya coal mine; beneath a frozen patch of earth off Komsomolskaya Street; in a hollow on a river-bank still pitted with the trenches built to house the first batch of prisoners. A third of the people sent to Vorkuta died here. But you can't see their graves: there is nothing as enduring as a tombstone. Bodies were dumped in communal pits, marked by small pieces of wood carved only with the number of dead.

The tablets have rotted away, though one - marked simply A181 (Site: A. Corpses: 181) is on display at the local museum, in a room which, until 1991, housed exhibits celebrating 'Socialist Vorkuta'.

'Schools are built on graves. Factories are built on graves. The whole town is built on graves,' says Mr Troshin, who runs the local branch of the human rights group Memorial and wants to build 13 monuments, one for each camp. So far only one has been built: a steeple-like pavilion in honour of Lithuanian victims. Another, an abbreviated version of a vast concrete sculpture of skulls and writhing bodies designed by the emigre Russian artist Ernst Neizvestny, is planned for the riverbank soon.

Memorial, founded in Moscow a decade ago and championed by the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, has, like many other products of Soviet-era revolt, lost much of its appeal. Democracy is no longer forbidden but blamed instead for many of Russia's problems; anti-Soviet dissent is no longer revered for its courage but sneered at as an archaic fad. Mr Troshin, though, believes the task of jogging people's memories has never been more urgent: 'Russia faces a political cataclysm. Anything could happen. People need to know what really happened here before. They cry for a strong hand but forget what this means.'

So each week he meets former prisoners, feeble men and women in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They managed to survive the camps but never managed to leave Vorkuta. Some don't want to. Most are simply trapped. Memorial keeps a wooden box with hundreds of cards listing the names and addresses of former political prisoners still in Vorkuta. A third of them still await formal rehabilitation.

Others have been cleared but can't leave - people like Anna Trikona, a 70-year-old pensioner packed off to Vorkuta in 1942 for allegedly helping the Nazis. Officials cleared her name in 1973 but denied her the residence permit she needed to move. 'Now it's too late. I'll die here.'

Former prisoners are now a small minority of Vorkuta's population of 217,000. They have been replaced by miners, lured to the Arctic by the promise of better pay. Instead of a starvation ration of gruel and 25oz of bread a day, they earn up to 120,000 roubles a month ( pounds 132), compared with less than 10,000 for most Russians. But, like the convicts before them, the miners too dream of escape.

Last year more than 5,000 people left Vorkuta. The government, unable to fund grandiose schemes for the Arctic, would like more to go. Of the 11 million people living in the far north, a million or more are no longer needed. But if it costs money to keep them in the Arctic, it would cost even more to move them. At the Vorgoshorskaya pit, I asked a group of 17 miners if they wanted to leave: every one of them said yes. 'After 10 years here you stop being a human being,' said Vladimir Tuchkovsk.

Even local bureaucrats paid to sing the praises of Vorkuta to visitors are desperate to get away. Listen to Alexander Selyankin, deputy head of economic affairs: 'We have tremendous mineral resources. Vorkuta has many advantages.

'But, I asked, would he like to leave: 'Of course,' he replied, 'for the sake of my family, for my children it would be better to go.'