Stalin's legacy lives on in city that slaves built – archive, 1994
29 December 1994 James Meek in Norilsk talks to a victim of the gulag 50 years ago whose Arctic exile is still not over
Barbed wire fence and guard tower at a disused Stalinist convict camp, Siberia, Russia, 1989. Photograph: FPG/Getty Images
At the end of the second world war, as Europe was preparing to celebrate its victory over fascism, the Soviet authorities arrested an entire school of teenage girls from western Ukraine, named them enemies of the people, took them to an Arctic concentration camp and forced them to expend their youth in slave labour.
Half a century later Galina Skopyuk is still there. She is a prisoner of circumstances now rather than a prisoner of Stalin, but beginning her 49th winter in a land where the winters are nine months long is hard.
“I’m always hoping to leave. I don’t want to die here. But I don’t have any chance,” she said.
Mrs Skopyuk is one of the few living links between the present-day city of Norilsk and the dark years of its creation, starting in 1935, when Stalin willed thousands of political prisoners hither to claw a city out of the tundra in a metal-rich volcanic crater.
When a researcher from Norilsk Museum was given access to the records of prisoners last year, she was not allowed to count the exact number who had passed through before the camps were closed in 1956.
All she had time to do was take a ruler, work out the number of card-index files in each four-inch block and measure the blocks. The figure Nina Kandrushina came up with was 350,000. She reckons some 100,000 of them died, many summarily executed.
In Norilsk’s registry office is a book of death certificates of executed prisoners, “rehabilitated” long after they were murdered. Flicking through it, the different names and places of birth are a blur, but one word stands out because it is the same on each page: “Shot.”
Conditions were harshest before the war but as the war ended the Norilsk camps were flooded with Soviet soldiers released from captivity in Germany, and with thousands rounded up from the territories the Soviet Union had absorbed - the Baltic states, western Ukraine and Bielarus.
“It was plain hard labour,” said Mrs Skopyuk, who was 17 when she arrived. “From seven in the morning till eight at night every day, without a midday meal. We didn’t have any days off, except when it was minus 45, minus 50 outside.
“You were only allowed to write one letter a year. You weren’t allowed to have photographs of your relatives.
“Your morale was terrible. It wasn’t one day, or two days, it was 10 years, day after day. Yet people worked hard. You’d go out to work, it was cold, and you’d hack at the earth, that raw, frozen earth, in order to keep warm.”
Mrs Skopyuk still has frostbite pains from the time she lay on the ground as guards shot at them for talking out of turn.
Norilsk today, a city of some 250,000 people, neither hides nor advertises its origins.
Smoke rises from the smokestacks of the Norilsk Nickel plant in Norilsk, northern Siberia. Photograph: Boris Koltsov/AP
“I think there’s a certain group of people who’ll always feel guilty. But most people say it’s not my fault, it’s nothing to do with me,” said Ms Kandrushina.
There is a fine new exhibition about the camps in the museum, and at the foot of the steep, snow-dusted rock of Schmidt Hill, where in 1957 the city authorities bulldozed the mass graves of Stalin’s victims, a small privately funded chapel has just been built.
Nearby are three wooden crosses erected by the Baltic states to commemorate their dead.
Most of the dead are unmarked and forgotten.
Norilsk was not a death camp: death was, for the planners, a tiresome by-product of underfeeding, overworking, brutal discipline and cold. But comparison with the much-mourned victims of the Nazi camps is unavoidable.
The old heart of the Norilsk camps is now an industrial zone. The smelters, furnaces and mills fume furiously away in the noonday Arctic twilight around the graves of the people who built them. Trucks rattle over their bones.
Largely unmarked, too, is the camp uprising of 1953, a brave, doomed attempt by the 35,000 political prisoners to defy the authorities after the death of Stalin.
The women’s camp, number 6, where Mrs Skopyuk was held, was one of the last to surrender.
On July 7, after the women had refused to work for a month and been on hunger strike for a week, the authorities fixed machine-guns to the watchtowers. The 3,000 women prisoners came out of their barracks and as a sign of contempt for the authorities began to dig graves for themselves.
Instead of shooting, the authorities fired jets of hot water at the women and attacked them with bricks and truncheons. They fled into the tundra and found more troops waiting for them.
Mrs Skopyuk was freed in 1954. She was not allowed to leave Norilsk for another five years and was not given an unrestricted internal passport, allowing her to move back to her home near Lutsk, until 1965.
By then she had married and her old home had become part of a collective farm; she decided to stay, assuming she would be able to retire to Ukraine later. But now, with no state accommodation available in Ukraine and her flat in Norilsk practically worthless, she is trapped.
“I used to think that if the situation changed they’d call us home, us Ukrainians, and give us somewhere to live. But it hasn’t happened.”