The Desolation of Exile:
A Russian Family's Odyssey

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Vorkuta is a town on the 67th parallel and lies within the Arctic Circle.  It was built by GULAG prisoners in the late 1930s to house the officials stationed there to guard them and became the headquarters of the largest prison camp in the Soviet Union. Knyaz Nikolay Alexandrovich Ukhtomsky was sent to Vorkuta in 1946 after he was convicted of various crimes against the Soviet state. I traveled there in 2002, trying to find his grave or at least the place where he had been buried. After his arrest in Manchuria in 1945, he never saw nor had any contact with either his wife or his children again, and died not knowing their fate. He had two daughters. Marina, the eldest, was my mother. Yelena, his younger daughter, started trying to find out more information about him after the collapse of the Soviet Union and I joined her in this quest.

The Vorkuta town border and beginning of where the prison camp once began.

A Vorkuta street.

A memorial to miners who  perished in accidents. Vorkuta has huge coal deposits and, i nthe Soviet period, many prisoners worked in the coal mines.

The hotel where I stayed in Vorkuta.

"Miners' Palace of Culture" near the town center.

A "banya" (sauna-like bathing facility) built by prisoners for the officials. I was told that my grandfather may have been one of those prisoners who built this building.

The Vorkuta River with old barracks and buildings on its banks.

Monument to those repressed by Stalin. The young man is my third cousin, Artem, one of my traveling companions. He did much of the videotaping on the trip.

My meeting with Pavel Negretov (second from left in top photo and in the middle in bottom photo), a survivor of the GULAG and author of All Roads Lead to Vorkuta. The woman is Yevgeniya, a member of the organization Memorial, which brings to light Stalin's repressions.

St. Michael's Church in Vorkuta, where I arranged to hold a panihida (memorial service) for my grandfather in 2002.

The beginning of the tundra and the possible burial place of GULAG prisoners in 1953.

After the panihida, at the burial site, where I buried a piece of paper with my grandfather's name on it and sprinkled a handful of earth, blessed by priest, on the ground.

Article about my visit to Vorkuta (in Russian). This article contains a number of factual errors. For example, it states that my grandmother, Lyubov, left Russia with her daughters after her husband's arrest. As noted, Nikolay Ukhtomsky was arrested in Harbin, China (not in Russia) and Lyubov herself, who was born in Harbin, had never been in Russia.

Watch segments of the Vorkuta visit video - part 1 and part 2.



Vorkuta—on more than one occasion I was told by Russians that the very name caused them to shudder and, truly, the expression on people's faces changed when I told them that I was going there.  While having dinner with an acquaintance and his family in the city of Petrozavodsk, I discussed my travel plans. A silence fell when I grandly announced my intention to travel to Vorkuta, the town at the edge of the Arctic Circle, built by GULAG prisoners to house the guards that worked in the prison camps. I explained that I had obtained information through my aunt which listed my grandfather’s grave number. My acquaintance looked at me with a mixture of sorrow and pity and said, “But there are millions of graves there, Nina.”

Vorkuta was the location of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's tale of life in the GULAG, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I had no idea what to expect and didn't find much on the Internet prior to my trip.  One western journalist, forced to go there for some work-related reason, described it as a bleak place. This made sense. After all, the only reason that Vorkuta (named after the river in this location) now existed as a town was because the surrounding area had been filled with forced labor camps, which were filled with enemies of the Soviet state. In 1930, an enormous high-quality coal deposit was discovered in the Vorkuta basin and the first prisoners arrived there to mine coal in 1932... 

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