Russia: Extreme tourism in the Soviet Gulag

By Andrew Osborn

Vorkuta's mayor is hoping to recreate the harsher realities of the Soviet era. Photo / Thinkstock
Vorkuta's mayor is hoping to recreate the harsher realities of the Soviet era. Photo / Thinkstock

The mayor of what used to be one of the most infamous outposts of Josef Stalin's Gulag wants to charge masochistic foreign tourists $240 a day to 'holiday' in an elaborate mock-up of a Soviet prison camp.

Igor Shpektor, the mayor of Vorkuta 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, says he is looking for an investor to turn an abandoned prison complex into a 'reality' holiday camp for novelty-seeking tourists keen to understand what life was like for Soviet political prisoners at first hand.

His idea, which has upset prison camp survivors, envisages recreating a tiny part of the Gulag complete with watchtowers, guards armed with paintball guns, snarling dogs, rolls of barbed wire, spartan living conditions and forced labour.

It may sound a far cry from a week on a beach in southern Europe but Mr Shpektor is convinced that there will be no shortage of takers.

He wants to charge tourists US$150-200 (NZ$240-325) per day and for them to commit to a minimum three-day 'holiday.'

"The town needs money and we have the possibility of turning Vorkuta into a tourist region," he told the daily Novye Izvestia.

"The chance of living in the Gulag as a prisoner is attractive to many wealthy foreigners, something they have told us themselves.

"Last autumn a whole trainload of people tuned up wanting to go to such a concentration camp for money. People from America, Australia, and Poland."

It wouldn't all be stylised suffering, he adds, as tourists would also have the chance to fish and hunt for game.

The mayor's idea is part of a growing trend in Russia for extreme tourism, often linked to the country's harsh history.

Tour firms already offer people the chance to holiday as a Volga boatman - literally by pulling a barge along the famous river - or to undergo basic military training overseen by veterans of the Chechen wars.

In that same spirit the governor of Vladimir Lenin's native region recently floated plans to open a 'Leninland' theme park that would also allow visitors to experience elements of the Gulag.

Mr Shpektor contends that his 'Club Gulag' holiday camp would remind people of the horrors of Stalin's repression in a way that dry history books cannot.

But camp survivors, some of whom still live in Vorkuta, have condemned his idea as "sacrilege" and as a tasteless insult to the memory of those prisoners who died in the area.

According to historians some 200,000 prisoners, known as zeks, died in the camps surrounding Vorkuta, out of more than two million deported there between 1932 and 1954.

Many of them were forced to shovel coal in the region's extreme climatic conditions.

In winter, the temperature plunges to minus 50C while in summer the population of mosquitoes explodes. At the Gulag's peak 132 camps existed in and around Vorkuta.

Today the city desperately needs new funds to pour into its dying economy.

Situated 1200 miles northeast of Moscow eight of its thirteen coal mines have shut in the last fifteen years and the city's population has plunged from 217,000 to just 120,000.

Life in Vorkuta is so bleak and subsidy-dependant that the government and the World Bank are offering its inhabitants financial incentives to leave and move further south so that the authorities can literally turn out the lights.

Whether Mr Shpektor can save the city by finding a financial backer for his 'Club Gulag' idea remains to be seen.

If he does MP Valery Draganov thinks Russians will be steering well clear.

"The memories (of the Gulag) are too fresh to once more fret about and remember our tormented compatriots."

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