Spirituality of abandoned Arctic Infrastructure

So-called ‘ghost towns’ attract people in a certain sense, the ailing beauty of their ruins and the atmosphere of silence that is so different from the silence that you experience when you are somewhere out on the tundra in the Arctic in a snow-desert. But when I recently walked with a friend through an abandoned building and felt the fascination of that atmosphere, I got also confronted with the opposite: for some people abandoned infrastructure feels threatening and scary for its association with death, decease and decline, and such people would stay away as much as they could from this kind of places. This reminded me of the relations between people and graveyards in the Arctic: that among some you are not supposed to go back to the graves of the relative after the funeral, or if so, then only in groups and on special occasions. Because the world of the spirits of the deceased is different from our world, and it may be dangerous for us is we engage with it in inappropriate ways. In my first field trip to the tundra, when I was going to take a photo of a Nenets graveyard in the tundra, the herder who was with me advised me: better don’t take a picture. “Not that I would mind, but we don’t know if this would be bad for yourself – who knows if the spirits like you taking this picture”.

So I wonder what is the spiritual implications of this ghost-town tourism in the Arctic? In many places people do not even take away the movable infrastructure of these places, although it certainly would have some value to sell. E.g. in the Komi ghost-town of Tsementozavodsk close to Vorkuta, there is a huge amount of trucks left behind, alongside the houses where nobody lived in the last decade.

Abandoned trucks in Tsementozavodsk, c Anadolu agency via Getty images

This place made it to the British Daily Mail newspaper with a detailed photo gallery of the abandoned infrastructure, and there is impressive air imagery from there by Reuters . Someone told me that it’s just more expensive to bring all this away from such remote places than the value that you get for it when you sell it. Hard to imagine. But I find a certain parallel to what I heard in 2013 in the village of Bykov Mys on the Laptev shore: there when the cemetery was being taken to the Sea by coastal erosion, the locals would not dare to go and recover some of the graves. One told me “if some Finns and Lithuanians whose ancestors are buried here would like to, they can come and exhume the remains – we are not going to do that. The Sea can take the cemeteries as all souls have left from there long ago”.

But in Tsementozavodsk this huge amount of abandoned trucks that actually look rather recent impressed me. How come that nobody took them at least to Vorkuta, which is just 17 km away. Surely they could be used there somehow? Maybe that has to do with the legal notion of escheated propertry (vymorochnoe imushestvo in Russian). According to the Russian Civil Code, the Russian Federation inherits such property if there are no legal heirs (article 1151, Law 146-FZ). But this may be only the superficial outside reason of why we see so much abandoned infrastructure in the Russian Arctic. It becomes part of the region’s environmental history. Speaking of which: this is a good occasion to congratulate our colleague Dmitry Arzyutov for his excellent PhD on environmental history in the Russian Arctic. It’s here open access. Congratulations!!!

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