Photographer Arseniy Kotov is dedicated to documenting the changes in Russian life and architecture since the fall of the USSR, a commitment that brought him to the coldest European city last February. Located about 110 miles from the Arctic Ocean, Vorkuta is a small mining town that once held one of the largest and most grueling forced labor camps during Stalin’s reign. Often plagued by temperatures as low as -45 degrees Celcius, the city now has one of the fastest dwindling populations in all of Russia.
During Kotov’s visit, he toured various housing complexes built for workers, many of which were abandoned when the mines closed. One building in particular, though, is evidence of how desertion continues to unsettle the once-thriving city, an ongoing problem that Kotov captured in a stunning series. His photographs frame the dilapidated, five-story structure that’s entirely subsumed by feet-long icicles and mounded snow. Relics from former residents and the chipped, blue paint peek through the frost, much of which clings to the stairs and banisters and climbs the walls.
Kotov tells Colossal that often, buildings are transformed into similarly chilling caves when pipes burst due to lack of maintenance, leading to splashes of hot water, subsequent high humidity, and then ice growth on every surface. At the time of his visit, one family remained in the Severniy-district building, which was still connected to the central heating system that runs through Russian cities, making it easier to pass through some of the walkways thanks to warmth from the radiators. Although Kotov wasn’t able to meet the sole occupants, he did hear that they moved not long after his tour, saying:
As I know, locals said that after one week as I visited this building, he and his wife were resettled to another apartment, and this whole building was cut off from all the communications (water, heating, electricity). This is a usual story in Vorkuta: as less and less people are left, it becomes unprofitable to heat an entire building, and people are gradually moved to others where there are more inhabitable apartments. Local authorities call it a “managed compression strategy.”
Many of Kotov’s photographs are compiled in Soviet Cities: Labour, Life & Leisure, and his second book, which is full of images he captured while hitchhiking around the country, is slated for release in November. Prints are available from Galleri Artsight, and you can follow Kotov’s sightings and travels on Instagram.