From the water, our first view of the town is a magenta haze on the northern shore. The color is thousands of blurred stems of Chamaenerion angustifolium, or fireweed. Ivan-chai, Alex calls it, in Russian: Ivan’s tea, meaning everyman’s tea. Alex’s father turns our boat—an eighty-horsepower Yamaha, small closed cabin—out of the main channel of the Anadyr Estuary, choppy from wind, into the calm semicircle of Melkaya Bay. In a slow arc we come around to face the town again, now a line of concrete turrets and charred wooden sheds breaking through the pink. In a thin gray August rain it’s maybe 50 degrees, and the Arctic Circle is a hundred miles to the north as we tie our boat to a crumbling pier.
Walking up the hill, the fireweed is waist-high, the plants glowing among the collapsed outbuildings and machinery, and just as lush further up the slope, where rectangular apartment blocks rise four stories into the air. Two are finished; a third is half built, the eastern wing just empty pilings sunk into the tundra. Iron rebar has rusted down their sides, turning the gridded plan of future homes into bleeding uncrossed graves. Behind them, where a road curls down from low hills, is the town’s sign: Shakhtyorsky, in block-red Cyrillic on tin.
Two hundred and fifty million years ago, the ground beneath our feet was a warm and swampy forest. Trees and ferns as large as trees absorbed sunlight and made new tissue from it, unfurling fronds and leaves each season. And they died, sinking the carbon fixed in their cells into the bog below. These entropic beds grew deep, over tens of thousands of years, as the plants decomposed into dense peat. Periodic floods covered the seeping mash—still rotting, slowly—in mud and sand, over which more peat formed. An eon of time pressed this layered bog from above. The earth’s core heated it from below. Sand and mud hardened to stone. Gas and water steamed off the peat. What remained was coal: decay hardened into an essence, into carbon so pure it burns. The hills to the west, in the direction we are walking, are rich with ancient death.
Shortly after its release in 1965, Time, Forward! played at the Shakhtyorsky cinema. The film is a drama of Soviet being. Like the novel of the same name, it follows a day in the life of Magnitogorsk, an industrial city where in the Thirties a brigade of workers tried to surpass the national record for pouring concrete. They overcome torrential rain, lack of raw materials, bureaucrats with no vision, the terrain of the Urals. One man leaves work briefly to visit his wife in the hospital, laboring to birth their child, and then returns to the worksite. After all, he too is making a new life—not a biological one, but a social existence where “separate broken parts,” as a character says in the novel, are “lapped, soldered, riveted.”
Construction—welding steel into factories and people into a collective—promises to make the barren earth around Magnitogorsk productive and useful. Doing so will push human history forward. The whole Soviet promise is in the film’s title: accelerating time by producing more than ever before, the characters bending unreliable nature to their will, speeding toward the wholesome, socialist utopia of the future.
Walking out of the theater, the people of Shakhtyorsky dispersed through their small northern version of Magnitogorsk. By 1965, the town was a “settlement of the urban type” in the Soviet designation, with streets named things like Oilmen and Geologists and Radiocenter, lined by buildings with a banya, tailor and barber, shops that sold cognac and chocolate and reindeer meat, and apartments for almost two thousand people. Most of them were shakhtyory, or miners: Shakhtyorsky existed to crack the earth open in pursuit of concentrated expiration. It was not easy work. The deposits were lidded with permafrost, which is like peat frozen in process, rank and matted and resistant to prying tools. Deeper underground, the coal seam belched sulfur and particulates that rasped the delicate sacs of miners’ lungs into persistent coughing. The town was coated in a thin layer of grime, exhaled from the mines and the generators that powered conveyor belts and hydraulics in and out of the earth.
The ash was in part the result of burning interrupted entropy. Plants become condensed carbon in stages, first peat, then rock-like lignite, then semi-bituminous and bituminous forms, and finally anthracite. Miners broke into Shakhtyorsky’s coal at the lignite stage, when it contains the least carbon, making for a dirty, low-heat burn. That burn made this corner of the Soviet world move faster. Shakhtyorsky’s coal ran turbines, sparked power down electric wires, pushed steam into radiators. Trucks hauled dusty loads to the military town just over the hill, to power the Cold War radar arrays and illuminate barracks sealed inside a perimeter of barbed wire. A nuclear missile installation mushroomed in a river valley maybe twelve miles east; its power station also ran on coal. Shakhtyorsky’s own electricity and heat came from a plant in the middle of town. The newspaper Isvestiia once called such miracles—that such light and heat pulsed nine time zones from Moscow and somewhere so far north the sun barely rises in December—proof that socialist technology “has conquered nature,” and that “man has conquered death.”
In Shakhtyorsky’s dusk, with the driving steam-engine percussion of Time, Forward! still thrumming in residents’ ears, the lights of their homes floated over the sooty streets. Even the first-floor apartments were up one flight of stairs, half a story above the tundra. Engineers from the nearby Anadyr Permafrost Research Station had learned that, so far north, where earth never fully thaws, icy soil heaves and buckles in summer and fall. The slow motion will crack open foundations unless they are lifted above it.
Alex and I walk past the apartments and up one of the streets, its sign gone, toward the old electrical plant. I am a historian, here to see places that I had only known from their traces in the archives. Alex is my guide; as an American in a border zone of the Russian Federation—we are five hundred kilometers from U.S. soil—he makes the legal logistics possible, and also knows the place. I asked to see this power station because a few winters previously in the regional capital I had read about it in a bundled file where its kilowatt hours were just blueprints and hopes. Now it hunches before us, a material fact, but with little hope, at least of making electricity. The back wall has collapsed, spilling coal out into the elements. The metal piping within is seized solid with rust. Fireweed and knots of cotton grass—bright green stems topped with white down—erupt through the pile, their roots pulling the old carbon back into the soil. Where the roof has caved in, more flowers grow out of coal toward the light, their buds hovering twelve feet above us.
From the hulk of the generation plant we walk twenty minutes up a steep gravel road, sweating in our waterproof jackets. Near the top we turn and look back over Shakhtyorsky. From this elevation, we can see how the valley cups the town. It is cut on its eastern side by a small creek, which empties into Melkaya Bay. Around the stream are low buildings different from the cement construction along the main grid we just passed through. Some are wooden and look almost burned, the darkness a product of many summers’ decay stopped only by battering seasons of cold. It is, Alex tells me, the remnants of what Shakhtyorsky was before the miners came: a village called Kombinat. The word means “mill” or “plant”—or, in this case, a cannery, built to process the salmon that swim in from the Bering Sea in great numbers. We saw them from our boat, hanging in silver groups just below the surface. They were bound upriver, where they will spawn and die over the gummy orbs of their eggs.
Kombinat did not start as a Soviet town. Tsarist officials, wanting to make some use of this cold, distant place, imported workers from the south to catch salmon, to gut and scale and seal them away from rot. Tired of gore that stiffened their knife-wounded fingers with infection, many of the laborers snuck east. The river where the Soviets would later bury their missiles was rumored to be full of gold. A few of the fugitives were successful, at least until the police found the gold sewn into their coats. Others must have left their bones among the rivers and lakes, to be chewed into white splinters by the brown bears. Some were likely taken in by Chukchi families that moved through that valley with their reindeer.
The Chukchi lived here long before any person speaking Russian knew it: centuries before, one of a succession of peoples during the past several thousand years. They were nomads, and some Chukchi remain so, following domestic reindeer through their seasonal pastures. Alex is Chukchi, and his mother teaches Chukchi language in the regional capital. His father likes to go upriver in the autumn for days at a time to fish. He told us back at the boat how this valley would have been filled, in long-ago Augusts, with people spearing and netting salmon. Each family set up drying racks and filled them with a winter’s worth of fish, the pink strips of muscle tightening over alder-wood fires. Someone with sharp eyes might find the marks of those old camps where the bank sloughs away, under the wood of Kombinat and the concrete of Shakhtyorsky: a reindeer-horn fishhook, or a scrap of hide frozen before it rotted completely away.
Out on the bay we see the fishermen who remain: a few boats pulling in their nets, and past them, beluga whales and spotted seals. The whales are with their infants, small gray bodies that dive and surface fin-to-fin with their pearly white mothers. Their breath steams into the rainy afternoon when they break water. Nearby, a seal comes up with a salmon in its teeth, a grin interrupted by torn pearlescent flesh.
In 1985, Shakhtyorsky’s citizens celebrated the October Revolution and went to work, got married and walked their children to school, had picnics on the tundra and painted a mural on the side of one of the apartment blocks. It said “1945-1985,” with garlands below to commemorate the Soviet victory in the Great Fatherland War. People grew tomatoes and cucumbers in pitch-roofed greenhouses and went fishing on Saturdays. Salaries were high, vacations to “the mainland” of the southern USSR subsidized and ample. The fish cannery now had automatic machines that could fill and solder eighty cans a minute. Workers broke twenty or thirty thousand salmon a season into tight pink curls brined in tin, their eggs sold by the kilo. The miners mined more coal, and more people came to Shakhtyorsky. A new apartment block, its pilings drilled into the permafrost, anticipated more. The town had grown, by then, to almost three thousand residents, an entire civilization of cement and military prowess and banners proclaiming socialist triumph solid around them.
Six years later, the Soviet future was history. The promise of conquering nature and death collapsed, taking with it miners’ salaries and the ships that had supplied Shakhtyorsky with flour and tea and sugar. Tens of thousands of people left this part of Siberia, leaving cars and apartments full of furniture. There was no reason to can salmon. No one finished the apartments. In 1998, the Shakhtyorsky electric plant went silent. The town was officially abandoned.
Standing in Shakhtyorsky two decades after its closure, trying to get a sense of the place that was, I feel both like I am standing in the Soviet past and a version of the future, in two times at once. In 1985, Shakhtyorsky floated in its pool of heat and light above the tectonic power of the sub-Arctic ice, seemingly invulnerable. Nothing about that moment is very different from the concrete and coal that I too take, in my daily habits, as permanent. Who here in the Eighties would have imagined streets empty just a decade later, growing eerie as permafrost splits asphalt roads?
The animating vision in Shakhtyorsky was different, of course, than the ideal of market growth that runs through every stock market report and GDP figure in the West today. But the promise I was raised with—the promise of those market reports—is not so different than the promise in Time, Forward! It is one where the future grows materially better, year over year, inevitably. The eschatology—the theory of human destiny—put forth by capitalism, does not include this landscape, with its monuments to a world ended mid-breath. But then neither did that of socialism. The prickly feeling up and down my arms is, perhaps, my sense of having come hard up against an entropy that can only ever be forestalled. It is the sensation of imagining my own future in sedimentary terms, as a thing becomes the past underfoot.
We walk back down toward the main street. I have never seen such fireweed: the color is so bright and fills so much of the ruin it makes my breath catch. The end of Soviet time gave this plant an ideal habitat; it is a colonizer of disturbance, taking root where some kind of history—erosion, flood, fire, a bulldozer—exposes raw ground. With the fireweed come seedy grasses and cottonweed, feeding lemmings and the ground squirrels that chatter warnings at us from under empty oil drums and piled boards. Ravens and kites shelter in the upper stories of empty apartments. The mud along the side of the road is covered in red-fox tracks, here for the good hunting, and perhaps to den in a basement. The calls of sandhill cranes float down the slopes to the east; they likely have a nest there, above the old fishermen’s’ houses, and are telling us to keep our distance from their next generation.
Back down at the boat, Alex’s father has returned from his own wander. He has been all across the surface of old Shakhtyorsky, he says, looking. And finding—he brandishes the remnants of an extendable television antenna. The metal, he explains, is soft but hard to come by, and very useful. We scramble back down the muddy bank to the boat. Alex pushes us off into the bay, brown from shoreline eroding during the rain. But the clouds have passed, now, and the mosquitoes have come out, so we are in a hurry to find a breeze. The rotor of the outboard bites into the water as we swing away from the land, and Alex’s father sets a course toward the main channel.
In our wake, spotted seals pounce for fish. Behind us, Shakhtyorsky is monumentally present but fading: into the gray evening, into the distance, into a moment it was not built to countenance. Everything that rises here falls in time. The cold land holds the bones, be they calcium or concrete, for a decade or a century, slowly pressing them into strata. Out of those layers scrabbles some new being—human, sometimes, or not—able to thrive on the reclamation of recent disaster. My last glimpse, as the river takes us, is of rich hills covered by a mute tide of green and wild blooming, urgently alive.
Photo credit: Sébastien Tixier, from the series 9288