Perimeter fence and watchtower, Vorkuta Gulag
The Vorkutlag (Russian: Воркутлаг), sometimes Vorkuta Gulag, was one of the major Soviet era GULAG labor camps, full name Воркутинский исправительно-трудовой лагерь (Vorkuta Corrective Labor Camp). It was located in the Pechora River Basin, in the Komi Republic, part of the European region of Russia, located 1,900km from Moscow and 160km above the Arctic Circle. Vorkuta Gulag was established in 1932 to exploit the resources of the Pechora Coal Basin, the second largest coal basin in the former U.S.S.R.. The city of Vorkuta was established to support the camp. There were approximately 132 sub-camps in the Vorkuta Gulag system during the height of its use in the Soviet prison system. From 1939, Polish prisoners were held here until Russia joined the allies, after it was attacked by Germany. The camp was then also used to hold German P.O.W.s captured on the Eastern Front in World War II as well as criminals, Soviet citizens and those from Soviet united countries deemed to be dissidents and enemies of the state during the Soviet era.
Although the camp was closed in 1962 there are large numbers of Soviet citizens who were former prisoners still living in Vorkuta, originally due to their former status as enemies of the state, then as a result of their poor financial situation. Memorial, a Russian human rights organization that focuses on recording and publicising the human rights violations of the Soviet Union's totalitarian era, estimates that of the 40,000 people collecting state pensions in the Vorkuta area 32,000 are former gulag inmates, or their descendants.
Inmates at Vorkuta who were forced to work in the region's coal mines went on strike during the Vorkuta uprising in July 1953. The mostly passive strike which lasted approximately two weeks was put down on 1 August, when camp chief Derevyanko ordered troops to fire at the strikers resulting in the deaths of at least 53 workers, although estimates vary.
A prison mugshot of Homer H. Cox, a kidnapped American military serviceman held at Vorkuta Gulag, taken in 1949, with his name and personal details written in Russian on his mugshot board
A large number of American prisoners who were held by the Soviet Union (USSR) passed through and/or were held at Vorkuta Gulag during most of the Cold War period. In particular, US military servicemen from various eras (from the 1940s up until as late as the 1980s) were arrested, captured and subsequently detained and held by the notorious Soviet Gulag (labour-camp) prison system, including the one at Vorkuta. A significant proportion fell into Soviet hands towards the end of World War II between the winter of 1944 and the spring and the summer of 1945, when the Soviet Red Army advanced further westward into Nazi German-occupied Poland and then Germany itself and came across thousands of US military personnel captured and held as prisoners-of-war (POWs) in many prison-camps by Nazi Germany. A few others ended up in the USSR as POWs captured by North Korea and the People's Republic of China (PRC) during the Korean War, mainly US Air Force pilots involved in the conflict in captivity by the PRC and/or North Korea. Some others were
kidnapped by the Soviet military, perhaps with covert help from East German authorities as well, from the streets of East Berlin during the early part of the Cold War (from 1945 up until the 1970s).
Homer Harold Cox was an American military policeman assigned to the US Army's 759th Military Police Service Battalion based in West Berlin. On the 6th of September in 1949 he was arrested (most likely by Soviet military personnel) while off-duty and being in East Berlin (the Soviet-occupied sector of a divided Berlin (similar to that of the whole of Germany) after WWII). He was imprisoned at various Soviet prison-camps and labour-camps throughout his entire period of captivity in the USSR, including at Vorkuta Mine No. Four and at Vorkuta Mine No. Seven.
On 29 December 1953, he was finally repatriated back to the USA via West Berlin along with fellow American prisoner Leland Towers (who served in the US Merchant Marine). Cox died from pneumonia just less than one year later on 27 September 1954 in Lawton, Oklahoma.
Another American military serviceman detained by the USSR at around the same period of time was US Army private William Marchuk of Norristown in Pennsylvania, who was also kidnapped (either by the Soviet military or East German authorities) in East Berlin in 1949 and sent to the Soviet Union shortly afterwards. John H. Noble, a 31-year-old American civilian from Detroit Michigan who stayed in Germany as a US expatriate together with his family during WWII, was also arrested by the Soviet Red Army in Dresden in Germany at the end of the war in Europe in 1945. Not many American civilians and military personnel held by the USSR were ever repatriated back to the USA, despite constant (but reduced and downplayed) pressure from the US government, which had actually been aware of the USSR's actions.
In popular culture
- "Red Snow", the second segment of the twenty-first episode of the first season (1985–86) of the television series The Twilight Zone, features Vorkuta as the sanctuary of a vampire community.
- In the 2010 video game Call of Duty: Black Ops the player, an American named Alex Mason, is imprisoned at Vorkuta from 1961 to 1963, after being captured by Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and participates in a prisoner uprising along with his ally Viktor Reznov.
- In 2012 the Black metal/Noise music band Gulaggh released the Concept album Vorkuta, which centers the Life and pain in the Gulag Vorkuta.