The Komi Republic

History, permafrost and waterfalls

Exploring the Komi Republic

The Komi Republic is a fascinating place. Historical monuments associated with the ancient culture of the Finno-Ugric peoples and the Old Believers stand among places reminiscent of the dramatic events of the 20th century. Many areas in Komi are nature preserves, but the republic also boasts many industrial sites, some of which are historical monuments.

A trip through the Komi Republic is bound to deliver excitement in various forms.

A town built on permafrost

Let us start with the city of Vorkuta — the first town in the republic to be officially recognized as an Arctic settlement. Built right atop the permafrost, the place draws tourists eager to see the nearby geological and natural monuments.

Mt. Pemboi is one such monument. This is, in fact, an entire mountain range with stones up to 20 metres tall, stretching across seven kilometres of the utterly flat tundra. At the summit, there is an observation deck and a landing site for aerial transport. The view of the majestic tundra from the summit is hypnotic.

Another geological monument, perched just five kilometres away from Mt. Pemboi, is the Buredan waterfall, one of the largest waterfalls in Russia. It is 10 kilometres long, with water falling from a height of 10 metres. Buredan is a part of the Kara mountain river. The river takes a sharp turn and enters a rocky canyon, falling down a steep cliff. Then it cascades down three distinct steps. There are indents in the white rocks on both banks of the waterfall: they look like moon craters but actually, they appeared from the impact of the falling water and rocks. The waterfall can be reached from the abandoned settlement of Halmer-u near Vorkuta. Located 25 kilometres away, it can be reached on an all-terrain vehicle.

There are many astounding natural sights and monuments in the vicinity of Vorkuta: canyons, nature preserves and protected natural areas. Kayaking and rafting trips down the Kara and Bolshaya Usa rivers start in Vorkuta, as do skiing routes.

We should, however, also mention the historical sites of the town.

Vorkuta was founded in 1936, and it was officially recognised as a town in 1943. The Vorkuta Museum of Local History and Lore describes the town's founding years in detail. The town was built up in 1959 with help of the 50 major factories operating within it.

The Arctic town was a coal extraction site first and foremost. At the same time, it housed a penal labour facility: Vorkutlag. The story of Vorkuta begins with the settlement of Rudnik. Today it is a ghost town: nobody lives there, its houses are empty and its factories are abandoned.

This strange and spooky atmosphere draws the tourists in — it's like the time itself has frozen over here. Most of the residents of this settlement, founded in 1931, were convicts. Their numbers grew by the year. There were 1,200 of them in 1932, and by 1950, when the penal work camp was abolished, there were 75,000 former political convicts living and working in the town.

One of the monuments of that era that can be seen today is the drama theatre built by the convicts of the local Gulag camp in 1943. In the autumn of that year, its stage hosted the first performance: Kalman's 'Die Csárdásfürstin'. Over the course of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the 150 performers of the local theatre's troupe gave over 600 performances. The management of the theatre was deferred to the town authorities when the Gulag camp was abolished. Today it stages classics and contemporary plays.

Once in Vorkuta, don't forget to snap a photo next to the sign that reads 'Vorkuta. 67th parallel'. A while ago, the sign sat on the edge of the town, greeting its visitors, but now that the town has sprawled around it, the sign has ended up in the downtown area.

Finally, Vorkuta is one of the best locations in Russia to view the northern lights. To observe this phenomenon, visit the city sometime between October and March.

Frosty but still hot

If you are a fan of antiquities and ethno-tourism, you have got to visit the Ust-Tsilemsky district. Its administrative centre, the settlement of Ust-Tselma, was founded in the first half of the 16th century. Its population grew over the next two hundred years: Old Believers flocked to the North when the church was split, fleeing the persecution for their beliefs, hoping to find a place where nobody would object to their faith. Many of them have settled in Ust-Tselma.

The historian Vladimir Malyshev called Ust-Tselma 'a peculiar cultural cradle with unique and peculiar tastes and needs'. And the settlement has stayed that way until the present day. Residents of Ust-Tselma preserve, cherish and practise the ancient traditions, customs, songs, rituals and crafts, leading a unique lifestyle. They celebrate holidays largely unknown to the rest of Russia.

In summer, they perform the ritual circular dance in celebration of 'Gorka' — a remnant of the culture of medieval Rus. This tradition is rooted in the worship of Yarila, the sun deity. Deep in the past, people sang and danced to meet the sun. The Gorka ceremony was danced three times a day: in the morning, the dance was performed by children and adolescents, at midday by the married women, and in the evening by the entire village. Each dance had its own specialised outfit, unique ritual dance moves and song (there were 17 scenarios of Gorka songs and celebrations). The original costumes have been recreated in great detail for the modern celebrations in Ust-Tselma, and the ancient songs of Gorka celebrations can be heard once more.

Ust-Tselemsky district also celebrates the annual ritual holiday of Petrovshina, which is, too, unique to this region.

It is celebrated on the eve of the feast of the chief apostles, Peter and Paul, on the night of July 11 to 12. Following the local tradition, village residents cook porridge on that night. Grain, porridge — it is all considered bird food; and a human soul is believed to become a bird when we pass away. The veil between our world and the underworld is believed to be thin on that night, and a treat must be offered to the souls of the dead.

The meal is consumed beyond the river or right next to it: in local folklore, the journey beyond the river is the journey to the underworld.

These local rituals and many other customs can be explored on the Following the footsteps of the Old Believers tour. The tour also explores the scenic surroundings of the village — there are several nature preserves and protected natural objects in the Ust-Tselemsky district.

Inta: a history spanning from ancient times into the present day

The town of Inta was established in 1944. But the history of this relatively young town has a special place in the course of the Russian settlement of the northern territories. Archaeologists have unearthed stone items aged 100,000 to 120,000 years old. These are arguably the most ancient relic of human presence in the north. Mesolithic sites (aged 10,000 to 8,000 years) were also discovered in this region. Adakskaya cave is particularly interesting — it houses an ancient sanctuary where locals made sacrifices to the gods for many centuries, from the second half of the 2nd millennium BC up to the 12th century AD.

The nomadic Nenets people who herded reindeers have also left their mark on this area. One of their routes went past the modern village of Petrun and sacrificial sites of the nomadic people have been discovered there.

The Inta Museum of Local History and Lore has a large collection of ancient monuments. The rarest exhibits in the archaeological collection date from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD: bronze pendants, a mirror, and rings unearthed by an expedition to the Lake Pozhemty area. The paleontological collection attracts a lot of attention from visitors: it includes the remains of prehistoric plants and animals.

Even though there were people living on these lands since antiquity, the first permanent settlements only appeared here in 19th century. Since the early 20th century, the Inta corner has been well and truly renowned. From that time, this territory has primarily developed as an industrial site.

From the 1930s, most of the settlers coming here to work were prisoners. One of Inta's main places of interest — the Dzimtenei monument erected by Latvian prisoners in 1956 to honour their homeland — stands as a material reminder of that era. The memorial sign 'For the Women of the Gulag' appeared in Inta almost half a century later, in 1990.

It was erected thanks to the efforts of I.M. Khorol (1929–2010), a former Vorkutlag prisoner. His mother, Zinaida Osipova, was petitioning the government to release her student son, but she was herself arrested in 1952. Her son survived the brutal conditions of the gulag, but his mother did not. The stele in Inta honours her memory. But not just her memory, the memory of all women who suffered a similar fate.

The exhibition dedicated to political repressions opened in the Inta History Museum in 2014, describing the period in detail.

It presents the authentic household items and personal belongings of the prisoners who first built the town of Inta. A fragmentary reconstruction of the living environment of a campsite is recreated, and archival documents and photographs are exhibited.

'Yugyd Va' National Park is the pride of Inta. It's the largest national park in Russia and Europe, with a total area of 18,941.33 sq km, spanning across Intinsky, Pechorsky and Vuktylskiy districts. There are numerous mountain lakes and rivers in Yugyd Va, as well as over 50 glaciers and some of the highest and most scenic summits of the Ural Mountains: Mt. Narodnaya, Mt. Sablya, Mt. Manaraga, and Mt. Kolokolnya. The flora and fauna of the national park are incredibly diverse, and multiple rare species living here are included in the Red Book of endangered species. Numerous artefacts and objects of cultural heritage from different eras have been discovered in Yugyd Va, including objects that are tens of thousands years old. For that reason, there are various tour programs developed at Yugyd Va, each with their own focus: nature, history, and ethnography.

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