2006-2008. The Urals expand over a distance of 2500 kilometers. On the borders with Kazakhstan are the industrial towns of Magnitogorsk, Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg. Their commercial ties to Asia go far back into the centuries. The symbol of the loaded camel on the Chelyabinsk flag confirms it. On the other end, the Arctic Circle, between Vorkuta and Salekhard, Labitnangi is the "exact" end-point. In the Urals a single step can take you into Asia.
Is there something that sets us apart from those on the other side?
With the exception of the Bashkir, Tatar and Nenets tribes, the population in this area expanded during Stalin's time, with the infamous five-year plan of Soviet reconstruction. I start from Yekaterinburg, the biggest city of the Urals, with 1.300.000 inhabitants. This is where the Tsar's family was executed by the Bolsheviks. I visited the working class suburb of Ordjonikidze many times. It takes its name from a comrade of Stalin who later on "committed suicide".
Pervouralsk is a border-monument: it symbolizes the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia. In the Russian tradition the geographical ends of a region signify various rituals: there, newly married couples are photographed in order to have a happy new start, while others throw coins and make wishes, and others tie ribbons on trees for safe passage and good luck.
In Sverdlovsk Oblast the Soviets had their greatest victory during the Cold War years: they brought down an American US spy plane, which had as its mission to discover secret nuclear plants and testing grounds, which during the Soviet years did not exist on any map; the only thing that was written was the name of the nearest town and the last two digits of the postal code. As a result of this "logic", today the area around Chelyabinsk has an extremely high level of nuclear contamination, and Mayak, one of the largest nuclear energy factories, is located there.
I start travelling northwards along the Urals by plane, to Syktyvkar. I continue by taxi until Mikoun and from there by train, half a day's journey, to the Arctic, to Vorkuta. In the 1930s it was the largest gulag center in European Russia. It became a city in 1943. Trotsky's comrades were eliminated here. In 1953, after Stalin's death, there was an uprising in the gulags which, according to Solzhenitsyn, cost the lives of 66 convicts. Today it is inhabited by ex-convicts, their families, the people that worked in the city during the Soviet era, and the local Nenets tribe. To my surprise, I am told that the mayor wants to reopen the gulags as alternative hotels.
Vorkuta extends to an isolated part of the tundra. A road leads north, to the mines. Most have been abandoned because of the costs. The area outside of Vorkuta is full of abandoned buildings. The only people wandering around are scavengers. In Vorkuta, on the Arctic Circle, I photograph for the first time a monument that is related to my trip. A globe that says: ΒΟΡΚΥΤΑ 67-PARALLEL