Wed, Jun 08, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Russian mayor plans to reopen gulag

CIVIC DESPERATION?Turnip gruel, guard towers, dogs and armed guards: For one Russian city, this may be the recipe that lures tourists into the cold

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , VORKUTA, RUSSIA

This broken-down Arctic coal town does not offer much when it is comes to economic prospects. The mayor works with what he has.

"My dream is to build a gulag," the mayor, Igor Shpektor, declared the other day in an outburst that stung like the bitter chill of late May in a place whose history is inseparable from the Soviet Union's notorious system of penal labor.

He meant a gulag for tourists.

"It's extreme tourism," he explained.

Then he spun an improbable vision of hard times and hard bunks, where tourists could eat turnip gruel and sleep in wooden barracks in a faux camp surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, patrolled by soldiers and dogs.

"Americans can stay here," he went on. "We will give them a chance to escape. The guards will shoot them" -- with paint balls, naturally, not bullets.

Whether Shpektor's idea is madness or an act of civic desperation is hard to say, but reaction to the idea, which he first floated in 2003 during a town meeting that included survivors of Vorkuta's camps, has been mixed.

"I think it is sacrilege," said Tatyana Andreyeva, a teacher who conducts expeditions for schoolchildren to the ever-disappearing remains of Vorkuta's camps.

"It is worse than sacrilege," said Yevgeniya Khaidorova, the co-director of the local branch of Memorial, the human rights organization that has done more than any other to chronicle the horrors of the gulag.

Shpektor, though, is not easily daunted. He is blunt and brusque, governing this city with an authoritarian fist and a mercurial temper. He publicly excoriated aides at a parade honoring children and border guards and furiously berated a group of foreign visitors for arriving late for a meeting with him.

A dictatorial will might have been enough for Stalin to build the gulag -- the vast networks of camps that swallowed millions during the Great Terror of the 1930s and afterward, often for little more than offending the man in charge -- but Shpektor faces hurdles Stalin could never have imagined.

"We need investment," he said, articulating what may prove to be the project's biggest hurdle.

The most significant foreign investment in Vorkuta (pronounced vor-ku-TA) since the collapse of the Soviet Union, after all, has been a program by the World Bank to relocate people out of here, encouraging them to abandon the Far North for better prospects elsewhere.

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