A journey to the northern edge of the world: To Igarka by the Yenisei river

The northern edge of the world, or “Kraesvetsk” is what Victor Astafyev called Igarka in his story, “Theft.” After living in Siberia for a year Peggy Lohse from Germany went to this small polar city in Krasnoyarsk Territory to see what life in the North is like.

The first ship to Igarka (2800 km from Moscow) sets sail in the middle of June. The 1800-kilometer journey up the Yenisei towards the North takes three days and the return south takes five.

In the third class cabin on the first deck there is a table by the window overlooking the river. The second and third floors house the first and second-class cabins. The interior is wooden and all the rooms are warmly and comfortably adorned.

Photo credit: Peggy Lohse for RBTH

Before departure passengers go up on the deck. As the last pieces of luggage are brought on board, guests wave goodbye to their relatives on the shore. It’s a sunny day. This is the first summer ship heading north, an indicator that summer —the season of holidays, meetings and trips — has begun. The mood on the boat is festive.

A journey through Krasnoyarsk Territory
The first point of interest on the way to Igarka is the Kazan rapids on the Yenisei. For steamers on this part of the river there is just a thin path bounded by the shallow water and stone ground.

On the second day the boat passes through the Vorogovsky archipelago. From all sides the coast is not visible; only stone islands can be seen.

Written in large white letters on a rock on one such island is, “world peace.” These days this is a very relevant wish. All passengers standing on the upper deck seem to agree.
Photo credit: Peggy Lohse for RBTH

Over the course of a day we pass no more than three settlements. When there are no villages, there are just the black waters of the Yenisei, the blue sky and green coasts growing farther and farther away from us.

The further north we go, the fewer forests there are, the more snow there is on the coast and the wider the Yenisei becomes. Above the Arctic Circle, the Yenisei resembles a sea.

Photo credit: Peggy Lohse for RBTH

At 67° northern latitude
Established in 1929, Igarka became the first industrial city in northern Krasnoyarsk Territory in 1931. Dudinka was later founded in 1951 and Norilsk in 1953.

Igarka was built primarily by inmates who worked from 1947 on construction project no. 503, which involved constructing a trans-polar railway between Salekhard and Igarka. After Stalin’s death, the railway project was shelved.

Artifacts and documents related to this “death road” are stored at the local Museum of Permafrost (in Russian: www.igarka-permafrostmuseum.ru). In a small, separate building, guides show what life was like in the gulags, what the barracks were like, the regimen of work and the layout of the camps.

There are photographs, documents and other personal effects of former prisoners on display to help tell their stories. Most of the prisoners were members of the Petersburg intelligentsia and they frequently organized performances here. Paintings, drawings, notes and books are left in the city museum and describe the other, lesser-known side of everyday life in Igarka.

Photo credit: Peggy Lohse for RBTH

But the main exhibit of the museum is still the soil. Igarka is located in the Arctic Circle, in a permafrost zone with harsh climate conditions. Nikita Tananaev of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute regularly conducts tours and organizes projects here along with the museum for scientists, who travel here to study the state of permafrost, and for students at local school No. 1.

Photo credit: Peggy Lohse for RBTH

The upper rooms of the museum will tell you all you need to know about permafrost: what it is, where it comes from, how to construct homes on it and what it means for the climate, nature and people. In the basement tunnels of the museum visitors must dress warmly as the temperature there is close to -5°C even in summer. There is ice along the corridors of this exhibit featuring different kinds of frozen matter, snow, frost and wood.

Photo credit: Peggy Lohse for RBTH

In Igarka I met Svetlana and Anatoly Kazakov. They were both born and have lived in Igarka their entire lives.

They know the history of their city well. And, despite all the difficulties that the northern climate brings to its residents, they love Igarka and collect books, historic films and photographs about the city.

“Our family did not have a happy union at first,” Anatoly said with a tinge of irony, pointing out that one side of the family was guards, whereas the other was prisoners. “But in the end,” Anatoly continued, “everything turned out well. You know, we all share a common existence now in Igarka: with prisoners, Russians and nationalities of every stripe. We all know that our city was built during a terrible period of history.”

Near the museum is a monument to victims of repression, with a separate memorial dedicated to children.

The local lad Vitya
One of the people that put Igarka on the map was Siberian writer Victor Astafyev, a writer famous throughout Russia. In his honor, school No.1 was named for him. There is a small museum located there and a large mosaic on the school’s wall features a portrait of the writer.

Astafyev came to Igarka during his childhood in 1935 with his father and stepmother. When the father of the writer was hospitalized, his new family turned the boy away.

The future writer wandered until he came to an orphanage. These difficult years in Igarka were crucial to the fate of the future writer. His stories, “Theft,” “The Last Call,” and “King Fish” feature his memories of the city.

Photo credit: Peggy Lohse for RBTH

Teachers remember him. “He was not indifferent to our city,” one teacher told me recalling a later visit the writer made to the city after he had moved away. “He wandered through the streets, sometimes with tears in his eyes. He was surprised at how modern the city had become.” The writer last came to Igarka in 1999 with a filmmaker from St. Petersburg to shoot a documentary about his remembrances.

The living North
Photo credit: Peggy Lohse for RBTH

Despite its small population, there is a lot of activity here. As long as the people living here create and maintain the city and its cultural life, Igarka will remain alive. It is just 15 years shy of its 100th birthday.

Getting to Igarka is possible from June through the start of October by boat. A schedule can be found here: http://www.prt24.ru/ (in Russian). Several airlines including Nord Star and Katekavia fly to Igarka. Check schedules through the Krasnoyark airport.

Staying in Igarka is possible at the Zapolarye hotel (+7 (39112) 21-611) or at the Lainer hotel located on Polaryny Island, 100 meters from the airport (+7 (39112) 2-11-78 or +7 (905) 975-12-21).

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