Inside Putin's Russia is a series looking at life outside Moscow. In the third part of the series, Bridget Kendall visits Vorkuta in the desolate far north.
It felt like stepping into a Christmas card. There on the edge of one of Vorkuta's outlying settlements, just visible against the unlit black tundra stretching behind them, were a dozen reindeer harnessed to three laden sledges.
Gavriil has lived all his life in the tundra
It was gently snowing. A white film dusted their shaggy coats and nestled in the branches of their antlers. Some of the reindeer rested their noses on each other's backs, as though to share the weight of their heavy headgear. Others settled down in the snow, patiently waiting.
The Nenets herdsman with them, Gavriil, was smoking a cigarette. He was dressed in embroidered furs and hand-sewn boots of reindeer skin, thigh-high and double thickness.
He had come 40 kilometres - four hours' ride across the snowy plains - to pick up the family's monthly child welfare cheque and spend it on provisions.
His wife and niece were holding plastic bags of oranges and apples. In the furs on the sledge lay two large bottles of fizzy orange Fanta.
The Nenets people are the original inhabitants of the area
Gavriil spoke a bit of Russian with a thick accent. It sounded almost like Japanese, all staccato intonation and no distinction between "l" and "r" sounds.
He told us he'd lived all his life in the tundra, herding reindeer and hunting. His home was a "chuma", a reindeer-hide tent. He shared it with his wife, baby daughter and his brother's family.
He also had two small girls among 70 Nenets children who were spending the winter in a local boarding school. It was set up by Russian villagers to ensure the kids got regular health checks and food through the long harsh winter - and to give them basic reading and writing skills in Russian. There's nothing like that in the tundra.
These Nenets children can now help fill out forms or act as translators if their illiterate parents ever need Russian hospital treatment.
We visited the school a little later. They were shy children. They stared at us with solemn eyes as they sorted through jigsaw puzzles and played chess.
But best of all, their Russian teachers said, they liked the toys they made themselves: peg dolls fashioned out of wild ducks' beaks, toy sledges whittled from wood, and droves of reindeer, modelled lovingly out of plasticine. Their favourite book was a photo album of the endless flat landscape where they roamed with their nomadic families in the summer.
Nenets children spend the winter in a local boarding school
"What station is your radio programme on?" asked Gavriil unexpectedly. It transpired he had a radio out in the tundra.
"I'll try and find it," he said optimistically, as he turned to rouse his herd and head back into the snowy darkness.
The nomadic Nenets were the original inhabitants of this icy wasteland, long before the first Russian encampment. Our encounter left me wondering how soon they'd find themselves alone again.
Way up in the Arctic Circle, perched on the 67th parallel in the far north of Russia, Vorkuta has always been a quintessentially Soviet creation.
Millions passed through its prison camp system in the Stalin years, first digging through the ice to lay its railway line, then working under armed guards to extract the rich seams of coal from its basin of mines.
Many died in the gulags
On the single ring road that loops round the town but goes nowhere, there is one small cemetery of crosses to remind you of that early sacrifice. Many of the names are Polish and German.
A mournful Baltic queen stands guard in her stone canopy, erected by Lithuanian gulag survivors. But the countless Russian prisoners who passed through here have been eclipsed by more recent history.
Today, most inhabitants will tell you they or their parents first arrived in Vorkuta in the 1950s and 60s. They were drawn by high wages and brave Soviet claims that this proletarian enterprise coupled with Communist enthusiasm would push back the frontiers of civilisation.
But that ill-founded optimism has run its course. In the past 10 years, half Vorkuta's coal mines have closed. And though the remaining mines are under new private management that has promised investment, all the talk is of leaving.
After all, who would want to make their home in this desolate barren spot if they no longer had to?
Why chance your health and safety by descending daily into darkness, to choke on coal dust and trudge for miles through badly maintained tunnels?
Why submit yourself and your family to 10 months of snow, no daylight at all in midwinter and temperatures that regularly drop to -40C?
"It's only really bad when it drops to below -60. Then the petrol freezes in your tank," said one miner, full of bravura.
Others were more circumspect.
"They say if you can get away by the time you're 30 or 35, you can save yourself," said Nail, a soft-spoken miner with an intense gaze who invited us home to meet his family.
Otherwise, he told us, your body adapts to the thinner oxygen.
There are plenty of scare stories of those who hung on until retirement, only to move to a warmer climate in southern Russia and fall dead of a heart attack in a year or two.
Very little grows in the freezing conditions
"Nothing grows in this place," added his wife Lyuda. "It's solid ice if you dig two feet down, permafrost all year round. Our boys only see flowers and trees on television. I want them to grow up in a place where they can run around outside, like normal children."
In fact there are trees in Vorkuta, a few stunted bushes in the park in the town centre. But they are rare survivors of a dispiriting planting project. Every autumn an expedition of volunteers takes the train south to where the Russian forest starts and selects saplings to bring back for replanting.
But every year two out of three young trees are killed by the savage frosts. So every autumn they set out again to dig up new saplings.
Such harsh conditions breed character. Warmth and good humour abound here. And many in Vorkuta say they are determined to keep their town alive and flourishing.
"You should be here on New Year's Eve, when the whole town gathers to view the ice sculptures lit up in the main square. You should see the bewitching colours of the Northern Lights when they flicker across the skies. Come back in the summer and we'll take you fishing," they told us.
We caught the end of Vorkuta's annual Polar games, an extravagant sporting jamboree, a sort of mini-Olympics of the Russian Arctic. It had all the Soviet pomp and ceremony of prizes and fanfares which elsewhere in Russia has gone out of fashion.
The town cannot afford street lighting or snow clearing
But there was another typically Soviet quality to these home-grown celebrations: their absurd unreality.
A frank conversation with the deputy mayor revealed that Vorkuta is so broke that the mayor's office cannot even pay for street lighting or snow clearing, let alone foot the bill for a sports festival. The town is bankrupt. No wonder Moscow wants a radical rationalisation.
Already several outlying communities are in the process of being abandoned.
On some stretches of the ring road, you pass settlements where roofs have fallen in, doors and windows are missing, buildings have collapsed into snowdrifts.
And here and there, like a ghostly monument to an era that is passing, an uninhabited tower block has frozen solid and turned into a white block of ice.
Many saw the writing on the wall a few years ago, packed up their belongings and got out of here. Now the Russian Government wants to persuade thousands more to sell up and resettle elsewhere. Those who remain will hunker down in the city centre to save on lighting, heat and transport costs.
Who knows for how much longer Vorkuta's six swimming pools, two theatres and the only covered ice rink in the Russian Arctic circle will receive funding?
Who knows for how much longer this improbable town will continue to glow like a Las Vegas in an arctic desert?
Images by Teresa Cherfas, who also produced the series.
The third programme from Inside Putin's Russia is broadcast on BBC World Service radio starting on 22 December, 2003 at 0005 GMT. The series will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 5 January, 2004.