Friday, 3 July 2009

Yury Vizbor - "On the Razvumchorr plateau"

In this summer heat it's particularly interesting to mentally visit the harsh winters of the far north.

The Razvumchorr plateau is part of the Khibiny massif in the Kola peninsula. All the mountains have Saami names, which sound fascinating to my ears: Nyorkpakhk, Takhtarvumchorr, Vud'yavrchorr ...
These mountains are famous for their untouched nature and are popular among hikers (and their doggies), but on the southern edge of the massif, around the towns Apatity and Kirovsk, there are apatite mines (apatite is used in fertilizer, since it is rich in phosphorous). The Razvumchorr plateau is one of these mines. (Here is a Russian map, if you'd like to study the massif closer, and here is a photogallery at

The mines were built in 1929 by prisoners, according to this photostory at In the 75 years of its operation, the Razvumchorr mine has been dug 350 meters deep. Temperatures get to below -50 degrees centigrade in the winters, and winds are often hurricane strength.

After Stalin's death the mines were no longer part of the GULAG system, but were converted into regular mines where workers were paid good wages with some benefits to compensate for the harsh conditions. This is the time period where Yury Vizbor's song is set.

Vizbor created the genre "reportage song", and "On the Razvumchorr plateau" (1964) was his first work in the genre.
It tells of the work conditions in the Razvumchorr mine. Due to bad visibility in the snowstorms, workers often have to walk in front of the machines and show them the way, as can also be seen in the video.

Here is my crappy translation of a couple of the verses:

"We sit at the table, smoking strong tobacco,
In one hour we have to climb up on the roof of the Khibiny
And charge through the howling, crawl through the dark,
Leaning our heads and cursing the blizzards.

He sits and sulks for some unknown reason,
My dearest mechanic, the boss of the roads,
In one hour he has to fight his way down from the plateau Razvumchorr,
Walking on the road in front of the tractors.

Because the road is full of dangers
And the bulldozer needs a human shoulder to lean on,
Because spring never comes here,
To the neck of the Khibiny, the plateau Razvumchorr."

There are some additional verses that are not used in this performance, but you can read them here (in Russian).

As you could see in the photostory, the apatite mines in the Khibiny were privatized by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partners in a rather shady way, and that deal is part of the case for which Khodorkovsky is now serving eight years in prison. You can read more about that in John D. Grace's Russian Oil Supply (page 124), or this article by Peter Baker from the Washington Post. Blogger Wu Wei gives a small personal insight on the repercussions of the deal.

Arkady Ostrovsky's article for the Financial Times is kind of symptomatic for many articles about the Russian privatizations: it jumps from Stalin and the GULAG directly to the privatizations in the 1990's -
failing to mention anything about the many decades during which the mines were run in a relatively honest fashion - and thus creates a comparison where the oligarchs come out looking maybe not half as bad.
But that's where this song and video come in.

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