Khalmer-Yu (translated as dead river in Nenets) was a venerated a holy place, a burial ground for the reindeer-breeding local tribes. However, geologists discovered coal deposits in the region: not just any type, but coking coal, one of the most valuable kinds. The area was thoroughly surveyed, but a group of workers stationed at Khalmer-Yu almost died during a prospecting assignment.
The cold and blizzards cut the surveyors off from the rest of the world. There were attempts to ship provisions to the team by reindeer, but they ultimately failed when the reindeers’ feed, lichen, was frozen solid. With their food ruined, the animals died from starvation.
During the World War II, in the summer of 1943, the area was somewhat gentrified. Around 300 people were relocated here, who could enjoy a banya (a sauna or bathhouse), mess hall, and even a bakery. They were supplied with sufficient food and a small coal mine was constructed to meet energy demands. A proper mine was opened in 1957, which was operational until 1993. After the mine's closure, the local residents were not ready to abandon their lives and move out of the condemned town, but they were forced to relocate to Vorkuta with the help of Special Police Force. Today Khalmer-Yu is little more than a military testing ground named Pemboy, used to test out new weaponry. The former soviet barracks now serve as targets for cruise missiles.
The town was established in late 1950s for the families of oil workers. There were kindergartens, a school, cafes and stores: everything you needed to work and raise a family. In 1995, the good life came to an abrupt end. Neftegorsk was located in Sakhalin Oblast, the most seismically active region of Russia. Even the best scientists could not foresee what the year had in store for this small town and its neighbours.
On May 28, 1995, residents of about ten cities across Sakhalin Oblast felt an earthquake with a magnitude of almost 7.5 on the Richter Scale. Neftegorsk, 30 kilometres from the epicentre, was the most severely affected urban area. Just a single mainshock was enough to level the town like a house of cards, killing most of the residents in their sleep. In 17 hours 1500 military personnel and emergency response workers were on site, but they were unable to perform any miracles. Of the 3,197 residents, 2,040 were killed. The town is now an overgrown ruin, and almost nothing remains to remind visitors that it was once a bustling hub of activity.
Neftegorsk is not the only town on Sakhalin to have been demolished by the disastrous 1995 earthquake. There were other settlements that reached an untimely end, directly or indirectly affected by this catastrophe. Take Kolendo, for example. A town on the northern shore of the island, booming after the discovery of a rich oil deposit in 1960s, it was set onto the path of desolation in the late 1990s after the governmental decree on the relocation of its residents to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Okha and Nogliki.
In 2001 Kolendo's residents began to rapidly migrate to a new district in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and by 2003 the settlement had become a ghost town. Today it resembles a horror movie set with bleak five-story residential buildings and empty windows with broken glass panes.
The town was founded in the 12th century right where the namesake river flows in Volga. This location was of benefit to farmers: after the spring flooding came and went, the plains were rich with silt which gave rise to lush grasslands. As a result, the land was perfect for breeding livestock. This is probably the reason why dairy produce from this region were once considered to be the best in Russia.
Things changed in 1935. The soviet government signed off on a hydro-engineering project which would flood hundreds of thousands of hectares, affecting not only Mologa, but thousands of villages. On April 13, 1941, the final hydroelectric dam was installed and the Volga, Shesksna and Mologa were let loose to engulf the area with water. While villages lost only residential buildings, Mologa had schools, factories and churches: all but the latter (which were demolished ahead of the flooding) were buried underwater.
In spite of the fact that the residents were ordered to relocate, around 300 people fought off all attempts to remove them and stayed behind. The workers had no choice but to begin flooding regardless. In the 1940s, when the town was more of an underwater graveyard than a place to live, even saying its name out loud was reason enough to get you a prison sentence. These days, Mologa resembles Atlantis; twice a year the waters recede, revealing ruined buildings and cobblestone roads.
The town first appeared on maps of Kazakhstan in the late 1960s, during a mining boom. Janatas was a beautiful, progressive city: every year new libraries, other educational facilities, parks and shops opened their doors in this rapidly developing town. This was the place to be. Mining families had everything they needed here and workers received a salary above the nation-wide average.
But after the USSR collapsed, all of the non-Kazakh citizens returned to their homelands. Soon afterwards, the enterprise that was the heart of the town stopped paying its employee's salaries. The workers were unhappy, but none of their efforts – from marches and strikes, to blocking the railroad – brought any tangible results. At least, not the ones they were hoping for.
The government decided to motivate the unhappy miners by shutting off the power and water supplies. Almost everyone was forced to leave town to look for better opportunities elsewhere. Today, Janatas is not quite a ghost town, but it can’t really be called a thriving city either. There are still people here – around 1,500 to be exact – and they still work at the phosphate factory.