In Russia, North Means Pain

LA TIMES, Dec. 3, 1998.
Svetlana Khasanova awoke on a icy morning to find the door of her cabin jammed closed from the outside. Her bewilderment turned to shock after she crawled out a window and saw the open shed. Someone had locked her in while stealing her three Siberian huskies.

Soon after, Butuz, the shaggy mutt who was 6 yr. old neighbor Sergei Krivruchko's koyal playmate, ventured outside and never came back. Ludmilla Rzhevskaya, a nurse, noticed a steady dwindling of the canine pack that romps near the hospital, and children began finding dog skeletons in the woods.

Then a few people admitted what everyone else suspected: THe vanishing dogs are helping to sustain this , shivering village in Eastern Siberia-- One of the coldest inhabited places on Earth--through what is surely its harshest winter and may be well its last.

"It is Russian tradition to believe life will give you a chance, but my bitter experience tells me otherwise," said Andrei Perevedentsev, who moved from Ukraine's Chernobyl zone after the 1986 explosion at the nuclear plant there. "The danger here is more immediate. We could starve or freeze to death."

The story of the gold mining settlement, from its pioneer origin 35 years ago to its near-certain demise, is a pityful epitaph for Moscow's campaign to conquer the vast hostile northern region. After more than a century of northward colonialization, under czars and Central Committees, Russia is in painful, disorderly retreat.

Nearly 1 million settlers have migrated south since the Soviet Union's breakup shrank the subsidy that once guaranteed them high wages, abundant supplies and low prices in thousands of remote northern communities now too costly to maintain.

That leaves 11.9 million people in what Moscow loosely defines as "The North". The arctic regions of European Russia and everything east of the Ural Mountains. Many of these people barely work and rarely get paid; being too poor to leave or having nowhere to go, they have survived the past seven winters on Moscow's meager, eratic allotments of food and fuel.

But the ruble's collapse in August plunged the North into its barest winter of the post-Soviet era by disrupting the huge task of delivering supplies during the summer.

Before the effort could recover, the traditional delivery routes--the Artic coast and Siberia's northward-flowing rivers--had turned to ice. Officials say hundreds of settlements are still waiting for sustenance to arrive overland--a far costlier undertaking that Russia can scarsely afford.

The plight of this village, built beside one of the world's richest gold deposits, is perhaps the most severe and absurd of all.

In the spring, it was formerly "liquidated", and no supplies were bugeted for it beyond Sept. 15. But the money promised to help its 968 inhabitants move out by then never came, leaving them betrayed, trapped and unprepared for nine months of bitter cold.

"It's like a prison camp without the barbed wire." said Alla Perevendentsev, a teacher and Andrei's wife.

In mid-November, the temperature in Nezhdaninskoye hit 40 degreea below zero.

One of its three boiler houses is shut, so 112 of the 412 households have no communal heat or running water. THe other homes have water, but there's barely enough coal to keep it moving through the pipes without freezing; their radiators offer no warmth.

Families close off all but one or two rooms at home and huddle near smallmakeshift stoves heated by freshly cut larch trees or wood stripped from abandoned houses. To save fuel, they let the fires burn out overnight, sending indoor temperatures down near freezing by morning.

It takes enormous effort to haul firewood and well water in this climate, and there's little food in return. Some families get by on only bread, potatoes, tes and an occasional canned meat and buckwheat trucked in by the government as humanitarian aid.

Children wearing overcoats cough through the school day in unheated classrooms. Two-thirds of them are ill or malnourished, the nurses say. The village doctor shut the hospital and moved away in Nov., leaving an expectant mother, a woman with acute gastritus and 57 disabled miners in need of care.

Rationed diesel fuel keeps the lights on two houses each morning and from 4 pm to midnight. Then the thieves come out, pilfering food in a crime wave that has shaken the villagers' us-against-the-elements solidarity. Alcholism, a traditional male vice here, is starting to afflict women.

"It shocks me that they're trying to evacuate us without offering any psychological or moral suppor," said Mayor Nadezda Borovkova, whose constant badgering of her regional superiors is credited for the few supplies that come. "What worries me most is that some of our people are on the verge of a nervous breakdown."

The small, tireless ethnic Yakut mayor said she saw 40 complaining villagers on a recent day, one at a time, and that all but one cried. In an interview, she emphasized her mission to inspire optimism and forstall panic, but at one point she broke into tears herself.

"What kind of fool decided to build a village here, 300 kilometers (186miles) fro the nearest town?" she wondered.

The same answer: Nikita Khruschev's Soviet planners.

Their aim here was to "civilize" the wild North while mining the Verkhoyansk Mountains--2,165 feet above sea level, 4,566 miles from Moscow and just 280 miles below the Arctic Circle, the same latitude as southern Iceland. The mearest airfield is seven hours by jeep on a road that legions of Stalin's prisoners died building.

"Our government told us we were creating a special breeed of people who could live and work in the cold--something the capitalists had not yet achieved," said Mikhail Bruk, a mining executive in Yakutsk, the regional capital.

The setting is at least picturesque, sagging log cabins, four story apartment blocks, monstrous heating plants and junked mine equipment line the frozen Tyry River in a gorgeous valley. A pale winter sun creeps along the ghostly white horizon, casting a primrose glow off wooded peaks named Fairy Tale and Sleeping Beauty before setting in early afternoon.

A walk here at this time of year requires frequent blinking. At minus 40, the slightest wind evokes tears, which freeze immediately. When the mercury dips below minus 65, as it does here most winters, frostbite can destroy an unprotected hand or nose in a minute.

"If coal runs out, we won't make it," said Tatiana Filippova. "Come back in Jan., and see if we're still alive."

The brutal weather didn't always seen so threatening. In its heyday in the 1980's, the village boasted the school, a kidnergarten, a library, a music institute with a brass band and adult choir, a 34 bed hospital, a post office, a gym, lots of food and 2,500 eager settlers.

"There were so many volunteers, people had to live in railroad cars while waiting for housing," recalled Filippova, who arrived in 1980 to teach at the music institute.

The improbable scene she described was repeated across the top of Russia as Stalin's gulag work gangs gave way to pampered pioneers lured north by salaries as much as eight times higher than corresponding Moscow wages. Defying all odss and economic sense, cities sprang up on the permafrost to serve the Soviet mining, oil and nuclear power industries.

The settlers were young, adventurous and from all over. Valery Budko came here from Kyrgystan--then Soviet Kirghizia--at 21, with dreams of making a quick killing in the mines and retiring to warmer latitudes.

After five years, Budko met ans married Lyubov Bezrukavaya, who had come with her parents from Ukraine and worked at the power plant. Their daughter was born here in 190. The couple figured they needed to work four more years to buy a comfortable home on what Northerners call "the Mainland"--non-Arctic European Russia.

But by then the mainland had sobering new ideas.

World markets began dictating prices. President Boris Yeltsin's advisors worked out the cost of the northern campaign and announced in 1998 that they couldn't afford it. They drafted vague plans to evacuate the region's non-essential population and develop its resources more slowly, sending workers in shifts without their families.

Nedz's state owned mining company, which supported the village and ran the mine, founditself spending $140 more to extract each ounce of gold than it earned from the sale. Those losses bled the company for years until the mine's closure last March. THe company is now bankrupt.

The Budko's dream dissipated like a breath in the cold.

Inflation ate their savings. Their post-Soviet paychecks lagged months and then years behind. Driving a load of ore from the mountain in 1994, Valery suffered a heart attack, and he then went on disability pension. Nastya, his frail daughter, developed a kidney infection. Medical bills mounted, so did the cost of resettling.

"We became hostages," Lyubov said.

After balking for years, the Yakutian regional government in May ordered the village closed. It promised to pay back wages and a relocation subsidy during the summer. But the payments were delayed when the regional authorities, in July, demanded that Yeltsin's government foot the bill.

Unaware of this hitch, the villagers shut down its school, kidnergarten, music institute, post office and library. Instead of planting a year's worth of greenhouse potatoes and vegetables, many settlers were busy packing and shipping out their belongings.

As the air turned cool, they began to suspect a life-threatening betrayal. Rusian Shipkov, Yakutia's deputy prime minister, flew here in Aug. and was confronted by a mob of angry women.

"We were shouting, "Give us your money1" said Lyubov. "Women and children were crying. We climbed into his helicopter and made him sign a paper that we'd be paid by Sept. 15."

But the deadline passed, and the promise proved empty.

In late Nov., Shipkov was still haggling with Moscow over who will pay the bill for the evacuation.

"Last word I heard, the entire Soviet Union created the gold mining industry, and the Russian Federation is its legal sucessor," he said in an interview. "The Russian authorities shouldn't be trying to shift this burden to us."

Sounding impervious to the villagers hardships, he added: "It's extremely difficult to keep delivering coal to a place that's not producing anything, where 900 people are just living for free."

With little choice, the doomed village is fighting for its life. The school has reopened--six weeks late-- thanks to the principals's pleas to the regional authorities to rehire 15 teachers. The parents are working to install a wood-burning stove in each classroom.

To help feed their families, men stake out a nearby salt lick frequented by wild sheep and ambush the endangered animals. Hunters, the police chief included, also raid an indegenous herder's nearby turf and pick off her reindeer.

This tolerance of poaching does not extend to the village's dogs. Perhaps nowhere else has a mayor in today's Russia felt the need to caution citizens to keep an eye on their pets. Villagers held a meeting to reinforce the warning with a threat to banish any proven theif.

Valery, a wiry man barely 5 ft. tall, worries less about cold and hunger than about leaving here empty handed after fourteen years.

The gov't., he said, owes him and his wife 76,000 rubles in back wages and relocation salaries--the equivalent of $13,000 until the ruble lost nearly two-thirds of its value in Aug.

"If we had been paid in June or July, we could have bought a house or apartment almost anywhere," he said over tea in the kitchen. "We doubt this money will ever be enough today."

Many doubt they'll ever see their money. A rumor is sweeping the village: The authorities will cut off fuel, declare a winter emergency and airlift everyone out with a siutcase limit.

"They'll try to force us out without paying us a kopeck," Budko said.

To qualify for a relocation subsidy, a family must send one of its adult members away from the North. But the person who leaves gives up any claim to back pay.

Nina Krivoruchko, a teacher owed relatively little salary, is returning to her native Moldova with her two pretten boys to wait for the family's subsidy. Her husband will stay and try to collect $7,000 in back miner's wages.

Reflecting on a decade n the North, Nina said the hardships will fade from memories of "the best years of our lives." She laughed bitterly at Moscow's judgement that colonizing the North was a colossal mistake.

"My family is a mistake for them?' she erupted, "My family must pay for thier mistake?"

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