Dispatches From Hell

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 22 1999 10:11 PM

Dispatches From Hell

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Evensk, the administrative center of this area, has two streets, of a sort. They are paved in parts but mostly covered with gravel. One leads from the shore of Okhotsk Sea, which is covered with rusted ships that look like beached whales, to the administrative building, a two-story oversimplified colonial with a freshly painted Lenin monument in front, yellow on a blue pediment. The other street, which runs just parallel, is the main one. My photographer and I chartered an AN-2, one of those dawn-of-aviation-era planes with double wings and a propeller engine in front, to get here. We flew again over endless mountains, through patches of rain and patches of snow and, over and over, rainbows that formed to our right, then ripped apart and floated away in shreds.

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Most of the local officials were on hand to greet us. Andrei Mikhailov, the deputy administration head for finance, seems to be an authority to whom everyone yields. We asked about the history of the place, and the six men and lone woman in the room looked to Mikhailov. "The first Comsomol unit in the North was here," he said earnestly. "Chubanov came through from Kamchatka and demolished the White Guard here." It seemed we were supposed to know who Chubanov was; we didn't. Mikhailov seemed intent to go on with the history-of-local-communism lecture, and I tried to get him on a different track by asking how long Evensk itself has been around.

The histories of most large northern villages are similarly tragic in their absurdity. Under Nikita Khrushchev, native settlements throughout the Russian North were systematically annihilated in the name of what was called "enlargement." Khrushchev indulged his love of civilization by erecting "city-type villages" of identical five-story concrete apartment blocks all around the country and moving natives, through coercion and force, from their small villages. The native people of the North--the Eskimos, Chukchi, Koryaks, Evens, and others--are traditionally fishermen and reindeer herders. Moved away from their fishing spots and the tundra, they generally took to the bottle. Here in Evensk, there were two twists to the story: Some small villages in the district were allowed to remain where they were, and Evensk had been moved in 1936 because of a flood. Now it consists mostly of those five-story blocks, dilapidated and lost-looking.

"Well, this is what the old-timers say anyway," Mikhailov said of the flood story. Like virtually all officials in these parts, he is not a native but an ethnic Russian, even though the area is designated as "ethnic" under a federal law that grants certain benefits to areas of compact settlements of native peoples. Out of the district's 5,000 residents, about 1,500 are Evens and Koryaks. "By their nature, they are not particularly inclined to work," says Mikhailov. What he means is, they are not inclined to do anything besides fishing and reindeer herding. Until the early 1990s, what rural population remained was allowed to get on with those activities within the framework of collective farms; in Evensk, most residents were employed by a state geological agency. In 1992, the geological agency shut down, and in short order 3,000 people moved away. At the same time, the federal Extreme North Supply Program collapsed. Food and fuel for the entire year had been delivered by sea during the short summer months when navigation was possible; but after the state backed out, private entrepreneurs began to bring food by air, driving prices out of reach. To survive, the herders began to slaughter and sell off their newly privatized reindeer. In a couple of years, the reindeer population in the district declined from 52,000 to about 20,000. So, in 1996, the local administration re-nationalized the reindeer, in the process breaking a number of laws and depriving the herders of their livelihood.

"They are good people, the natives," says Mikhailov. "It's just that after they have 100 grams or 150 [of vodka], they can no longer control themselves and can sell a deer to some visiting businessman for kopecks. We had to save the deer." Mikhailov is a short bald man in his 60s who wears a cheap, ill-fitting gray suit and a blue tie that reaches to the middle of his belly, with the long end tucked inside his shirt and peeking out from between the bottom two buttons. There are things in town of which he is very proud and things he really does not want us to see. Like the dorms.

The dorms are two of those five-story blocks, cold and dark and with standing water in the hallways as high up as the second floor, stuffed with people who have flooded here from the dying villages. Sveta is a 20-year-old Even who shares her room with her daughter, Yana, 13 months old. The room, which has a baby cot and a fold-out couch, is bare, decorated only with a magazine cut-out of a male model and seven empty cardboard tea boxes. Sveta seems to own nothing else besides two or three enamel bowls and one plate, which are stacked on the floor. She came here 11 months ago from a fishing village.

"Why did you come?"

"Because of the baby."

"You mean there weren't proper conditions in the village?"

"No heat, no light, no food."

Sveta gets a child-care allowance of about $12 a month and pays about $5 for the dorm room. Food prices here are comparable to New York's. "I can still afford milk for the baby. You know, some of the mothers here--well, there is a special commission to give up your baby to if you have no money. My friend, she is also 20, she's got two children, 5 years and 10 months old, and she just gave away the young one."

"Have you thought about it?"

"What? Who would give away this kind of baby? The reason I left the village is, I got scared because my nephew died at three months, he was just a month older than Yana."

"What did he die of?"

"I don't know. The milk must have been bad, the powder milk."

"Your sister didn't breast-feed?"

"We don't. We can't. We have nothing to eat ourselves. The powdered milk, where it came from, there was a barge that overturned near the village and people went there and picked up the food."

The places Mikhailov did want us to see were the fish-processing plant, where a woman in a rubber apron and rubber boots was kicking three kinds of salmon--a couple of tons in all--down a sloping wooden tray to two other women, who removed the caviar; the fish-refrigerating station; and the big TV satellite dish up on the hill, there since 1980. None of it made for very impressive viewing because the electricity was off in the entire town for lack of diesel fuel. Still, the reason Mikhailov was eager to show these things to us is that the Evensk District and Evensk itself are much better off than the rest of Magadan Region. The entire district budget of $4 million comes from taxes paid by the Omolon Gold Co., which keeps the heat on in the winter and the lights on several hours every day. The rest of the region cannot boast that. As one Evensk official said, "We are sitting on a gold mine."

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.