Dispatches From Hell

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 20 1999 8:18 PM

Dispatches From Hell

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If this landscape looks like anything on Earth, it looks like Yellowstone, multiplied hundreds of times and shaved. Black and bare, the land rolls and juts and goes on forever. It has beauty in the sense that it has a magnificence that stems from magnitude; but naked, it also seems helpless. Perhaps this is why people have been cutting it and gutting it since the first European expedition landed here in 1928.

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This is the Kolyma Range, Russia's greatest deposit of mineral wealth: silver, uranium, tin, coal, and, most important, gold. The first miners here were Stalin's labor-camp inmates. They traveled for 45 days in unheated cattle cars from central Russia to the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, then another five days by sea to Magadan, the Okhotsk Sea port that celebrated its 60th birthday this past weekend, and then on to the mines by foot, for weeks or months. Thousands perished during this last leg of the journey; it is believed, for example, that the poet Osip Mandelshtam did.

Now it's an eight-hour flight from Moscow, then another couple of hours by small plane or helicopter. The roads, if you can call them that, are traversable only about three months out of the year, when the ice on the mountain rivers is thick enough to support a near-constant flow of trucks. The rest of the time, you can only fly, though you can't fly very often, the weather being harsh and unpredictable in the extreme. That's why people customarily refer to Magadan and lands west of it as "the mainland": You can't really get there from here.

My photographer, Sasha, and I are nonetheless trying to get there because, like many Russians, we are fascinated with what we call the Extreme North: the country's ultimate frontier, once a place of relative privilege, now one of unthinkable desperation. With the price of gold plummeting, the region's last hope for survival seems about to wither away. We're here to do stories for our Moscow magazine, Itogi, about the few people here who persevere because they live to mine for gold. We also want to interview those who have no hope left, though this doesn't seem to require much of a search. And we want to see what remains of the Soviet Union's terrible legacy to this region: the camps that once covered it.

A helicopter mechanic tells us, "Sometimes I go out at night, especially in winter, look around, and think, 'This is like a prison. Mountains all around and no place to run.' " Thin, gray, and wizened at 45 or so, he is leaning against the open helicopter door. We have just landed on a flat spot by a river, and the rest of the crew has gone fishing. He slouches, gesticulates nervously, and punctuates his speech with an unfunny laugh. Camps aside, Kolyma is a prison: The tens of thousands of people who came here in the '60s and '70s are trapped. They voluntarily gave up their health to mine for gold, and in return received high salaries, early retirement, and apartments on the mainland. But now their lungs are full of dust and their strength sapped by the vibration of their mining equipment and the heat, light, and oxygen deprivation, and economic reform has swallowed their savings, canceled their benefits, and annulled their future. Unlike the vast majority of Soviet citizens, the people on Kolyma actually once had a future, in that they were among the few to believe they would have one and that it would be relatively good.

Of course, not all of Kolyma is a modern Inferno. After flying a couple of hundred miles over black, naked mountaintops, our small plane ducked under a black rain cloud with a yellow underbelly and we suddenly saw green mountains made of a different kind of rock, one that accommodates a swampy surface covered with green moss and low shrubs. Since arriving here a couple of days ago, we have discovered that in the narrow valleys, nature is as lush as it is absent on top: There are giant moose, foxes, and sables, meadows covered with flowers of the brightest pink and blue, and fast and shallow mountain rivers so thick with fish that the local helicopter pilots spot schools from above, swoop in, climb out with their fishing rods, and emerge with backpacks heavy with grayling a quarter of an hour later. Fishing and mushroom picking are the two hobbies available to the mineworkers.

On the other hand, they say the mushrooms are taller than the trees, and they are telling the truth: Trees here are mostly tiny shrubs, often less than half a foot tall, that are the distant relatives of birch trees and pines. Actual upright pines are no taller than a person--which makes them shorter than the wheels of trucks used in the mines--and also skinny and set wide apart from one another, as though planted by man. Which they are not, of course, because man does not come here to plant trees--and if he had, why would he stick those pathetic creatures in what some of the workers here call "the cyanide pond"?

It is not a pond, exactly, and not exactly cyanide. It is the top level of the waste reservoirs. Gold here is found in ore, which is scooped out of the mountain by Caterpillar excavators and transported to the mill in 50-ton trucks. Each ton contains, on average, 16 grams of gold--an extraordinarily high proportion, by world standards. The rocks are tossed into a series of giant rotating barrels where they are ground into finer and finer pulp, which is then dehydrated and mixed with various agents, including cyanide, which separates gold and silver from the rest of the stuff. The gold is then absorbed onto charcoal, separated from it again, and then, finally, melted into blocks that are half gold and half silver. Silver is a side product. The rest--all that used to be rock--is waste, which gets dehydrated, and de-cyanided and spat out into a series of three "ponds," of which the top two are reservoirs of pulp that, save for the lonely pine trees, look like the bottom of a dried-up sea. The third is a pond of water that is then used again to feed the mill. The mill works at night, filling the gray air (it never quite gets dark this time of year) with fine quartz dust and the smell of lye and the sound of grinding rock, which is overwhelmed for a few seconds every night by the explosion that loosens another portion of ore at the quarry.

The quarry at the Kubaka mine, the largest producer in the region, was said to harbor upward of 80 tons of gold. The actual gold-containing ore hides in the middle of the mountain, which is eaten away by Caterpillars methodically, in regular steps that make the quarry mountain look, from the air, like an Egyptian pyramid, except, of course, that this is a feat of destruction. The rest of the Kubaka mine is a triumph of construction, a model development by a U.S.-Russian joint venture called the Omolon Goldmining Co., whose claim to fame in these parts is that it has built a mine and mining village that resembles hell less than any other place in the region. It is a state within a state, with its own customs controls (designed to keep vodka out and gold in), its own rules of conduct and safety standards (which are enforced--a rarity in this country), and its own cuisine (American-school-cafeteria-style food served in an American-school-cafeteria-type space, complete with the brown laminate tables and the trays and bug-juice dispensers, six times a day, to workers who make, on average, $450 a month). In a region where many people have not seen their nominal $20 salary in months, few people live such good and regular lives as the Kubaka workers, who fly in for three-week shifts, with three weeks off in between.

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