North becomes a trap for Russians

December 02, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

NORILSK, Russia -- The reforms that freed millions of people across the former Soviet Union have had the opposite effect here, leaving thousands of Russians trapped in the frozen north.

People moved to unlivable cities like Norilsk, 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, for premium pay and for apartments that were dreadfully scarce elsewhere.

Now those preparing to retire and reap the benefits of an arduous work life are finding that history has played a cruel trick. Their savings have been devoured by inflation, their sacrifices made for a nation that no longer exists.

They are stranded, here and in a string of other isolated mining towns. They simply can't afford to leave. They have no money. There's no way they can sell their apartments, since no one from the outside wants to come up here anymore.

"When you first come here, you don't think it will be difficult to leave," said Nina Mezentseva, deputy editor of the local newspaper, Polar Pravda. "But after some time here, you begin to lose your illusions."

The political reforms that allow Mrs. Mezentseva to print PTC whatever she likes in her newspaper also mean that the nation's economic collapse can no longer be concealed. Once high-flying companies such as Norilsky Nickel, this city's reason for being, are faltering. The company began to get late with the payroll, and inflation destroyed everything else.

Mrs. Mezentseva came here 20 years ago for romance. Now she's stuck in this bleak, gritty mining town where the pollution is so bad she often has to walk about with a cloth over her nose and mouth.

"We were just married, and we had no apartment," she said. "We could come here to the polar circle and get an apartment. It was a romantic dream."

Then the couple divorced. "He has left Norilsk," Mrs. Mezentseva said, "and I'm still here."

She has little savings left because of inflation, and no job prospects elsewhere. She thinks longingly of the grass and trees of her native Yekaterinburg, but she can only dream of returning there.

"I have the same illness as others," Mrs. Mezentseva said with a sigh. "I have no apartment anywhere else and no way to earn money anywhere else."

A few blocks from the newspaper office, Alexandra Bikhodzhena, resplendent in an embroidered white cap starched in peaks, presides over the kitchen of the Miner's Restaurant.

On a weekday, few tables are filled in the 100-seat dining room. The once-rich miners haven't been paid for two months, and few people can afford to go out to eat.

"I finished technical school when I was 19, and I was sent here to work," said Mrs. Bikhodzhena, who now is 46. "I had many plans."

Twenty-seven years ago, she earned 200 rubles a month for work that paid 80 to 100 rubles in ordinary Russian cities.

"Now I earn 80,000 rubles a month," she said, about the average pay in inflation-racked Russia.

"The pay was one of the reasons I stayed here," she said. "After a while you get used to the terrible climate. But when you've been away on vacation, and you come back, for the first week you feel the full pressure of the climate. You don't understand how anyone can possibly live here."

The desolation is difficult to describe. The only way to get here is by airplane. Alighting from an airplane in the darkness -- this time of year the days are mostly dark -- you see only the wind-whipped snow. The passengers form a slow, halting line in the blinding snow, each stumbling pitifully after the person ahead.

The landscape is an ugly industrial nightmare, full of wildly twisting pipes, smoke-belching factories and enormous trucks thundering along the roads. Most people have health problems caused by tons of sulfur dioxide dumped into the air. Norilsk city officials feel the problem acutely. Pensioners, with expensive health needs, are staying here instead of moving on. The nickel factory, which used to pay for all medical and social services, can no longer do so.

The national government should be building retirement homes elsewhere, said Deputy Mayor Anatoly Popov, but Moscow also pleads poverty. And few people here are in a position to go elsewhere by themselves.

It would cost Mrs. Bikhodzhena half a million rubles to ship her belongings to another part of Russia -- and all of her 80,000 a month goes to living expenses. In four years, at age 50, she can retire -- early pension was one of the lures that brought people here.

And now there is no way out.

But, she says, "I think I have spent my life well. I have good friends, a good work collective. I would do it all over again."

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