Hope and heat scarce in Russia's frozen north Severe winter, chaos in Moscow leave towns short of fuel, food,

December 19, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PEVEK, Russia -- Cut off from the rest of the world by heavy snow, howling Arctic winds, economic collapse and government breakdown, the desperate town of Mys Shmidta can hold out a few more days before the last of the heating oil is gone.

Then, with daytime temperatures as low as 35 below zero, the 4,300 residents can burn their last few scraps of wood to keep warm and contemplate the Russian pullback that is leaving them behind.

Moscow can no longer support the towns and cities strung across the Arctic, places that began as grim prison camps and evolved into mining and industrial outposts that have become hopelessly expensive to maintain. For several years, the population has been steadily draining away, but not fast enough for those left behind.

Population dwindling

The Chukotka region, which embraces Russia's northeastern tip, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska, has lost half of its population this decade. Twenty-six villages have been abandoned. Russians and Ukrainians have been streaming back to what they call the mainland, leaving this huge expanse of tundra to the native Chukchi people, whose traditional way of life has been nearly wiped out by alcohol and Soviet policy.

The chaos stemming from Moscow's financial turmoil, together with the most severe winter in decades, has left thousands of people trapped in the north, with fuel and food running short.

"If the government doesn't do something quickly, within a month there will be a catastrophe," Vladimir Chmyr, the chief doctor at the Mys Shmidta hospital, said by telephone.

For a few months, Moscow -- well-heated and well-lighted -- has been treating the threat to the northern towns as one of those crises that the hardy and ingenious Russians will somehow muddle through. But when the heat runs out in the Arctic, it's not a question of muddling through; it's a question of survival.

Mys Shmidta, 250 miles east of Pevek, hasn't seen an airplane since before a heavy and prolonged snowstorm began Nov. 19.

"There is so much snow around that this morning I tumbled over and slid down a bank and found myself at the door to the hospital," Chmyr said. "People say there hasn't been this much snow for 40 years."

The telephone is Mys Shmidta's only link to the outside world. In the twilight that passes for daytime above the Arctic Circle, families have had to abandon their grim, gray apartment houses as pipes have burst and boilers have broken down. The few remaining buildings with heat are filled with the newly homeless.

There is enough flour, salt, sugar and cereal to last until spring, but no fruit and no vegetables. Vladimir Yershov, head of the local administration, said 200 people from the village of Leningradsky, where there is no heat and little food, have crowded into Mys Shmidta in search of shelter.

All of the settlements are supposed to be stocked during the short summer. This year, the regional and national governments were not up to the job.

Pevek, the northernmost commercial port in Russia, ran dangerously low on fuel as early as November. An icebreaker, chartered by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, set out from western Russia in an attempt to break through, clearing a path for a Finnish tanker. Several times, the convoy ground to a halt in block ice, but three weeks ago it finally reached the wind-swept harbor.

Pevek has heat and light again. Wednesday, after a two-week delay, a convoy of 10 trucks set out for Mys Shmidta, following frozen riverbeds and plowing through snowbanks. It should take 10 to 12 days to make the 440-mile journey, about a week longer than the heat will last there. When they arrive, Yershov said, the trucks will deliver enough fuel to keep Mys Shmidta warm for four days.

Icebreaker stymied

The icebreaker, named the Soviet Union, tried to return to its home base but was last reported blocked by impenetrable ice about 100 miles west of the harbor.

As large as France and with a population of 90,000, Chukotka is a place where reality has collided with the contradictions of Soviet planning. The cities that were planted here to provide workers for the mines and factories, in an economy that didn't weigh costs and benefits, now make no sense.

A weeklong tour of the region, in the company of Gov. Alexander V. Nazarov, was a study in the stoicism and endurance of the Chukotka people during a time of intense trial.

In the Chukchi village of Konergino, where the coppery noontime sun hugged the horizon, drunks cadged rubles, but no one doubted that life will go on. In half-abandoned Apapelkhin, village workers, unpaid for more than three years, are giving up.

In Bilibino, where the temperature stood at 54 below zero, what could be the world's most remote nuclear power plant operates at half capacity or less, waiting for the gold boom that Nazarov is sure he can foster while a restive staff yearns for Russia.

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