Let them eat caviare

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Abandoned by Moscow, Oktyabrski is starved of everything except the local caviare. The

nuclear missiles have gone, taking most of the people and nearly all of the jobs. Welcome

to Russia's forgotten far east, where only vodka can obliterate the cold and despair

Mid-afternoon yesterday, with a fresh squall whistling in from the sea, five dozen people filed in to the broken-down hut that passes for Oktyabrski's village theatre, dusted the snow off their boots, and settled down for the big - and the only - event of the day.

They had nothing else to do. The power was off, as usual. The heating at home was minimal, even though the temperature was well below zero outside. The cinema and restaurant shut down long ago. Almost no one has a job. Why not while away an hour or two with the neighbours, even if it means the less than glamorous prospect of watching a children's potato-peeling race?

Times are hard in much of Russia, but few places are as forlorn and abandoned as this community, a village on the western edge of the Kamchatka peninsula. It is, as it is beginning to discover to its cost, on the very rim of the vast Russian Federation, on a giant finger of land that points southward into the Pacific and towards Japan.

Eight years ago the entire region, the front line of the Soviet Union's eastern nuclear defences and a missile test-bed, was closed to foreigners, and even Soviet citizens had to have special permission to visit. But Moscow's grip has grown feeble, and it is now barely felt here, at the far end of a largely defunct supply line. Even the regional capital, Petropavlovsk, is a distant entity, separated by a four-hour car journey along what, in winter, is not a road but a band of ice running across a wild, refrigerated landscape of birch forests and snow-covered volcanoes.

"No one cares about us any more," said Sergei Kazanov, 45, a former fisherman. There is nothing left to do. We used to call the winter the drinking season. But now it never ends."

He is not kidding. Local doctors say that in the last fortnight alone, five people - including two women - have drunk themselves to death. Their village, once a thriving Soviet fishing community and a source of Moscow's red caviare supply, is fading away. Seven years ago, there were 7,000 inhabitants. Two-thirds have since left, migrating either elsewhere on the peninsula or to what they call Russia's "mainland" in search of work and better conditions.

The canning factory, which once employed 1,000 people and rattled away round the clock, has shut. The October Revolution fishing collective, which used to run 30 boats, has also closed after a failed attempt at privatisation. There is no bank, no launderette, no sports complex, no church, no pool and no steam baths. Half the village school's pupils have left. The mud streets, choked with snow and rubbish, have not been cleared for a month, because the local authority cannot afford the petrol for its refuse vehicle.

Electricity is switched off for 21 hours a day because no one has paid the power stations. The heating system is on low power, despite the swirling snow, knee-high drifts and cutting sea winds. The few peeling, putrid, five-storey apartment buildings are covered with blisters of damp and rust. The rest - a botcher's paradise of wooden barracks, builders' lots, rusting storage depots, iron garages and twisted metal junk - is gently falling apart.

The place is turning into driftwood and flotsam, the wreckage of a community that is already totally washed up, and will eventually be swallowed up altogether by the sea which laps at its edge.

As this vast country lumbers painfully towards winter, anxiety has set in within the international community about the capacity of places such as Oktyabrski - and thousands of others scattered across Russia's 11 time zones - to survive the next few months. No one seems certain that they will battle through, just as they have so often over past decades, weathering terror, war and the destruction of the entire social system. Opinions differ. The UN's food and agriculture organisation has predicted "spot food shortages" but not widespread ones. The international federations of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies have launched an appeal of $15m, saying that "a silent disaster" is afoot. The US has extended a $600m loan to Russia to buy American food, and has promised to send humanitarian aid, including 1.5 million tons of wheat. There have been airy assurances from Moscow that there is no cause for panic, despite a dismal grain and potato harvest this year.

Western security sources, cited by The Times this week, fear that Russia's food supplies could run out within weeks, bringing the threat of unrest and thousands of westbound refugees. The reality is likely to be less lurid. It will not pay to be poor and weak, or elderly and ill, or very young, in Russia in the next six months. But for the great majority of the 147-million-strong population, the problem is less likely to be about famine and riots than abject misery, chronic illness and the side-effects of an economic decline worse than the American great depression, such as alcohol and suicide.

The dwindling few who have stayed behind in Oktyabrski are typical of many. Their problem is not so much a lack of food as a gross imbalance in their access to it. Dairy products, including milk, and fresh fruit are in short supply. What little there is is too expensive for many to afford - especially after price hikes following this year's rouble crash. In the tiny snowbound outdoor market, apples cost 40 roubles - pounds 1.60 - a kilo, the equivalent of a day's pay for the handful of people who still have work. The able-bodied have filled their garages and basements with home-grown summer produce from their allotments, mostly potatoes, and pickled tomatoes and cucumbers. But there is precious little fresh produce.

"We live on rice and soup," said Ludmilla Danyushkina, 35, as she stood surrounded by a few meagre products in the elders' hut that passes for a shop. She worries about the effect on her 12-year-old son, whom she is trying to bring up single-handedly on a monthly wage of pounds 44. "We have very few vegetables. Every time I make soup there seems to be less to put in it."

There is, however, plenty of fish. In fact, in one of the more alarming examples of the breakdown of supply lines, the abundance is such that there are one-metre-high piles of rotting fish scattered around the village. Once the caviare has been gouged out of the carcasses, no one bothers to preserve the rest, leaving it to the scores of stray dogs, seagulls and the occasional passing bear.

Caviare is plentiful. "We eat about a bucket a year," said Patyana Gerasimenko, the head doctor in the local hospital. "In fact, we get completely sick of it. There comes a time when you just can't eat it any more."

But you cannot live on caviare alone. The doctor says the effect of poor diet and dismal conditions can be seen on children who are suffering an increase in skin, stomach and respiratory conditions. The range of available medicines is extremely narrow, and likely to get narrower as supplies of imported pharmaceuticals dry up following this summer's collapse of the rouble and much of the banking system.

It was not always thus. Under the Soviet Union, the Oktyabrski workforce was well paid by national standards because they got higher, "northern" pay to compensate for the tough conditions. Pyotr Bolichyov, 41, a local official, can remember when each year he could afford to go on holiday to the Black Sea, sometimes for several months at a time. Officially, he's the head of the village's communal services department, in charge of heating and street cleaning. But, as his wages are two years late, and have been corroded by devaluation and inflation, he has turned to other work, providing another example of the survival skills on which many Russians now rely. He has become a poacher. This summer he made 43,000 roubles from red caviare sales. But even that source of sustenance is uncertain. The salmon do not come every year. When the winter is over he says he, too, will be moving out in search of work.

So what are the authorities doing about it all? Today a government commission of 21 officials will meet in Kamchatka to discuss the problems of the peninsula's remote communities. There are plans for several fishing villages in the north to be evacuated altogether. But is hard to see any quick solutions, given the economic crisis gripping Moscow and the Primakov government's penchant for making plans but doing little.

Whether the international aid programmes find their targets is an open question. Past efforts, notably a US humanitarian project in 1992, led to widespread corruption in Russia. Having seen too many promises broken before, none of those Russians in real need will be holding their breath.

Despite this there is a general consensus that the bulk of the Russian people will, once again, accept their fate without resorting to violent protest. "There won't be any revolutions," said Kamchatka's First Deputy Governor, Boris Sinchenko. No matter that he openly concedes that, after striking a deal which ended three weeks of electricity cuts in the regional capital, he can give no guarantee there will be no more power problems. "There is already too much blood in our history," he said wearily. He is probably right. The tragedy is that, seven years after the end of Soviet communism, Russia should be discussing the issue at all.