Protest of despair in Russia's Arctic

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The Independent Online
THE COMPLAINT by Valentina Velichko is no routine industrial gripe. It is not as if she has not been paid for a mere six months - common enough across Russia - or even a full year. No, the last time she received hard cash for her labours as a crane operator in the Arctic was three and a half years ago.

And nor is her protest a routine industrial action. The fact that she and 10 others are on hunger strike is almost academic, since they barely had any food in the first place. A fortnight ago, after they ceased to receive bread, they stopped eating, huddling up in bed against the incredibly severe temperatures outside.

They will, they say, remain there until the authorities take notice. If that means death then so be it, says Ms Velichko, who has weighing scales next to her bed. Her records reveal that the strikers have lost an average of almost a stone each. One has already been dispatched to hospital.

Ms Velichko belongs to a village outside Pevek, a dying port and restricted border zone rarely visited by Western correspondents. Although it sits on Russia's extreme north-eastern edge on the Arctic Sea, it lies at the very heart of the country's economic crisis.

The strikers' job is to service the airport but now, like 28 villages before it in the huge Chukotka region, their community is being closed down. Although rich in minerals - it has the second-largest gold reserves in Russia - Chukotka is fast shedding population.

For the past three years Ms Velichko, 45, and her colleagues has subsisted on food distributed under otovarka, a chit system in which they receive groceries in lieu of pay. They got the bare minimum: 1kg of rice a month, a similar amount of peas, sugar and flour, plus a couple of kilogrammes of meat.

"What would our mothers think if they knew how hungry we were?" she asks, tearfully quoting from a poem she has written about their plight. It continues: "Spare us from advertising. Our children can't bear watching Snickers ads on TV any more."

Here, her story is an all too familiar one. She was lured to the Arctic 16 years ago, full of hope and idealism, by the high rates of pay offered to those willing to work in extreme conditions. Somehow, she never left - condemning herself to incarceration in one of the most remote societies on earth.

In winter the sun does not rise above the horizon of snow-covered tundra and frozen Arctic sea. An iron-grey twilight hovers reluctantly over the town for a few hours around lunchtime, before fading to black.

This week temperatures were -33C. It took 20 seconds for a ballpoint pen to freeze.

Women wander around the town - a lifeless collection of utilitarian Soviet housing blocks, a near-dead seaport, and a few moribund plants - swathed in fur coats reaching to their feet. Windows are a waste of wall space - for nine months of the year they are encrusted with an impenetrable white frost. This is no place for human beings, and many of them know that all too well.

Which is one reason so many are either getting out, or trying to. When they were paid it was tolerable, but now almost everyone seems to go unpaid for months. There is food in the shops, but prices are twice that of Moscow, the world's third most expensive city. The hospital is seriously short of medicine and doctors. Shortages of fuel are commonplace. Mys Schmidta, a town 300 miles to the west, is still waiting for a delivery of fuel. It arrived by ship in Pevek days ago, and there it remained: no one can agree on who will pay for it.

For such reasons the population of the Pevek area has dropped by two- thirds in seven years, from 34,500 to 12,500, a migration repeated across the Russia north. Chukotka's population has shrunk from 180,000 to 90,000 in the same period, a process encouraged by the anti-Communist governor, Alexander Nazarov.

Mr Nazarov recognises that, after limping on for six decades, the Soviet experiment in social engineering - the arrogant Stalinist belief that man could conquer by colonisation any corner of the world, no matter how harsh - has collapsed, changing the geopolitical map in this vast territory, whose eastern edge is less than a hundred miles from Alaska.

Plenty more would like to leave, but cannot afford the air ticket, let alone a flat somewhere else. Larisa Kozar, 40, head of the municipal welfare office, has a list of almost 700 families who applied for government assistance to return to the "mainland". Of these, 69 are special-category cases - pensioners, veterans, invalids.

But Ms Kozar's organisation, like every other arm of government, is hopelessly under-funded: last year only eight special cases were helped to relocate. She wants out herself. "If you gave me the choice, and housing on the mainland, I would leave too," she said.

The choice is a rare luxury. Most are stranded in what amounts to a prison. The conditions may not be as hellish as those which once prevailed within Pevek's four Gulag camps, set up under Stalin to hold thousands of labouring prisoners. But many of the remaining residents are no less trapped.

What, then, does the future hold? Mr Nazarov is campaigning hard for international investment, especially in the gold industry which, hampered by a low price and inefficient production, makes a loss. He envisages a new society with a smaller population in which towns become industrial outposts, like North Sea platforms, whose workers come and go.

He claims to have $600m (pounds 364m) of potential investment waiting for parliament to pass production-sharing laws. He talks of creating a thriving fishing industry, seaweed farms. But he admits the inescapable truth: the north is "in a terrible situation". As Ms Velichko and her friends know only too well.