Tens of thousands starving in icy wastes of the new gulags

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THE RED Cross is mounting a rescue operation for as many as 80,000 people stranded and starving in an area of Russia which reaches 8,000 miles east of Moscow and beyond the Arctic Circle. These victims of the collapse of the Russian economy are the handful of survivors of Stalin's gulags and thousands of others who describe themselves as the new gulag inmates.

Nearly 20 million people are said to have frozen, starved or worked to death in Stalin's camps. But even though the gulag network was dismantled in the Fifties, the gold and salt mines on which they were built survived. To entice workers, Moscow offered salaries three times those which could be earned in European Russia and thousands of engineers, mechanics, cartographers and geologists took up the offer. Hoping to earn enough in five or ten years to buy a Lada or build adacha, they were called the "Big Rouble Hunters".

Up until the rouble crashed in August last year, Moscow still sent shiploads of food, clothes and medicine to Magadan and Chukotka, where they would be distributed, often by air, to the most remote settlements. Now there is money for neither boats nor aircraft.

It is a 10-hour drive along the Way of Bones, the only road which leads from the city of Magadan, along the old gulag trail, running parallel with the Kalamar River to reach Siemchan. In this settlement of 5,000 people, there are 700 families in trouble. The Red Cross workers have only 280 food boxes to distribute and their first job is a cruel one - to isolate the desperate from the merely hungry.

Dressed in a flowery overall, thick woollen stockings and worn leather slippers, 72-year-old Tatyana Vadimonova performs a song-and-dance routine. The song is the Russian equivalent of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made for Walking" which Ms Vadimonova sang in a moment of teenage folly in 1944 when her supervisor at a train depot handed her a pair of straw shoes as part of the station uniform. She found herself on an 8,000-mile journey by sea and by foot, to a five-year sentence for political insubordination in a gulag on the Kalamar river.

It is one of the most inhospitable places on earth, where the temperatures plummet to 40 degrees below freezing even at this time of year. She still remembers the windowless barracks, the cots without mattresses, the punishing cold and the hard labour. So why is she still living in the area?

"Where could I go?" she asks. "When I was released, there were no trains, no planes, no transport at all. I walked over 100 kilometres to get to the gulag, almost naked and barefoot, that was easy enough. But to walk 10,000 kilometres home, how was I to do that?"

Igor, his wife and three children have been identified for Red Cross help. The aviation engineer from Ukraine is furious at his plight. He intended to stay for 10 years and has been here for 16. He lost his job six years ago when the state industries collapsed but his employers refused to buy back his flat and pay for his transfer home, as promised in his contract. Like Ms Vadimonova 50 years ago, he is a permanent prisoner.

One of his daughters is in hospital with pneumonia and malnutrition. He waves the pile of letters he has written to officials in Magadan, Moscow and Kiev which have received no response. "The government has created an economic gulag here which barely differs from what existed here before and no one is prepared to take responsibility and get us out."

Outside what Igor calls his prison window, he looks out on to disused mine workings, mountains of blackened snow, broken children's slides and crumbling apartment blocks. "Tell them, please tell them," he says, with tears running down his cheeks.

Sue Lloyd Roberts' film on the Russian Far East will be shown tonight on BBC2's `Newsnight'.