Russians vote with their feet as chill economic wind blows north

With the collapse of the Soviet empire, people are free to flee the Siberian wastes. Phil Reeves reports from Moscow

It does not compare with the terrible years when millions were loaded into cattle trucks and dispatched to labour camps built on the some of the planet's most remote and hostile territory in the name of Stalin's empire. But another migration is underway, this time in the opposite direction. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a steady flow of people has been leaving Russia's far north to head southwards, contributing to a drop in population which the government estimates at 850,000 people - about 7 per cent of the region's population.

The most surprising aspect of the exodus is that it did not come sooner and faster. Living conditions for most of the 11.5 million people who survive amid the permafrost and tundra that stretches from the Norwegian border through Siberia to the Bering Sea are dismal and getting worse.

Many of them should never have been there in the first place. They occupy Arctic communities that would not exist, were it not for Stalin's murderous social engineering. Huge numbers of prisoners - dissidents, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, those categorised as "Socially Harmful Elements", and others - were deported to Siberia for use as forced labour, mining gold and silver, building railways, and churning out timber and metals. Countless died in the process.

After Stalin's death in 1953, and the end to the tactics of terror, the Soviet Union was able to lure workers to the far north by offers of better apartments, long holidays on the Black Sea, and wage packets that were up to eight times higher than those on offer elsewhere. Those incentives have disappeared with Communism and economic collapse. Though rich in natural resources, most of its industries are throttled by strikes over wage arrears, fuel shortages, and its own inability to survive without being propped up by Soviet central planning. Cries of protest rarely cross the thousands of miles to Moscow. In the former Gulag city of Vorkuta, coal miners have gone on hunger strike, blocked railway tracks, marched, and downed tools. Yet many have not been paid for months. "Economically, Russia's Far North is in a precarious position," said a recent regional bulletin by the New York-based Institute of East-West Studies. Prices, fixed by the Soviets, have spiraled with the transition to western economics. Illness is rife (the inhabitants of the far north reportedly get ill 40 per cent more frequently than the rest of the country).

So is alcoholism, especially among indigenous tribes. Up to 80 per cent of the residents of some Eskimo settlements are alcoholics - a performance that even the hard-drinking Russians cannot match.

The climate could scarcely be worse. Summers last as little as 20 days, and are accompanied by plagues of mosquitoes. Winters, with the weeks of total darkness, last up to 10 months.

In the vast Magadan region in the north-east, temperatures can be as low as -65C. July temperatures only manage to struggle up to a chilly 12C.

There is little doubt that Russia's migration south would have been larger were it easier. Much of the far north is without roads or railways; air tickets require savings, most of which were wiped out by the hyper-inflation of the early 1990s.

And moving to where the money is - notably, Moscow - is fraught with hurdles. The 1993 Russian constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of movement and residence. Yet both Moscow and St Petersburg continue to defy the law - despite frequent rulings against them.

City officials continue to operate the Soviet propiska system, in which new arrivals need a police permit to move in. The going rate in the capital is $5,000 (pounds 2,900) - riches which are about as accessible to most of those living in Russia's snowlands as Santa Claus.

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