Magadan, USSR — The Hudson Bay Company was the main trading presence here in the 1920s. At the time, it was easier to get to Magadan from Alaska, a few hundred kilometers to the east, than from Moscow, 7,000 kilometers (4,200 miles) to the west and three weeks away by boat. Hudson Bay traders bought pelts and gold, and locals say their huts can still be found on the coast.
Sixty years ago, the area was virtually uninhabited: About 12,000 members of the Chukchi ethnic minority, 1,200 Eskimos, and a few ethnic Russians lived here. In the 1930s, many more Russians arrived - most of them unwillingly, as inmates of Joseph Stalin's prison camps.
After Stalin's death in 1953, the region opened up to voluntary migration, but it remains an underpopulated and daunting place. Some 540,000 people inhabit an area the size of France, Italy, and West Germany combined. Reindeer outnumber humans.
The Magadan region's main product is gold: The Soviet northeast and the neighboring region of Yakutia produce almost 40 percent of the country's gold. Much of the region lies inside the Arctic Circle, the winter lasts in places for more than nine months, and there are few all-weather roads. People travel by plane, helicopter, or reindeer.
So why do they come? For the money, the freedom, and the challenge. Workers here are paid 50 percent to 100 percent more than they would make in European Russia - the mainland, as people often call it. And one year's work in Magadan City is counted as 18 months for retirement purposes.
The Individual Labor Law, which came into force May 1 and allows a limited degree of private enterprise, provides an added incentive for people to come. They can make more money, retire earlier, and go back to their home town into a private business.
This is the dream of the barman in the one state-approved bar in Magadan City - the city is almost dry. He has been here eight years, and in two more he can retire well ahead of age on a full pension. He hopes to open a small restaurant in his hometown of Lvov in the Ukraine.
The pilot on one of our flights across the region is thinking vaguely along the same lines. He is 32, but because of northern benefits he could retire in two years. He intends to stay another 10 years, retire on a big pension, and return to his native Ukraine. He makes 1,100 rubles ($1,716) a month.
A lot of people, however, are apparently drawn by the greater independence or the responsibilites offered to people with skills.
Galina Fedchenko, a journalist in the small town of Yagodnoye, moved here from Byelorussia with her physician-husband. She became attracted to the east when, as a schoolgirl, she visited a sister who was studying in the eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk.
``I liked the more positive way people related to each other,'' she says. Now she is interested in the impact of northerners' high wages on their moral outlook. She is concerned by what is happening: ``The writer Valentin Rasputin once said, `People's lives are getting better, but are people getting any better?' That sums the problem up.''
Sasha Larchenko is deputy director for construction at the Bilibino Nuclear Power Station. The town of Bilibino, Sasha's home for the last 16 years, is inside the Arctic Circle. It has a population of about 20,000, 18 private cars, and 18 miles of roads. Its supplies arrive via a winter trail from the coast.
People here - mostly gold miners and power-station workers - make big salaries but have little to spend them on. They make up for this during vacations, Sasha explains. His acquaintances take about 9,000 rubles ($14,000) on holiday, he claims. He then explains to three dumbfounded journalists what he did last summer.
``Let's see, I bought a new car. That was 16,000 rubles ($24,900). We keep it at our apartment in the Ukraine. Then I bought a garage for the car. That was another 4,000 rubles.''
Sasha could have retired years ago, but says he loves the work. ``When I was 30, I was put in charge of building a nuclear power station. Then I built a good part of this town. Now we're building extensions to the power station.'' Nowhere else, he says, could he have been given so much responsibility while so young, and nowhere else could he have had such diverse work experience.
Valentin Avdeyev, the director of the Sinegorye hydroelectric station, is also well past northern retirement age. He oversees the construction of a massive power generator and dam where men work in temperatures that drop to minus 76 degrees F. Talking to journalists on the site, in a relatively warm 22 degrees below zero, he says the weather can be helpful when Moscow bureaucrats visit. ``We sometimes bring them out here to discuss problems. We find we can get replies faster this way.''
Mr. Avdeyev has spent most of his life working in the far northeast. He had one long break: 1964 to 1966 in North Vietnam during the Vietnam war. Some of the people in his brigades have worked here for 12 to 13 years. But things are changing, he feels.
``In the old days, people came here to build. Now the big salaries play more of a role. And you can't compare conditions here now with the early days.'' Then they were much worse.
But he concedes that the climate still tests people. ``You can't work at half speed here.''