Siberia: frosty cold, good pay, meat rations -- and an air of unreality
Yakutsk, Siberia, USSR — Everything looks a bit different in the cold fog of Siberia. Moscow lies thousands of miles and six time zones away. Most people in the frosty, resource-rich region of Yakutia seem to give the Soviet capital little thought.
True, in a political system painstakingly orchestrated from the center, there are the automatic outward similarities between Yakutia and Moscow . . . or Soviet Georgia . . . or Soviet Central Asia.
Official posters and local editorials proclaim the virtues of ''economic discipline'' - watchword of the young Andropov era. Local Communist Party leaders, economic managers, and official trade union chiefs say they are trying to curb ''violations of socialist legality'' - but those interviewed report that there have been no major personnel changes in the local political or economic machinery.
There are no public portraits of Yuri Andropov in Yakutsk. But that's virtually true of Moscow, too.
Local bookshops display no Andropov volumes, although there are offerings from other Politburo members and by the late Leonid Brezhnev. The latter's works are far less prominently displayed than they used to be.
''Books by comrade Andropov haven't arrived yet,'' a bookseller says. The main bookshop sells an official black-and-white portrait of Mr. Andropov. He wears a lapel pin signaling his membership in the Supreme Soviet, the nation's parliament, but none of his official medals. The contrast to the later Brezhnev portraits is striking.
In a reindeer forest near Aldan, which makes even tiny, frosty Yakutsk look a bit like Times Square, a young party man offers a marvelously incongruous version of the Kremlin view on European missile talks. There sometimes seems a Siberian unreality about it all.
''You feel a huge distance from lots of things here,'' says a young woman who came here from European Russia 10 years ago.
''For instance, geographically, we are not too far from China. But no one here really feelsm this. . . . We feel Siberian. And no one can imagine Chinese troops or rockets getting way out here.''
A middle-aged woman in a small group that waited 25 minutes in minus 40 degree weather for the afternoon reopening of a grocery promising a prized half-sausage per customer says: ''We have talonym [ration coupons] for meat here.''
Asked to explain how the system works, she replies, puzzled: ''You have talonym in Moscow, don't you?'' Moscow doesn't, although various other Soviet towns do.
Some recent Yakutsk arrivals like the isolation, others are less enthusiastic.
A Jewish woman says one reason she's glad to have migrated from European Russia is that ''I feel no real anti-Semitism here, only in one or two instances since I've arrived. . . . Most people don't seem to think about these things the way they do back in Russia.''
A construction foreman near the huge open-cast coal mine at Neryungri speaks of a ''love for the frontier.'' But others in Yakutia, particularly single women , aren't so sure.
''I came out here from Russia almost five years ago. I liked the romanticism of it all,'' says a young woman who, like many of her peers, spends Friday evening listening to a live band at the capital city's main hotel.
Her salary is far higher than she could make back in the European part of the country. The hotel band - in another seeming fringe benefit of life on the frontier - wails a song by Time Machine, a popular Soviet group sufficiently suspect in official eyes to have been denied permission to perform in Moscow. Sidewalk kiosks for music lovers feature pirate cassettes by the combo.
''Overall, life here is horrible. It is boring. And cold. . . . I'm planning to leave, and I hope to live in Moscow.''
An older woman who works in a restaurant complains, ''There are no good husbands to be found way out here.''
''Want to see a movie tonight?'' a girlfriend interrupts as the restaurant is about to close.
''Which one?'' (A Soviet film that only recently opened in Moscow is playing, but both women have evidently seen it.)
''I don't know. . . . There's supposed to be something good on TV,'' the other replies.