Arctic Cold Outlives Soviet Dreams In Steppes of Russia's Far North
Workers came for high wages, but reforms have depleted savings
NORILSK, RUSSIA — EIGHTEEN years ago Tanya Fedichikina left her home in sunny southern Russia for this frozen Arctic city, attracted by the beauty of the pristine tundra, the silence of the Siberian steppe -
and industrial salaries four times the national average.
Several years later, Mrs. Fedichikina fell in love with a local boy whose parents had come to Norilsk in the 1950s as ardent young Communists eager to carve a new Soviet society from the barren land. She married, had two children, and enjoyed the good life, thanks to high wages at the Norilsk Copper Factory.
``In 10 years, my husband and I managed to save enough money to buy our own apartment and a car,'' Fedichikina says, recalling her life before the country embarked on its rocky transition to a market economy. ``Then reforms came, and suddenly our money was worthless.'' Because of inflation, they were unable to buy their dream home.
Norilsk is a typical product of Stalinist hubris, an attempt to command nature, much as the dictator did men, to do his bidding. But the power of the Arctic has outlived the command system. And disillusionment has turned to despair following the Soviet collapse, transforming Norilsk today into a city where many of its 270,000 residents are desperate to leave but can't afford to resettle back home.
Fedichikina and her family now live in a one-room apartment inherited from her mother-in-law, who retired to a more hospitable climate. They have been on an apartment waiting list for 15 years, but the factory cannot afford to build new housing.
``I don't want my children to have to live in the nightmare we live in,'' she says bitterly over a subsidized lunch of breaded cutlets, Russian pancakes, and porridge in the canteen at the factory, which employs 3,500 people. ``We live like dogs.''
Political prisoners were the first to build up this bleak industrial region within the Arctic Circle, followed by devout Communists and tens of thousands of their less idealistic compatriots, who landed in this metal-rich land clutching short-term contracts that they hoped would allow them to return home wealthy.
The region produces 75 percent of Russia's copper and 90 percent of its nickel, but local authorities have resisted efforts at privatization. The only visible evidence of industry are the ramshackle factories, the speckled snow, and the heavy soot which chokes the once clear skies.
About 13,000 people emigrate from Norilsk annually, says police chief Valery Kolmakov. He says a rash of burglaries has been committed in recent months by residents too poor to afford to move.
``After 15 years, a normal person in the `mainland' [of Russia] has earned enough money to buy an apartment, a dacha, and a private plot of land,'' Mr. Kolmakov says, exaggerating to make a point. ``But we Siberians have nothing. We have to go back to the mainland and start from scratch.''
Help from Moscow is only a dream. Earlier this year, Russia's former Supreme Soviet passed a ``Law on the North'' that would provide money to repatriate workers from areas like Norilsk and provide them with housing. But the political body was disbanded before it ever made good on its promises.
``Moscow is far away and it cannot understand the problems of the north,'' Mayor Vasily Tkachov says. ``If Moscow understood, our big nickel factories wouldn't be on the edge of collapse. If Moscow understood, we wouldn't have people who have worked here for 20 years and are now hostages of the north.''
Copper factory worker Viktor Sinitsyn, for example, earns more than three times the national average, but he still wants to leave. Like Fedichikina, he has stood in line for housing for five years, living in a factory hostel with communal kitchen and bath.
But money is not the only issue, he says.
``It's too bad for my health here,'' says Mr. Sinitsyn, standing near the entrance to the factory's main shop floor, where workers breathe through antiquated respirators as they pour hot molten ore into metal cauldrons in air so thick with sulfuric gas it stings the eyes. ``You can work here only two or three years, not more. Your immune system starts to break down.''
Factory workers here contend with acute health problems - primarily respiratory. But many also experience ``Arctic depression,'' brought on by a lack of sun.
The sun never sets here during the short mosquito-filled summer, but there are 49 24-hour sunless ``polar nights'' in the winter. The days get so cold city streets are filled with people walking backward to avoid the biting wind blowing in their faces. At night, streets are deserted.
But residents have devised ways to deal with the cold, building an indoor agricultural community to grow plants and breed animals in the tough conditions.
At the Norilsk Collective Farm, 600 black-and-white cows in a heated barn ignore the freezing wind raging outside as they lazily munch bright green grass that grows to maturity in seven days inside special temperature-controlled chambers. Although most of Norilsk's milk must be brought in from elsewhere, the cows produce a share of the city's needs. The farm also grows cucumbers and parsley in greenhouses constructed directly on the frozen tundra.
Closer to the center of town, two camels stare through the bars of a cramped cage while a Siberian tiger paces restlessly back and forth on cement in a greenhouse zoo. Workers in fur hats with earflaps in an adjacent building tend to hothouse flowers sold to city flower shops.
In Norilsk, Tatyana Arkannikova's greenhouse job is an enviable one. ``I came here for the romance. I wanted to see the north,'' she says, pointing out geraniums, lilies, African violets, and roses blooming under the artificial lights. ``I came here to look, and I've been here seven years already. I don't regret it.''