PEVEK, Russia -- Cut off from the rest of the world by heavy snow, howling Arctic winds, economic collapse and government breakdown, the desperate town of Mys Shmidta can hold out a few more days before the last of the heating oil is gone.
Then, with daytime temperatures as low as 35 below zero, the 4,300 residents can burn their last few scraps of wood to keep warm and contemplate the Russian pullback that is leaving them behind.
Moscow can no longer support the towns and cities strung across the Arctic, places that began as grim prison camps and evolved into mining and industrial outposts that have become hopelessly expensive to maintain. For several years, the population has been steadily draining away, but not fast enough for those left behind.
The Chukotka region, which embraces Russia's northeastern tip, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska, has lost half of its population this decade. Twenty-six villages have been abandoned. Russians and Ukrainians have been streaming back to what they call the mainland, leaving this huge expanse of tundra to the native Chukchi people, whose traditional way of life has been nearly wiped out by alcohol and Soviet policy.
The chaos stemming from Moscow's financial turmoil, together with the most severe winter in decades, has left thousands of people trapped in the north, with fuel and food running short.
"If the government doesn't do something quickly, within a month there will be a catastrophe," Vladimir Chmyr, the chief doctor at the Mys Shmidta hospital, said by telephone.
For a few months, Moscow -- well-heated and well-lighted -- has been treating the threat to the northern towns as one of those crises that the hardy and ingenious Russians will somehow muddle through. But when the heat runs out in the Arctic, it's not a question of muddling through; it's a question of survival.
Mys Shmidta, 250 miles east of Pevek, hasn't seen an airplane since before a heavy and prolonged snowstorm began Nov. 19.
"There is so much snow around that this morning I tumbled over and slid down a bank and found myself at the door to the hospital," Chmyr said. "People say there hasn't been this much snow for 40 years."
The telephone is Mys Shmidta's only link to the outside world. In the twilight that passes for daytime above the Arctic Circle, families have had to abandon their grim, gray apartment houses as pipes have burst and boilers have broken down. The few remaining buildings with heat are filled with the newly homeless.
There is enough flour, salt, sugar and cereal to last until spring, but no fruit and no vegetables. Vladimir Yershov, head of the local administration, said 200 people from the village of Leningradsky, where there is no heat and little food, have crowded into Mys Shmidta in search of shelter.
All of the settlements are supposed to be stocked during the short summer. This year, the regional and national governments were not up to the job.
Pevek, the northernmost commercial port in Russia, ran dangerously low on fuel as early as November. An icebreaker, chartered by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, set out from western Russia in an attempt to break through, clearing a path for a Finnish tanker. Several times, the convoy ground to a halt in block ice, but three weeks ago it finally reached the wind-swept harbor.
Pevek has heat and light again. Wednesday, after a two-week delay, a convoy of 10 trucks set out for Mys Shmidta, following frozen riverbeds and plowing through snowbanks. It should take 10 to 12 days to make the 440-mile journey, about a week longer than the heat will last there. When they arrive, Yershov said, the trucks will deliver enough fuel to keep Mys Shmidta warm for four days.
The icebreaker, named the Soviet Union, tried to return to its home base but was last reported blocked by impenetrable ice about 100 miles west of the harbor.
As large as France and with a population of 90,000, Chukotka is a place where reality has collided with the contradictions of Soviet planning. The cities that were planted here to provide workers for the mines and factories, in an economy that didn't weigh costs and benefits, now make no sense.
A weeklong tour of the region, in the company of Gov. Alexander V. Nazarov, was a study in the stoicism and endurance of the Chukotka people during a time of intense trial.
In the Chukchi village of Konergino, where the coppery noontime sun hugged the horizon, drunks cadged rubles, but no one doubted that life will go on. In half-abandoned Apapelkhin, village workers, unpaid for more than three years, are giving up.
In Bilibino, where the temperature stood at 54 below zero, what could be the world's most remote nuclear power plant operates at half capacity or less, waiting for the gold boom that Nazarov is sure he can foster while a restive staff yearns for Russia.
Nazarov has a vision for Chukotka in which the permanent towns of the north, with their services, would be emptied out. Instead, workers would be brought in to mine the extensive gold and tin deposits on rotations of a few weeks at a time, leaving their families behind.
About 800 Chukchis work in the tundra, herding 150,000 reindeer. Vladimir Utikhtikak, 23, lives most of the year in a yaranga, a tent made of hides, moving with his herd through a frozen landscape where the folds of the distant mountains are smudged in the palest pastel blues and lilacs.
He and the nine others in his group live a solitary life on the forbiddingly empty tundra. Their yarangas are rimmed with frost on the inside, except in the sleeping sections curtained off with ,, furs.
It has been a bad year for Utikhtikak because ice that formed under the snow during a thaw has kept the reindeer from grazing, and they are dying of starvation. The herders can't make money selling meat and hides anyway, because no one has any money.
"It used to be that the reindeer provided everything we needed to live," said Anatoly Teneru, director of a reindeer collective who believes the herder's way of life is dying out. "The psychology of my people is different now. Why work if we're not getting any money?"
Alcohol and television, Teneru said, have turned the Chukchi people away from their roots, as have boarding schools and Soviet collectivization.
"We'd like to have fruit and vegetables," said Valentina Gumyanova, who lives in Konergino. "But that's our own fault for having gotten used to them."
Except for reindeer, nothing is grown in Chukotka. People catch fish and collect berries and mushrooms, but otherwise they must rely on their wages to buy food. Yet, as in most of Russia, people haven't been paid regularly here for four years.
Food instead of pay
A system arose in which the regional government and various enterprises began bringing in food, mostly purchased in Seattle, that workers could accept in lieu of wages. U.S. cabbages, beets and pickles were making their way to the Russian far east, but in August most of the regional government's money was frozen when the banking system collapsed. Prosecutors are looking into allegations that a major part of Chukotka's money has been illegally diverted. In any event, the imports stopped.
In Konergino, at least, there's a sense that hardship comes with the territory. Viktor Pakhomov lost his fingers, toes and left ear to frostbite when he lost his way in the tundra 14 years ago. "Winter will be wonderful," he said. "Could you lend me something for a drink?"
Natasha Tagrigirgina, 13, lost her father in 1996 when he froze to death while hunting. "I was born here; I'll live here," she said. Her fondest wish is "that my mama lives to see a grandson."
In Apapelkhin, patience has run out.
This village outside Pevek bears the brunt of cold, damp winds coming off the Arctic. A person's nose crunches slightly as it begins to freeze inside. Heat is scarce.
Eleven municipal workers went on a hunger strike Nov. 27 when their monthly food allotments were cut back. Up to then, they had been receiving a monthly allotment of a little more than 2 pounds of rice, peas and sugar, one salted fish, a little more than 4 pounds of flour and oil, and bread when it was available.
"We're hostages," said Valentina Velichko, a 45-year-old crane operator and widow who has been in Chukotka for 14 years, lured by the higher salaries once offered for work in the north. She has lost 11 pounds. She is owed almost three years' pay and can't afford to move back to central Russia.
She and the other strikers have moved into two rooms in the village administration building. They lie on cots, sipping water while huddled in blankets and coats. They are drawn and bitter and don't see a way out.
"Spare us from advertising," she said. "Our children can't bear to watch Snickers ads on TV anymore."
Nazarov, whose wife and daughter live in Moscow, which he visits frequently as a member of the Federation Council, wouldn't meet with the hunger strikers. But he said Wednesday that he would find money for them. He blamed Moscow for the delayed payments.
In Pevek, a town of 6,000 where from November to February the sun is never seen, 684 families are on the waiting list for government-subsidized apartments elsewhere in Russia, said Larisa Kozar, a welfare official. Last year, eight families from that list made the move, and many more scraped money together on their own and got out.
"If everyone could go, of course most of them would," Kozar said. "If I had a choice, I'd go."
Pub Date: 12/19/98