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Tomorrow never knows

By Joe Lowry

Lured by promises of higher salaries, thousands of Russians moved to the far north-eastern regions of Chukotka, Kamchatka and Magadan. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the severe economic crisis at the end of last year, the people in these regions have been left out in the cold.

Ya ni znayoo.”
It goes out like a wailing cry, from Kaliningrad on Russia’s European edge, crosses the metropolises of St Petersburg and Moscow, bumps and judders over the massive Urals, rebounds through the snowy permafrost of Siberia, and finds its echo in the Far East, in the Eskimo villages of Chukotka, in the misery of Gulag-studded Magadan, in Kamchatka, the land of ice and fire, where 34 active volcanoes suggest creation is still unfinished.

It means, simply, “I don’t know”. And it is typified in the far north-east, where Soviet citizens used to clamour to find work for the inflated salaries gleaned in the gold-mines, as bureaucrats, or in the massive fisheries of Kamchatka, that pendulous peninsula, twice the size of Britain, home to 400,000 hardy types.

“I don’t know how I live, I don’t know where the next meal is coming from, I don’t know how I will put shoes on my children’s feet, I don’t know if there will be heating next winter, I don’t know, I don’t know. Ya ni znayoo.”

A doctor throws open a cupboard. No drugs, no bandages, no sheets, no blankets. How can she take care of the patients? Ya ni znayoo. The cook in a handicapped children’s centre surveys her meagre food stock. Some porridge, a few potatoes, beans. How will she feed the kids? Ya ni znayoo.

And the media ask how the disaster is coming along. Are people dying of starvation yet? Are frozen bodies piling up in the streets? Have the native Koryak Eskimos become extinct yet? How is the squalor developing? Plenty of TB? HIV rates increasing? What peg can we hang the story from? How can you sell depression; quiet, entrenched despair?

The cold stark beauty of the landscape takes your breath away. You’ve travelled nine hours, through nine time zones from Moscow, and you are still in the same country. But looking around, at the two massive volcanoes that loom and smoulder over Petropavlovsk, you could have come to another planet.

No deaths by starvation. Perhaps it’s a small miracle, because last winter, the northern supply route, which normally brings fuel, food, medicines and other staples, failed. The economic crisis in Moscow (“the mainland” as the Kamchatkans call it) meant that only a tiny portion of the annual pre-winter shipments got through.

But these are resilient folk. Coal was rationed, electricity too, and somehow the meagre allowances were paid to the socially vulnerable.

Another three hours of air travel, in a battered ten-seat Antonov, reveals another cameo. In a small flat on the outskirts of Polana (population 4,000 and falling, the capital of the Koryak Eskimos), Ksenia Kavov, 33, has been bringing up her four children alone since the death of her husband four years ago. The family budget is 50 US dollars per month, ten dollars per head. Ksenia has just started a small sewing business to make ends meet.

“I have enough for food, just,” she says. “But not enough for electricity. I owe 4,000 roubles (US$ 170) for rent and services from last year. I’ll go and tell them I can’t pay and they’ll prob-ably cut me off.”

And then what will you do?

Ya ni znayoo. Thank God we are almost through the winter and the children are healthy.”

Anna, 13, looks up from her English homework. She’s studying vocabulary: “peaches, banana, apples, hamburger”. Her mother is preparing dinner: buckwheat and green butter. No one notices the irony.

“Last winter was the worst,” says Anna, her almond eyes lighting up with the child’s excitement of adventure, privation overcome. “But we are over it and I am going to study to be a doctor. When I was a kid I wanted to work in a shop or drive a truck, but now I know what I am going to do. Be a doctor.”

Be a doctor indeed. Perhaps like Natasha Yurasova, who returned to her native Petropavlovsk in 1983, a newly-qualified anaesthetist, employed in a good hospital, well maintained and equipped. Now she’s at her wit’s end, salary unpaid for the past nine months, working almost as a volunteer, in a decrepit shell, where the tiles are falling off the walls and there are no medicines.

What makes Natasha stay? “Ya ni znayoo. Where else could I go? We’ve no private hospitals. Besides, we have a legal obligation to help our patients, but it’s hard to care sometimes, when our salaries are late and in any case they’ve lost their value.”

The problems are horrendous. Infant mortality is on the rise, the birth rate is dwindling. Burns, poisoning, drownings, accidents and – most worryingly – suicides are on the increase, indicative of serious societal problems, especially among the young. Tuberculosis and sexually transmitted disease rates have tripled and HIV/AIDS, together with drug abuse, is on the rise. Maternal mortality is over 70 per 100,000, whereas it is close to zero in western Europe. Anaemia among pregnant women has more than doubled in the past six years.

It could all have been so different. Kamchatka could have gone west last century at the same time Alaska was sold. And in 1920 one Washington Baker Vanderlip and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin almost shook hands over a 60-year concession for Kamchatka but fell out over the small print.

In fact, Kamchatka is already starting to turn west towards America, and south towards Japan and Korea. On the man streets, Daewoos and Mitsubishis outnumber Ladas by three to one. American and Korean cigarettes are the brands of choice. The Russian “mainland” is a long way away, and Moscow more remote than ever. The region’s administration is marketing adventure tourism as the way forward – extreme skiing, hunting, fishing for caviar-laden salmon, trekking, and it points to the vast reserves of gold, platinum and natural gas under Kamchatka’s permafrost.

But for many, the best hope is the Red Cross food parcel, Red Cross medicines at the local hospital, free clothes and shoes from the Red Cross. Ask them about tomorrow, about hope, about development, about transition and the response is as laconic as it is predictable.
Ya ni znayoo.”

Joe Lowry
Joe Lowry is the Federation’s information delegate based in Moscow.

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