“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
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
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
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
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.”