Isolated Siberian town shrivels after Soviet era

By Arthur Max

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 8 2011 5:10 a.m. MST

** ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, JAN. 9, 2011 AND THEREAFTER ** This photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010 shows an abandoned school with a statue of Karl Marx in Chersky, Russia. The town in northern Siberia, 4,000 miles east of Moscow, is isolated, cut off by ice and snow eight months of the year, and has no restaurants or movie theaters. More than half the population has left since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago. Chersky's malaise is common across what Russians call the Extreme North, the frigid zone above the Arctic Circle. A law coming into effect in 2011 grants northerners a relocation subsidy to allow them to buy property in a warmer climate.

Arthur Max, Associated Press

CHERSKY, Russia — Picture a town inaccessible by road, buried under ice and snow for eight months of the year, unable to support a movie theater and without enough cars to warrant a traffic light or even a stop sign.

Chersky is the definition of isolation — or, in Stalinist terms, exile. This forbidding area of northeastern Siberia, where winter temperatures commonly sink to about -50 Celsius, (about -60 F) was once part of the Gulag, the network of prisons for the Kremlin's enemies.

The town has shed more than half its population of 12,000 in the hard times that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of those remaining say they also would leave if they could.

"We have no jobs to offer our people," says the mayor, Ivan Suzdalov. The harbor on the Kolyma River, once the gateway for supplies to Siberia's gold mines, had 1,200 workers in Soviet times. Now it employs 62, he said.

Chersky's malaise is common across what Russians call the Extreme North, the frigid zone above the Arctic Circle. At least 2.1 million people, or 18 percent of the population, have left since 1990, says the Federal Statistics Service. The figure would be even higher but rising prices for oil and other natural resources have been attracting new labor to high-paying jobs.

About 10.5 million still live in the broad band of icebound land stretching across Russia's northern tier from the Finnish border to the Pacific Ocean.

For most, moving south where housing costs are high is not an option.

A law that came into effect Jan. 1 allocates 7 billion rubles ($228 million) in subsidies for buying property in a warmer climate. More than 200,000 people have applied, according to the Russian parliament.

However, critics say the compensation is inadequate and the selection procedures lack transparency. An average family would receive 1.9 million rubles ($62,000), enough to buy a tiny apartment in a small town, but nothing in Moscow.

Chersky's 5,000 people live on the very frontier of nature. They are 6,600 kilometers (4,000 miles) and eight time zones away from Moscow, and a 4½-hour flight by a turboprop from the closest city, Yakutsk. To the north is the East Siberian Sea, and all around is frozen tundra, bare mountains, lakes, scrubland and larch forests.

It is accessible only by air and sea in summer. For a few months in winter, when frozen rivers become roads, trucks make a weeklong journey from Yakutsk to bring essential supplies. A regional airline flies twice-weekly flights from Yakutsk with 30-seat passenger planes. The cargo sits behind the cockpit and spills over into the first rows of seats.

"We don't live here — we merely survive," says Ksenia Grigorova, 25, who works in a kindergarten. "It's impossible to live here. We need to get away."

Abandoned buildings give the town a shabby look. Some were deserted when the population shrank. But global warming also has had an impact. The former high school, with a bronze statue of Karl Marx on its doorstep, was vacated two years ago after the ground beneath it thawed so much during summer that the school's walls cracked.

Yet some of Chersky's citizens take pride in the hardships of their Arctic life, and celebrate the stark white beauty of winter and the sudden burst of greenery and wildflowers during the brief summers. Many of them bear the Asian features of people native to northeastern Russia, including indigenous tribes.

Living through water and heating shortages, the Extreme North has been "thrown away in the rubbish dump of life," says Yekaterina Zvyagintseva, 44.

And yet, "We are happy with what we have. We are people from the north. We have patience," she says.

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