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The Semi-Regular Newsletter

Travels in Russia

KLM Rocks Across Europe!
Santa Claus in Moscow
Television Is a Time Suck
The Reality of Irrelevance
Salute Mayor Luzhkov
Impeachment Happens
I Am Not The Only One...
I'm Back! Did Ya Miss Me?
Chechnya Burning
Weddings in Winter
The Jews Are Here!
Gailyn Goes to Town
Is There a Central Bank?
Santa Barbara is Real
Nick's Thanksgiving in Russia
Den' Rozhdeniya = Birthdays
Those Crazy Expats
It's Just a Few Drops of Vodka...
Elections Are Always Rigged
The Blind Leading the Blind
Good Russian Grooms
You Say 'Boris Berezovskiy' Fast
Too Cold to Care!
Russian Oil Towns
Sneaky Siberian Tigers
Which Way is St Peterburg?
Where am I again? Oh, yeah...
I Love Me Some Vodka
It's a Gosorg Halloween
Hunger Comes to Us All
Why Don't They Just Learn English?!
Post-Crisis, Life Goes On
Is Yeltsin 'The Man'?
Taganka Hides Her Secrects
These are Communists
It's a Power Vaccum
The Commies are Back
Propaganda is Good for You
You Better Buy Russian!
Sex Ed Soviet Style
Party over, oops outta time!
Russian Healthcare in Moscow
What Russian Financial Crisis?
YE Prices in Russia
The Hungry Duck
Russian Caviar Mafia
Magical Mushrooms
Shhhh! We're Bear Hunting
Soviet Street Scams
Bez Dollarov
A Koshka Konspiracy
On The Dacha
The Banking Implosion
Surviving Army Life
Shashleek is Steak on Steroids
Dacha Thinking
Beach Weekend
Dos Vedanya
Hello from Vladivostok
Equality Means Only She Works
Jogging is an Extreme Sport
Russians Have Reunions Too
My Folks in Massive Moscow
Better than Fireworks
Miners Are Real Men
The Russian Mafia is the Roof
No One Smiles in the CIS
One Year Anniversary
Russian Brides Rock
Laura is My St Pete Connection
Change is in the Wind
Chuck Norris' Beverly Hills Casino
The Expat Woman's Predicament
Street Food is Yummy!
Spring Flowers Make June Leavers
The Provinces Are Provincial
Ever Take an Elektrichka?
The English Invasion
Nuttin Like New Money
Rules Are Made to Break
All Black is Russian Fashion
Easter Memories = Easter Dinner
Politics, Russian Style
Theresa Tries to Russify
I Go to Gay Clubs Worldwide
I Hide on Women's Day
New & Shiny: Nizhny Novgorod
Psst! Wanna job in Moscow?
Fili Park Has All the Bootlegs
Web Page Reactions
Take a Break at Dom Odaha
Expat Living in Moscow is Swank
Why Are You Remonting?
They Look Like Telephones...
In Need of a Decent Hairstylist
Smashing Bottles in Red Square


Russia, October 10, 1998

Murmansk - Brrrr!

You better bring a fur coat, and not to be stylish!

The Independent (UK) 10 October 1998

Heroes Take Their Leave of the Arctic

By Rupert Cornwell in Murmansk

"Murmansk - Hero City" proclaims the faded concrete hoarding, fully six feet square, as you enter Russia's great northern port. Like many mementoes from Soviet times, it is a mixture of the absurd and the oddly stirring. Times were truly hard, Hitler was at the gate and ice-free Murmansk was Russia's lifeline. Now times are truly bad again. Only there are no heroes; only incompetents and villains, the omnipresent crisis - and icebreakers that break no ice.

Outwardly, life in Murmansk belies the economic debacle that has overtaken the country. Built in bleak Soviet style along a rocky fjord 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle, this city never yields an easy living. But, at a price, goods of all kinds are available. Panic and queues are not in evidence.

You are tempted to conform to conventional wisdom: Russia once more will sacrifice and suffer, but, you predict, will somehow muddle through, as always. Maybe so. But out in the villages, in the orphanages and the hospitals, among the sick and the old and the disadvantaged, the foreboding is as palpable as the first wet snow of late September. And desperate times beget desperate measures.

No help is to be expected from the country's capital in name, Moscow. Like everywhere else in Russia, Murmansk must sidestep the centre and barter to secure what it needs - in its own case swapping fish and minerals for fruit, vegetables and consumer goods from other regions.

But Murmansk has gone a historic step further. For the first time a Russian regional leader, in the person of its governor, Yuri Yevdokimov, has appealed not to his own federal government, but to Norway and Finland for help. The step is unarguably wise and, from one perspective, merely another step towards a more open and "normal" Russia.

Nevertheless, for a region at the very heart of the strategic defence of a proud, secretive and autarchic country, it signifies surrender. Faced with economic collapse, the eternal ties that bind Russia are starting to come asunder.

For proof, consider the icebreakers. If nuclear-missile submarines are the emblem of Severomorsk, the closed city 10 miles up the fjord that is home to the Northern Fleet, Murmansk's pride is its giant nuclear and diesel icebreakers. There is nothing like them anywhere - monstrous machines of up to 75,000 horsepower, which can carve a 30-yard-wide channel through 10ft-deep pack ice. As tall as good-sized office blocks, equipped with saunas and swimming pools, they can stay at sea for five months at a time.

With them Russia can allow itself to dream of turning the 3,500 miles of the "Northern Eastern passage" linking Western Europe and Asia across the top of the world into a new artery of global commerce.

Without them, the communities strung out along Siberia's bleak northern shores - settlements as remote as any on earth, with strange, un-Russian names such as Dikson, Buolkalach and Ur'ung Chaya - would perish. Without them the estuaries of Siberia's great rivers, the Ob, the Yenisei and the Lena, would be permanently frozen. The vital mining city of Norilsk, 200 miles inside the Circle and producer of 15 per cent of the world's nickel, would be cut off, and Russian research and defence stations on the islands of the polar ocean would have to close down.

Early autumn should see the icebreakers at their busiest, escorting cargo ships before the ice becomes too thick. But now there is no money, and precious little trade, just the crisis.

Business on the northern route is down 80 per cent, and half the ships in the icebreaker fleet lie idle. The Murmansk Shipping Company has received from Moscow less than a third of the funds it needs to maintain them.

Some of the difference is recouped with three-week cruises to the North Pole for foreigners prepared to pay $18,000 to $30,000 a head for the ultimate chic in summer holidays. Even so, crew salaries have gone unpaid for two months. The settlements risk going without fuel and other essential supplies during the bitter cold and darkness of the Arctic winter. Some may have to be evacuated, perhaps for ever. The "crisis" has succeeded where even Hitler failed, destroying even hope.

My last appointment was with Father Nikodim, assistant to the Bishop Simon of Murmansk, as he was about to celebrate a marriage - if celebrate is the correct word for a ceremony with virtually no guests, in a church swathed in scaffolding, where fresco painters go uncaring about their business.

Never, he says, have prospects been as miserable: the winter of 1991 after Communism collapsed was as bad in logistical terms, but at least there was the promise of better things. "This is a catastrophe. For the church, suicide is the greatest sin, but people are just killing themselves in despair."

Within half an hour the union is blessed and the couple leave - stepping off into a future as dark as the lowering sky, carrying the first squally snow showers of a winter which for the far Russian north could be the hardest in half a century.

March 31 1999, from Reuters, via Johnson's Russia List

Siberia's beauty dazzles even in winter

By Sebastian Alison

NIZHNEVARTOVSK, Siberia, So you like brilliant sunshine, spectacular blue skies, breathtaking scenery, a hotel that rivals the best anywhere, and top quality cuisine? Perhaps you should consider a trip to Siberia.

Siberia. The very name smacks of misery, punishment, hardship, and despair. But its vast landscapes are also a wilderness of astonishing natural beauty, and a place apart. Siberia is different.

The city of Nizhnevartovsk, four hours flying time and two time zones east of Moscow is typical of many Siberian cities. Founded in 1972, it exists to exploit a single natural resource -- oil. With a population of some 150,000, it is a one-industry town, like many in the vast Siberian taiga stretching from the Urals mountains to the Sea of Japan. The city itself is hardly an inspiring place. Like many built in Soviet times, it consists of a series of large, featureless apartment blocks built with utility, not beauty, in mind, and has little to distinguish it from a thousand others in Russia.

Indeed, so alike are many of these cities that their monotony is behind the plot of a famous Soviet film, 'An irony of fate,' based on the adventures of a man who is put on a plane by his friends when drunk, and wakes up far from home. He takes a taxi to his address, which of course exists in the 'wrong' city, travels through districts identical to those in his hometown, arrives at a block just like the one he lives in, and does not realise he is in the wrong place. Russian cities are like that.


But Nizhnevartovsk is easy to escape. Wilderness starts on the doorstep in Siberia. Flying by helicopter at 300 feet (90 metres) above the taiga, the untouched tundra spreads for ever. Sparse, sturdy pine trees stand out against the snow. Lakes abound, and are identifiable in winter only by an absence of trees on the snow.

Late March is still very much winter in Siberia -- it often snows as late as June -- and the temperature is an invigorating minus 25 degrees Celsius (-13 Fahrenheit). Not that that is considered cold. Oilmen from the Tyumen Oil Company, the region's biggest, working at a field an hour's flight from Nizhnevartovsk said the temperature had plunged below -50 Celsius (-58 F) earlier this winter. Down to -43 Celsius (-45.40F), work carries on as normal. Below that operations switch to standby mode, with only limited maintenance carried out.

By contrast in the brief Siberian summer, the temperature soars to 40 Celsius (104F), the ground becomes a boggy, swampy hell, humidity is such that even breathing the damp air is an effort, and mosquitoes unseen outside horror films abound. Oilmen prefer winter.

Even in the Siberian winter, glorious days are known. Bright winter sun shining through a clear blue sky at well below -20 Celsius (-4F) creates a light of unearthly beauty special to the north (Nizhnevartovsk is north of Helsinki), and shows Siberia at its best.

Nizhnevartovsk stands on the river Ob, one of the great rivers of Siberia which rises in the Altai mountains near the border with China and flows north across Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. The vast river is frozen to a depth of several feet in March, and covered with a thick layer of snow. Loose powder snow billowing across its surface in a strong, freezing wind creates a vivid impression of movement, so the Ob appears to be flowing even as one walks across it. The river is home to the muksun, a fish greatly prized as a smoked delicacy.


But Siberia is not just full of natural marvels. It is also the home of myriad ancient peoples, some of whose cultures have survived, against the odds, through the Soviet era and still exist today.

On a flight last year from another nearby oil town, Surgut, the helicopter passed over a 'village' -- no more than three or four tents -- of the local Khanty people, one of the ethnic groups still living in the Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous region. A few thousand of these people still live as they always have, as nomadic tent-dwellers all year despite the astonishing cold, surviving by hunting reindeer with dogs, and fishing. An impressive sight on the cusp of the new millennium.

One of the region's oil companies, Surgutneftegaz, has opened a museum of the Khanty people at its office in the town of Lyantor. The display shows the Khanty have a rich tradition of carving in bone and wood, and in working leather. But time is catching up with them. In an age of snowmobiles and apartment blocks, the harsh life is less and less attractive and many Khanty are giving up and moving to cities.

Nizhnevartovsk, amazingly enough, is endowed with a hotel, the Samotlor, run by the Tyumen Oil Company, which serves magnificent food and would be considered excellent in Western Europe or the United States.

In a small town in Siberia its presence is difficult to believe. Travellers around Russia can always find many things to admire, but hotels in provincial towns are rarely among them. But in Nizhnevartovsk the comfort of the hotel, the majesty of the landscape, and the fortuitous mix of harsh winter cold and brilliant sun can combine to create a far kinder impression of Siberia than the misery of popular imagination.

Monday, 12 October, Johnson's Russia List

The Hope of the Artic

By Fred Weir in Moscow

MOSCOW (HT) -- Millions of people in dying Soviet-era Arctic communities face a grim winter of hunger and power blackouts because underfunded supply networks have broken down, a Russian parliamentary commission says. 'We are banging our heads trying to make people realize that the situation is extremely dangerous. Many cities with big populations are on the brink of mass tragedy,' says Vladimir Budkayev, a parliamentary deputy from the Arctic region of Magadan and a member of the Russian Duma's northern affairs commission.

Nearly 12-million people live in Russia's far north, a legacy of Soviet economic planners' dream of developing the vast Arctic spaces. Unlike other northern countries like Canada, where workers are usually flown in from southern cities to operate remote mines and oil wells in shifts, the USSR built large population centres on the tundra and permafrost near sources of raw materials.

Russia has almost a dozen Arctic cities of over 100,000 people, and scores of smaller industrial towns. Many can only be supplied by ship or river barge during the short summer season, or by tractor train along frozen waterways in winter. 'It was a huge mistake to concentrate all those people in big apartment blocks, exposed to the Arctic climate,' says Mr. Budkayev. 'The Soviet system provided for them, but it's gone now.' Many Soviet-era Arctic industries are not viable in a market economy, and even those that are cannot support large local populations.

`What can we do with all the pensioners, families, unskilled workers who live there?' says Mr. Budkayev. 'Everyone must be kept warm and fed, but there are no means anymore to do that.'

The state subsidies that used to ensure adequate supplies of food and fuel to northern communities have been dwindling since the demise of the USSR. But with this year's financial crash a near bankrupt Russian government has paid out barely half the amount budgeted for northern relief. Meanwhile, prices for many basic goods have doubled or tripled in the past few months. The Red Cross has launched an emergency $15-million appeal this winter to help vulnerable groups of Russians -- including poor, elderly, disabled people and refugees -- whom it warns are facing an 'urban disaster' brought on by the economic crisis.

'We can't exclude the possibility of mass starvation if the situation continues to deteriorate,' says Borje Sjokvist, head of the Moscow delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Mr. Sjokvist says Russia's financial woes have caused a drastic fall in food imports which, combined with the country's worst grain harvest in 40 years, points to widespread shortages of basic products in coming months. 'We fear it may be the hardest winter in a generation,' he says. 'Old people are making comparisons to the tough winters of the 1940's, during the Second World War.'

Some Russian analysts dispute the threat of general hunger in Russia's main population zones this winter, but agree that the situation in the north is dire. 'Foreigners sometimes exaggerate our troubles, because they don't understand how things work in Russia,' says Vladimir Petukhov, an expert with the Institute of Social and National Problems in Moscow. 'Food will be very expensive, but there will be enough for most of the country. But in the north it's already too late in the season to conduct a full supply effort. Nothing has been done this year, and we have the makings of a human catastrophe in some places.'

The Duma commission estimates that over a million people must be evacuated immediately from remote communities that are in imminent danger of social breakdown. 'The whole system of northern habitation is collapsing,' says Mr. Budkayev. 'The majority of areas are just not ready for winter, and few places have more than two months supply of food and fuel. Some are beyond hope.

'But there are no plans to withdraw people, no means to do it, and no places to take them. We are in real trouble.'

Johnson's Russia List, October 16, 1998

Russia Arctic City Offers Hard Life

By Sarah Mae Brown

NORILSK, Russia (AP) -- Freezing winds send snow squalls and factory smoke drifting across the endless tundra of this bleak mining outpost. But the largest nickel mine in the world does offer something rare in Russia these days: a reliable paycheck.

Norilsk Nickel, a sprawling collection of nickel mines and hulking smelters, is the sole reason 230,000 Russians have come here, making the city the world's largest north of the Arctic Circle. It is also why they are willing to put up with endless winters, limited contact with the outside world and the absence of many human comforts.

'Just look around you. All of Russian industry has ground to a halt and we are still here, and we are paying our wages on time,' boasted Alexander Bururhin, head engineer at Norilsk Nickel. 'As difficult as life is here, our workers know that they have it much better than their relatives on the mainland.'

In geographical terms, Norilsk is actually part of the Russian land mass. But in psychological terms it's as isolated as any island. The city, established in 1933 by dictator Josef Stalin as a prison camp, is more than 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. A plane flight from Moscow is a five-hour journey to the northeast, and there are no roads to or from Norilsk.

'My children have never seen a live cow or a field of potatoes,' said factory worker Sasha Bodanin, a 20-year veteran of Norilsk. 'They have no idea what it feels like to strip off your clothes and go for a swim on a summer day, to feel the hot sun on your back.' The ground is covered with snow for all but the brief summer months. Even then, there is no farming because the soil is packed with nickel and other heavy metals. The mines and smelters, which operate 24 hours a day, ring the high-rise apartments that form the center of the city. There are food and clothing stores, a few restaurants and bars, and a movie theater, but the diversions are few.

The Norilsk operation has 86,000 workers. When the workday finishes, miners are covered in grime, their throats and eyes often burning. They board rickety buses in the freezing darkness and head home to run-down Soviet-era apartments, only to rise in the morning darkness the next day to do it all over again. 'I understand now that I will never leave here, although I dream of it,' Galina Yeremeeva, 25, said as she prepared to board an elevator that would take her down nearly a mile into a mine.

Attracted by the high wages, Yeremeeva's parents came here in 1980, when she was just 7 years old. Like most, they hoped to make good money, save some of it and eventually leave. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic turmoil meant that they haven't been saving anything. In fact, they're just barely getting by. 'Prices are so high here. Everything must be shipped in from the mainland,' said Yeremeeva, wearing her miner's helmet. 'I spend most of my earnings just feeding my family.'

Health problems are rampant. The environmental group Greenpeace says toxic smoke from the factor's furnaces and acid rain, have effectively killed the forest for up to 60 miles to the southeast of town. Yet the plant continues to churn out about 200,000 tons of nickel a year, roughly 20 percent of the world supply. The company, controlled by business tycoon Vladimir Potanin, reported losses of $257 million in the first half of this year and has been hard hit by falling nickel prices, which recently fell to an 11-year low.

The operation is also burdened by the huge cost of supporting the town -- about $200 million a year for the schools, hospitals and housing. 'This is the Soviet legacy we inherited. It is not profitable for us, but it's clear that if we didn't support the town, then Norilsk would cease to exist,' said Bururhin, the head engineer.

For the workers, moving to a new city, finding another job and a place to live seem like monumental obstacles. It's a daunting prospect to venture elsewhere in Russia, where millions of workers get paid months late, if at all. 'We are caught in a cycle of subsistence,' said miner Irina Baldovsko. 'We would all leave if we had any other options, but we are trapped by circumstances.'

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