Krasnoyarsk And Beyond: Travels In Siberia’s Far Reaches

sashapo
sashapo

In the desolate north of Russia you realize just how expansive this nation is: not only the largest in the world but so ungainly in its vastness, it can hardly seem to be under one sky—let alone one flag. Of course, under the banner of the Soviet Union it was even larger, but the Russian Far East has remained much the same in terms of geopolitics and all else since the fall of the Soviet Union—probably more so than any other region of Russia. The cities of eastern Siberia are themselves unique: even when large like Krasnoyarsk, they play by their own rules; even when Moscow under the novel democracy of Yeltsin was running headstrong into a wanton fervor, the Siberian cities voiced more caution. It’s cold here—almost otherworldly, how cold it is—and everything is a bit more difficult, more expensive, more prone to grand losses. However, the bright successes of the region—be they technological, artistic, literary, or otherwise—understandably outshine all else, in part for the obstacles they overcame in just existing in the first place.

In my travels in Russia, my first stop was virtual: I created an account on the service that as many if not more Russians use for social networking than Facebook, ВКонтакте or as it is now better known, VK. ВКонтакте’s user interface is, by 2011, such a copy of Facebook’s own I am alarmed that a horde of lawyers employed by Facebook isn’t hounding ВКонтакте day and night, but for whatever reason the “Russian Facebook” seems quite content as a blatant copy and is doing just fine. In some regards, ВКонтакте’s Russian origins are very telling despite the fact it is now courting a wider usership in Europe and offers its services in many languages including English—which instead of Russian is now its international default. ВКонтакте enables torrent-based file sharing, something Facebook probably would never touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole in fear of legal problems and also, ВКонтакте has in addition to a place for listing one’s education, also one’s military service. This is a novel inclusion and one that would be as logical for Facebook however the difference between “jobs” and “military service” is a bit more acute in Russia given that there are still conscripts in the Russian military and in fact it was young, fresh-faced conscripts who did a good deal of the fighting in Chechnya.

In any case ВКонтакте is a joy: in some ways I like it better than Facebook and besides, it enabled me to “meet” a number of young Russians prior to even setting foot in Russia. The Russians in their twentysomethings who have the free time to establish extensive ВКонтакте profiles are, in general, not surprisingly of the wealthier and more educated set. If anything, they often outshine their American counterparts in their apparent wealth and wanderlust: photos abound of beach holidays in Sochi or Turkey or weekends in Paris, nights watching a football match between FC Zenit and one of the rival Moscow clubs in St Petersburg, winter vacations spent snowboarding near Murmansk. Not all Russians live like this, of course, but then again nor do all Americans. What their profiles and conversations with these young Russians portend however is an exacting, powerful, and dynamic desire to live life—and really enjoy it—that is not as keen with most college-aged or post-college Americans I know.

My new friend Anton, from Krasnoyarsk, perhaps put the situation best, in an almost Joycean sentence he typed to me one night as an instant message: “We want to see what we can, ours is a huge country but we’re in Europe too so we can hop a plane or a train and you’re there with your friends and just drink, just go where there’s something to do, snowboard, beach, whatever. We’d be all over America if it wasn’t so far away. You know, we just drink on the train—it doesn’t seem so long then—just drink and play cards, chess, stare out the window as trees go zip zip zip by.”

But that’s the virtual world, getting to the real one is another chore. Anton’s words on drinking en route is sage advice to take: the flights to Russia from the USA are long and most often include a lay-over in a western European city—often in Germany—prior to entry to Russia via Moscow or St Petersburg. Even if you do enter via St Petersburg, to get further afield in Siberia, you very well may be routed through one of Moscow’s three international airports. Altogether, by the time you set foot on proper Siberian tundra, you may have visited three, four, or even more airports. In my case, I entered via Moscow by way of Paris. From Domodedovo Airport, I flew onwards on S-7 Siberian Airlines to Krasnoyarsk’s Yemelyanovo Airport. This was in the heart of winter—December—and Moscow would have been cold enough, never mind Krasnoyarsk. The omnipresence of snow and ice cannot be over-estimated or over-described as when there is snowfall in Krasnoyarsk, it covers everything in a glossy, dense, white powder that would be the envy of ski resorts worldwide. Whatever stereotypes one has of Siberia being a wide land of snow-covered tundra will only be re-enforced by the type of snowfall I encountered as our plane, an Airbus 320, descended to Yemelyanovo. Everything was patently white. I was listening to Kate Bush’s “50 Words for Snow” on my iPod and nothing could have been more appropriate.

Krasnoyarsk is a huge city—anyone expecting the early Siberian timber-frame construction of the imperial Russian progress eastward or bleak Soviet-era Khrushchovka apartment blocks would be rightly surprised by the modern, advanced, city of over 970,000 people found here. As much as Moscow, in its own way Krasnoyarsk has obviously worked to present itself in a new, post-Soviet, light of reality and progress. The bright lights, ample if paltry (and in winter, barren) trees planted street-side, the new glass-covered skyscrapers a far cry away from Stalinist architecture, the kids on the streets in thick parkas and Nike hi-tops . . . all of this speaks of a new direction for this city that long has been not only an epicenter of Siberia but one of its very anchors. The attitudes of the youth of Krasnoyarsk come close to the Blaginism warned of by the Soviets of old: cocky, self-assured, without regard to old ways or authority and embracing of Western fashions yet firmly Russian and proud of it. Business here is booming, fueled largely by the oil and gas industries and the related banking, engineering, and supply fields that go with them. Young people work in offices that could be found in any European or American city; new Macintosh and HP computers sitting on their desks as they hurriedly text friends on their cellphones.

Anton, who showed me around, wanted me to be aware of all this—aware of the change the city has undertaken from the fall of the Soviet Union up to the present day. These changes, he notes, have happened over a span of time about the same as his own age. He grew up in this changing culture. Anton and his peers are focused on making money and having fun—they would fit in with any kids their age on most American university campuses, especially around the business schools’ halls. However, they are distinct, with an emphasis on learning languages—English certainly, but also German, maybe even Chinese or Japanese. Between work or school, it’s all gym, language lessons, and perhaps viewing a soccer match. What nostalgia they have is for a time prior to their own births and is as touching as it is foggy: they certainly don’t desire a return of the Soviet Union but something of the feeling of unity and grandeur of that period offers considerable appeal. The Soviet Union of their parents does not appeal to them but that of the ANT-20 Maxim Gorky airplane—a giant prop-driven aircraft designed for sheer size and to showcase the triumph of Communism—possibly has appeal. Grand days of the glory of Soviet science and technology, these have their appeal even now: It is romanticism, clear and plain.

When Anton picked me up from the airport, it was before dawn and in the heart of the winter—deep, dark, as black as coal. The red, amber, and white lights of Krasnoyarsk shone in the distance and grew larger and larger as we approached from Yemelyanovo Airport, which is northwest of the city itself. It seems a place where everything is possible and where-ever further afield in Siberia you’re headed to next, you know you’re starting off on your journey right by starting it in Krasnoyarsk. In the city itself, there’s plenty to see: their Regional Museum—even most small towns in Russia, especially in Siberia, seem to have regional museums—is very worthwhile and its Egyptian Revival building is an unexpected but oddly fitting home for this collection.

Beyond the museum, what intrigued me most about Krasnoyarsk though was the lively atmosphere of the city itself as expressed by Anton and his friends. There are two constant leitmotifs of young Russians I’ve observed, regardless of whether in Moscow or St. Petersburg or here, in Krasnoyarsk. The first is, in the case of young professionals or aspiring professionals of the next yuppie class of Russians, the desire for a “good life” of making “good money” and the material trappings—from Mercedes to iPhones—that come with those aspirations. These young business-people are earnest in their efforts— in all senses trying to make themselves more marketable. For these folks, at least on the surface, Putin is a good thing: he has allowed for the expansion of international business and the growth of successful Russian companies at home and abroad alike. Under this blanket statement and often after a few shots of vodka, young Russians will admit a more mixed and nuanced view of Putin with many upset by his apparent undermining of opposition voices and his tacit approval of siloviki and underling politicians who repress gay rights and otherwise create an environment that while perhaps good for business, is poor for diversity. The second leitmotif is one of escape, of daring, of the aforementioned holidays of snowboarding and beaches, yet it goes even further and is manifest in the love of Russian youth for “extreme” adventures from bungee jumping to urban exploration.

Why is it more pronounced in Russia now? In part, because when young Russians have money, they really have money: those with benefit of parents who made their fortunes in the past twenty years can travel—be it the summer resorts of Sochi or Turkey or snowboarding in the Nordic nations or near Murmansk—and travel they do. When home, in a city like Krasnoyarsk where there are ample opportunities for business but fewer for pleasure, these kids tend to tire of bars and clubs and look for other outlets of youthful abandon, ones that replicate the surge of energy in snowboarding, skateboarding, or surfing. Urban exploration through Russia’s many abandoned factories, hospitals, apartment blocks, and even military facilities is one such past-time. There is a combination of lustfulness for the future, boredom, and freedom that makes the dynamics of being young today in Russia fertile with excitement. For my own trip, this situation is essential to understand because Anton and I didn’t just visit the regional museum but also poked about in a couple old, abandoned, buildings, which while not a so typical past-time for most folks abroad, was totally in keeping with his and his friends’ interests. And it was an adventure: I’d done some urban explorations before in San Francisco, but to see a huge old warehouse/factory fully abandoned in the middle of the night in so remote a place as Krasnoyarsk was surreal. Yet as remote as Krasnoyarsk is, it didn’t feel remote while there—just very cold—due to the size and metropolitain nature of the city.

My next stop on my travels in Siberia would however seem remote as well as cold, exotic and as exceptionally Soviet as perhaps any contemporary Russian city could appear. This was the city of Mirny, in the heart of the Sahka Republic’s vast tundra. The Sahka Republic is the world’s largest administrative division within a single nation and is nearly as large in geographic terms as all of India, making it beyond comprehension in many regards. Mirny itself exists for one single reason: the discovery of the kimberlite pipe of high-quality diamond deposits there, which gave rise to the second-largest open-pit mine in the world (the largest is a copper mine in Utah) and the founding of the Soviet enterprise for diamond mining and processing which would later become the ALROSA corporation—now second only to de Beers in diamond production worldwide, though those figures would include diamonds mined by other companies yet processed by ALROSA. This corporate giant has, much like Russia’s largest corporation Gazprom, spread out into many other fields than its original interest and now has stakes in everything from finance to aviation, even operating its own airline. ALROSA has not simply invested into areas of industry that appealed to it on a whim, though, but those it found highly necessary: to wit, while Mirny has had an airport since its mid-twentieth century founding, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Aeroflot’s unsteady transition into a commercial entity meant that services to Mirny and elsewhere were no longer assured. ALROSA then stepped in and built its own airline, simple as that.

Most people in Mirny work for ALROSA in some capacity—there is hardly any other reason to be here. However, as the scientific headquarters of ALROSA is in Mirny, this company town has one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in all of Russia if not the world per capita and is far from being how one might imagine a remote mining outpost in the tundra. There are concerts in the square in the short summer months and classical piano recitals in the town central hall or the hotel in the chill of the winter. Music is very popular here, in good part because it gives people something they can do for hours indoors and that’s a crucial aspect of a hobby when you live somewhere that can average below -30°F in December and January. Likewise, you’ll find plenty of people who are very masterful chess players here and ample hands for a poker game, as well. When I asked if there was a piano I could play in my hotel (the Zarnista, and yes, it too is owned by ALROSA) the friendly girl at the reception desk did not find this to be in the least an odd request and without batting an eyelash directed me to a very nice concert grand in a large ballroom. It was while sitting at that piano, gazing around a perfectly useful but rather boring and generic ballroom, that I realized how different Mirny is from most anywhere I’d ever been: the type of winter weather they experience here changes the dynamics of everything. It’s not like New York or Boston where you brave some chilly winds and complain about the snow, but instead you actually stay indoors as much as possible and you live nearly as one might in a submarine or space station, with the indoors become your real environment for an extended season.

Mirny is best known for its giant, gaping, open-bore mine—a feature any visitor arriving via air will quickly note with some degree of both awe and fear for the airport is located just due east of the mine and it appears upon landing that if the plane was to overshoot the runway, right into the mine it would go! The sheer size of this mine simply is beyond anything one can really imagine: no matter what wonders of the world you’ve encountered elsewhere, the presence of a huge, man-made, hole in the middle of permafrost and coated with deep, fresh, snow seems at once something out of a fairy-tale and something out of the darkest of science-fiction. It simply doesn’t seem right.

While Mirny was under the Soviet administration for years and off-limits to foreign visitors—and even though some fairly recent ex-pats have reported being treated with rude suspicion by local law enforcement—if you’re here on any form of business with ALROSA, you’ll be an honored guest. ALROSA is justly proud of its huge hole in the ground and the glittering objects it pulls from that hole, and it’s not hard to strike up a conversation with anyone in the upper levels of the company whom you might encounter. That said, I found the kids and teens in Mirny most interesting of all: well-educated and as worldly as their peers in Moscow (where many lived prior to their parents’ arrival at Mirny) they seem to have grown up in a type of hothouse where talents in sport, music, and science were highly fostered and, perhaps due to the lack of opportunities to get into mischief or even travel in many cases, they’ve honed their skills as sharp as a Siberian ice-cicle about to break off an overhanging roof. Most whom I spoke with were eager to practice their English (which was  without exception quite good) and had ambitions of working for either ALROSA or Gazprom or otherwise moving to Europe or even the USA. Even with those who had dreams of living outside Russia, their pride in ALROSA and Mirny was evident: their city was unique in the entire world, not only a center for the production of diamonds but an beacon of science in the brute world of frozen wilderness.

Mirny is where most of ALROSA’s scientific work is based, be it concerned with better ways to refine diamonds or the actual exploration for future mines further afield in the Siberian tundra. The combination of many labs and facilities devoted to such quests and the fact these are all indoors locked behind layers of security and weather-proofing gives one the feeling of being aboard the Starship Enterprise or some other great vessel of fictional space exploration. It is easy here to forget that one is in the midst of one of the least-hospitable environments for mankind on earth even though the very work in the labs before me was steadfastly devoted to exactly how ALROSA might make explorations in this wild-land safer, cheaper, and surer.

All over Siberia—both western and eastern—stand remote, abandoned, relics of Soviet efforts at industry, science, or military industry. Some, such as the long-range bomber bases constructed at Tiksi North and West or the even more remote one at Ostrov Bolshevik were secrets of the highest order during the Cold War (though beyond any doubt known to the CIA and NSA) and now are still not spoken of openly by the current government despite probably having been more or less abandoned since at least the 1970s. In fact, you cannot even get clear satellite images of Ostrov Bolshevik and its surroundings from Google Earth or any other online source of such data. Whether this is due to an intent of protecting military secrets or simply a lack of interest in mapping a region so remote and uninhabited is hard to tell though it’s fun to believe it’s the former while it’s quite probably actually the latter. If these bases were completed—and there’s ample debate on that, as some analysts contend at least some of these “far-north staging bases” never made it past being dirt airstrips—they at one point probably had considerable infrastructure as would any military airbase. Over time, the snowfall and wind took their toll on these bases and whatever was left behind was slowly covered over by nature. We find examples of this trend also in the areas of mining, oil exploration, and even ALROSA’s poking about for diamonds. The military projects though are the most exciting and can seemingly be found in truly the most remote of places: from Novaya Zemlya to Provideniya, one can find abandoned bits and pieces of radar arrays, atomic-powered light-towers, and other military means. During the Cold War, the West—or at least outside the intelligence community—had little clue of this network or its operations but when the ill-fated Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down over Moneron Island by Soviet forces that mistook it for an American bomber or recon plane, a glimpse was provided of this far-reaching network of defense systems trying to cloister away the largest nation in the world from its enemies.

ALROSA’s quest for diamonds has run far and wide through the expanses of the Sakha Republic: on a wall in the cafeteria in one of their diamond processing buildings in Mirny I spotted a collection of etchings of barren, sparse, landscapes and upon further investigation learned these were the northern hinterlands of Yakutia. Places like Bennett Island where few explorers have ever ventured were captured in deft pen-strokes of solid black ink on paper as white as snow. I asked an ALROSA engineer about contemporary photographs of such islands and he replied that while, yes, there are some and I could see them, it was a place very unwelcoming to cameras and film: the early expeditions to the De Long Islands were probably quite sage in their use of  pen and sketchbooks, he concluded.

“Ust-Nera”, the geological engineer said, “It’s a gold mining settlement—have you been?”. I replied I had not. Could I go?

“You’re better off not!”, he laughed. You’ll have pictures of the great mine here in Mirny to take home to America, after all. There’s noting . . . spectacular . . . to see in Ust-Nera. The word in Russian he used was “импозантный”, or “grand, imposing” but I imagined that Ust-Nera might contain things “spectacular” as in “захватывающий”, meaning more “awe-inspiring”, in any case.

We talked some more of Sakha and the populations of native peoples who existed here prior to the arrival of Russians in the days of the later tsars. They were sturdy folk he told me—the had to be, of course, to even survive. Coming from systems of ancestor-worship and shamanistic beliefs, they accepted the Russian Orthodox church but only on the condition it functioned in tandem with their own “old ways”—dvoyeverie, to use the term given to such approaches of dual-belief systems by Soviet anthropologists.

“Go to Udachny”, he told me, “if you’ve not had enough here. You’ll be impressed with our plantings there—they will be barren now, of course, but you’ll see what effort we’ve gone to for there to be trees and bushes come summer.”

Udachny is ALROSA’s second most-important center of diamond production in the Sakha Republic. I didn’t venture there, but I believed the engineer’s claim that ALROSA had done much to improve upon the harsh surroundings as I’d seen the playground, the ice-skating rink, the the goals for the fair-weather soccer pitches, the jolly Christmas tree all in Mirny. There were sturdy park benches alongside the wide streets, albeit covered with layers of ice in the heart of the winter. Say what you will of Soviet and post-Soviet architecture and planning: it was sincere and oft-pragmatic if at times dated and bleak.

***

After this visitation to Mirny, I returned to fair Krasnoyarsk as I’d made friends there and wanted to see a bit more of the city—plus, it was the easiest way to fly back out. It felt downright cosmopolitain following the cloistered world of Mirny, yet aspects of ALROSA’s moon camp in the tundra remained with me as I walked along the bright though often rather hushed streets of Krasnoyarsk with Anton. The teal blue cafeteria trays; the careful use of stainless steel and other materials impervious to the rigors of cold, wind and wet; the sound of heavy earth-loaders rumbling about the streets like bison loose upon the plains; the fine concert grand in the hotel as if awaiting Horowitz; the way no one there thinks it’s odd at all that their life’s work—or at least reason for being here in the middle of nowhere—was all because of diamonds. The line from that Fiona Apple song came to mind: “I’ve never seen what’s so impressive about a diamond—except for the mining”. But yes, the mining, I now see it’s quite impressive. TC mark

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