There's gold in the hills around here, but unlike gold rush towns the world over, mining the precious stuff has brought no glitter to the life of this remote settlement in northern Siberia.
Founded in 1937 by geologists who flew through the forbidding Sarichev and Cherskiy mountains to land their tiny seaplane where the Nera River joins the broad Indigirka 4,200 miles east of Moscow Ust-Nera is isolated within the coldest inhabited region on earth, the "pole of cold" where the record temperature stands at --95.8 Fahrenheit.
The 11,000 people of Ust-Nera's dismal concrete apartment blocks and jumbled wooden housing face a 10-week winter of virtual darkness, spring floods and intense summer heat that soars above 100 degrees. The winter temperature hovers at --60 Fahrenheit for weeks at a time, halting all outside work and cooping up people in their tiny apartments. Freezing fogs envelop the valley, cutting off the Aeroflot planes that bring in fresh milk and fruits, leaving the settlement accessible only by a tortuous unpaved 650-mile truck road to Magadan on the Pacific coast that takes three days to drive in good weather.
As driver Sergei Grishko put it to a group of American journalists who stopped here recently during a 10-day, officially arranged tour of eastern Siberia. "The town depends on the truck." What was observed here revealed some of the starkness, opportunity and romance, mixed with watchful government compulsion and incentive, that is life in Siberia today.
Siberia is a vast northern interior region of the U.S.S.R., not a separate republic, but an area somewhat analogous to the American Midwest, stretching from the Ural mountains in the West to the Pacific. Possessing a historically forbidding name that implies exile and suffering -- Maxim Gorki called it a land of "death and chains" -- Siberia also is the repository of stupendous natural wealth in oil, gas, coal, precious metals and water resources.
At immense cost and in the face of an appalling climate and severely extended supply lines over dirt roads and frozen rivers, the Soviets are pushing large-scale development, gambling that exploitation will infuse new vigor into a lagging national economy. Firmly controlled by the Russians who began colonizing Siberia in the 16th century, the region today is a vast economic jigsaw puzzle the pieces of which may never be properly fitted into place by Moscow's central bureaucrats and the hardy folk who live here.
Now 52, Grishko, the driver, came here 22 years ago to push his trucks along the Magadan road. Now he makes $1,050 a month for three round-trips, hauling coal out and food and supplies back. he saves much of his high pay and plans to retire in three years to the pleasant climate of his native Crimea, where he hopes to fish commercially. His tales of the road tell of adventure and daring with man's greatest Siberian enemy-the cold.
siberyaks rely on reindeer furboots, sheepskin mittens and hats of wolf, bear or mink for protection against the cold. To fight it, they eat more fat and have a higher cholesterol level than the rest of us, according to the regionhs chief physician, yet they live as long. Confronted with the solitude and isolation of the forested wilderness or taiga, that cloaks the mountain ramparts around Ust-Nera, the townspeople take their pleasures in such rough-and-ready pastimes as fishing through the ice for omul and other Siberian Delicacies.
Like Soviet citizens elsewhere, they seem inured to conditions of life substantially lower than in developed countries of the West. Ust-Nera is a place of new but crumbling housing blocks, outdoor privies, no running water, monotonous diet and monotonous official media. Compacted garbage, frozen into solid tawdry blocks, stands everywhere, and dirty smoke climbs into the crystalline, sub-zero air form power plants and government buildings.
But so long as the gold mines hold out, Ust-Nera will be needed, although precisely what percentage of the country's gold is mined locally is impossible to find out. The Soviet government withholds gold production information as a state secret.
While noting it is the principal industry of the 35,000-square-mile Oymyakon region of which Ust-Nera is the administrative center, regional Mayor Igor A. Dmitriev asserted, "We don't reveal the figures on gold mining but we always fulfill our plan."
Gold is a major hard currency earner for the Soviets, who are strapped for the cash to purchase Western technology needed to modernize the gradually slowing economy. Last year, for example, the U.S.S.R. sold $285 million in nonmonetary gold to the United States, the largest single Soviet export item to the United States. In 1975, the Soviets sold a total of about $1 billion to the West.
Gold mining has a grim history under the Soviets. In Stalin's time, gold mining and road building in eastern Siberia and the Soviet Far East-including the vital road to Magadan-was done by political prisoners whose life expectancy in the infamous Kolyma concentration camp complex was seldom more than five years due to privation and deliberate starvation. Stalin's death in 1953 brough an end to the intentionally killing regiment, but there are reports that prison labor is still used in some construction projects in this snarsely populated region.
Dmitriev said no prison labor is used in the Oymyakon's seven mines and never has been.
Other major gold depostis in Siberia are in Aldan, Kolyma, and Chukotka in the extreme northeast, this last thought to be an extension of the northern Alaska goldfields. In all, these eastern regions may account for as much as 90 percent of Soviet gold production.
the mines here are controlled by the state-run Yakutia gold mining trust and are operated under tight security. Each of the 7,000 men working the giant dredge, shovels, bulldozers and concentration mills that produce gold ore from alluvial deposits are investigated by special police known as "inspectors for security" when they apply alone, but in teams of at least three.
The dredge includes a locked vault to receive and store gold nuggets processed from the river bottom. Rather like the interlocks used to safeguard strategic nuclear missiles from being fired, the vault can only be unlocked by three men.
Gold is convoyed under heavy guard to the settlement airfield, where special Aeroflot transport planes used exclusively for this purpose fly it out, also under heavy guard, to the central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk and then on to Novosibirsk, the western Siberian capital, where it is refined. Deputy Mayor Alexander Lyubimov refused to say how frequently these flights are made.
"If you lived here, you would know," he said.
All these precautions run counter to the official Soviet line that a better man is somehow being created by the moral atmospherics of this "new society" run by the followers of Lenin. The local officials lamely tried to square the dogma with the facts.
"Our psychology is that people don't steal," maintained Lyubimov. "But there's a black sheep in every family." Under persistent questioning by some American correspondents, he conceded that "it's difficult to have collusion among three people."
Later, he added, "we aren't ducated in getting enriched from gold, and they know the penalties." He said he could remember one 15-year sentence being handed down against a worker convicted of a gold field offense.
The local officials turned down reporters' requests to visit a gold mine, saying the nearest was more than 62 miles from Ust-Nera, and time would not permit such a trip. Reporters' requests to speak with a working or retired miner were not met.
Miners' wages average about 8,000 rubles ($12,000) a year, which is high by Soviet standards but similar to the heavily bonused salaries elsewhere in Siberia. However, a few miners make an extraordinary 35,000 rubles ($52,500) a year, according to Lyubimov, as the nearest thing to a legal private gold prospector to be found in the Soviet Union.
These men, veterans of the major mines, organize themselves into teams of 20 to 100 to work remote gold deposits too small for economical largescale extraction. The state stakes them to capital to get bulldozers and build housing in the taiga-covered mountains, and they spend the brief summer at work on their own, freqeuntly at the end of pick and shovel. Lyubimov indicated that only a handful of the 800 miners in this kind of work achieve such spectacular results. Most do no better than the 8,000 ruble average, he said.
Although the Oymyakon "pole of cold" region is south of the Arctic Circle, Ust-Nera and the settlement of the lowest recorded temperatures anywhere in this chilly nation, where 43 percent of the land is locked in permafrost.
The cold is due to a peculiar temperature inversion in which supercooled Siberian air is trapped by the 6,000-to-10,000-foot mountains that ring the Indigirka River valley. Heat from the valley rises along the edge of this bowl, the cold air contracts, settles and stays. Temperatures can stay at-60 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time, and then it is dangerous to go out.
Ust-Nera is about two degrees south of the Arctic Circle and thus technically beyound the reach of polar night. But for 10 weeks each year the sun is so low its rays do not clear the surrounding mountains and the settlement lives in icy umbra frequently made worse by frozen mist.
Vladlen Maryenni chief regional doctor, said there are only "five or six cases of severe frostbite" each winter. These occur mostly "when young people stand around talking after a dance," he deadpanned. "I tell them next time to wear a hat." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Outdoor winter bazaar at Yakutsk, left, draws crowd despite cold. At right, a youngster in Ust-Nera peeks out of heavy clothing. Photos by Kevin Klose--The Washington Post