"As God was distributing gold and gems around the world," Nikolai Lukianov said looking heavenward, "a strong Arctic wind blew while he was flying over Yakutia and tipped his hand, scattering much of what was in it around here."
Lukianov, a member of the regional Communist Party committee, made an expansive gesture of his hands toward the frozen landscape of this remote part of eastern Siberia. "Of course," he laughed, "that's a folk tale."
Since gold was discovered here in 1923, the Aldan region has been yielding large quantities of the precious metal to the Soviet state. New gold deposits have been discovered in Armenia and Uzbekistan, but the butterscotch-colored earth of Yakutia and the vast rivers still account for the largest percentage of Soviet gold production. Letter from Siberia
Moscow's gold sales have been of considerable importance in its overall hard-currency earnings and are likely to become even more important in view of the projected decrease in such revenue from oil exports.
In Yakutia, local people say with considerable pride, there is enough gold for another half century.
"My great-grandchildren," said Pavel Prokofiev, a journalist on the Aldan daily paper, "will be working this field."
But just how much gold is extracted here, how is it transported to Moscow and what are reserve estimates are state secrets that even the deputy premier of the province, Tomniot Sivcev, professes to be ignorant of.
One can get a general idea of Yakutia's production on the basis of western estimates. South Africa and the Soviet Union account jointly for four-fifths of the world's gold production. But while South Africa's output has declined from 1,000 tons in 1970 to 658 in 1981, Soviet gold production in the same period has risen from 263 to 366 tons. Last year, again according to western estimates, the Soviet production exceeded 400 tons.
Yakutia, according to foreign specialists here, accounts for more than 50 percent of Soviet annual output. By all accounts, gold production has been growing in recent years, along with rising hard currency expenditures due to food imports and the crisis in Poland. The fall in oil prices and the resulting drop in hard-currency earnings are expected to increase pressure for greater gold production.
THE TECHNIQUE of extracting gold has changed vastly since the winter of 1923, when an independent prospector named Mikhail Tarbukhin discovered gold on a frozen patch that is now within the town limits of Aldan.
The initial gold stampede into the wild territory, with its dense forests and wide rivers, was made up of every sort of adventurer and hard toiler. But Tarbukhin, while working a rich stake he had discovered, was persuaded to join forces with a goverment prospecting party.
In that brief period before the government took over all gold operations in 1925, Aldan was the Russian Klondike. But Tarbukhin did not become a millionaire. Instead, he was awarded the Order of Lenin.
Moscow's appetite for gold has been great ever since. The precious metal is now mined methodically and intensively, principally by the state gold trust Aldan-Zoloto, which employs about 4,000.
The metal, most of it alluvial, is sucked out of the rivers by huge floating dredges, which normally work from April to December, covering a distance of less than one mile per season. On land, it is often reached by open-pit mining. Gigantic excavators load the earth on heavy-duty trucks that carry it to a nearby processing plant. The operations are supervised by the Soviet KGB secret police.
The method of extracting gold from the river deposits involves sluicing them through a rotating barrel with holes about an inch in diameter. According to officials, the size of the hole corresponds to the largest nugget normally found.
Gold workers make high salaries by Soviet standards, at least five or six times the average Soviet monthly wage, or about $1,250.
THE AUTHORITIES, however, have recognized that the industrial approach results in losses of about 3 percent, and this has provided an opening to individual enterprise.
Once Aldan-Zoloto is done with a field, groups of people can form a "brigade" that is allowed to work the same field to recover the lost gold. Such persons can make monthly wages 10 times the national average. An engineer from Moscow who is working with such a brigade in Aldan earns about 2,000 rubles a month, or about $2,750.
Despite the high salaries, Aldan could hardly be described as a boom town. Unlike a similar place in the U.S. west, it has no neon-lit strip of restaurants and bars, or prostitutes.
It is rather an austere place, with utilitarian buildings scattered among the original log cabins. What makes it even pleasant for migrants is the untouched snow in the silent pine and birch forests and spectacularly clear sky--and the hope that with money saved they will eventually be able to buy an apartment in Moscow or Leningrad and a dacha in a similar forest in European Russia.