The stoic Siberian insistence that "100 years is not a long time" apparently does not apply to this booming coal town gouged out of the vast, frozen forest. Here, the celebration of 10 years of survival is unabashed, with signs advertising the occasion planted in the middle of snow-covered streets.
Like most Russian birthdays, Neryungri's -- the name means "river with the small yellow fish" in Yakutz, the local language -- is a testament to perseverance. By any standards, the construction of a city of 60,000 under such inclement conditions as subzero temperatures for eight months of the year is an accomplishment. Locals consider it something more -- a showcase of Soviet development in the face one of the world's harshest climates.
For central planners in Moscow, the survival, and growth, of Neryungri is even more significant. One of a number of new industrial complexes built to tap the resources in the far eastern regions of the country, it is a test of the cost effectiveness of the new Soviet leadership's bid for continued economic growth.
Two five-year plans ago, under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, Neryungri was a gleam in the eyes of central planners in the Soviet capital, 4,500 miles away.
Since then, six tents and a sweep of pine and spruce trees have given way to hundreds of low-rise wooden apartment houses, and, lately, to 10-story buildings, two dozen schools, a 350-bed hospital and 175 stores.
The expense has been enormous. Due to the permafrost -- permanently frozen subsoil -- and the high rates of shipping materials here, construction costs average 3.5 times the cost of building in Moscow, said Yevgeni Varshavsky, the town's chief of construction.
Drawing workers from the Ukraine, Byelorussia and other points west means offering salaries up to three times those elsewhere. Even feeding the local population, with food shipments by rail and greenhouse produce, is costly. Nikolai Nikulin, a collective farm manager, said producing cucumbers costs three times the rate in Soviet Georgia.
Open-pit coal production, at 19 rubles ($25 at the official exchange rate) a ton, runs several times what it costs in less harsh climates. Cost overruns seem to have driven the overall price of city construction to more than four times the original estimate of under 2 billion rubles ($2.6 billion).
The economic growth of Neryungri and the entire southern part of the Yakut Republic, where it lies, is aided by the recently built Baikal-Amur Mainline, a multibillion-dollar rail project designed to link Siberia to Pacific Coast ports. It carries coal from Neryungri that eventually makes its way to Japan and other points.
Despite Moscow's investments, here and in similar settlements in Siberia, the success of its drive to settle the distant, sparsely settled fingertips of the Soviet Union is modest so far. The Yakut Republic just celebrated the birth of its millionth citizen. Since 1961 its population has nearly doubled.
But in 1983, the flood of people out of Siberia roughly equalled the movement into the region from other areas, according to Tatyana Zaslavskaya, a nationally known economist based in the Siberian city Novosibirsk. And Neryungri's growth is apparently flat; the population turnover rate is 11 percent, said Mayor Pyotr Fyodorov.
But the Kremlin's will and need to develop the area persist. Siberia was targeted in 1983 to produce 60 percent of the Soviet Union's oil, 51 percent of its natural gas, a third of its coal and more than 40 percent of its hydroelectric power. The region, which holds more than three-quarters of the Soviet Union's mineral wealth, offers the best chance for large-scale growth of the Soviet economy.
In the decade since Neryungri was founded, Soviet economic growth has slowed to 3.2 percent, and the Soviet leadership has stepped up efforts to exploit the untapped resources in the east. Holding 80 percent of the Soviet Union's mineral wealth, Siberia offers the best chance for expanding the national economy.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in a trip last September to the Siberian city of Tyumen, the center of Soviet oil production, called for an increased production of oil and natural gas. Since then, the economic planners have targeted production increases in iron ore and other Siberian minerals.
Fulfilling such goals, Zaslavskaya said in an article published in January in the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya, will require an additional 1 million workers in the area.
Moscow's strategic requirements for populating the eastern regions of the country are as crucial as the economic needs, according to some western experts. The recent Sino-Soviet thaw has not eased strategic concerns in the area, they said.
Gorbachev's disarmament proposals have emphasized scrapping the two-thirds of Soviet SS20 nuclear missiles based in Europe rather than the third deployed in Asia, mainly Siberia. The sparse Soviet population in the area and 400,000 Soviet troops in Siberia are not considered adequate defense against heavily populated Chinese border areas.
Various methods are used to attract and keep labor here.
Salaries, swollen by the so-called northern coefficient, are the highest in the country, and not just for manual workers. Varshavsky reported a salary, including bonuses, of 1,200 rubles ($1,560) a month, and one economist makes 375 rubles ($488) a month, triple her take-home pay in Leningrad.
Other bonuses include extra vacation leave, free domestic train travel and a chance to move up on the long waiting lists and buy a Soviet car after only three years.
A check of food and dry goods stores found them better stocked than in Yakutz, the capital of the sparsely populated region 600 miles away, and as well supplied as in Moscow. The only item that sometimes falls short is meat, according to residents. And oranges cost twice what they would in Moscow, they said.
In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables and some fresh meat, local stores carried mango juice from India, frozen chickens from Peru and canned vegetables from Bulgaria and Hungary, all rare items even in big Soviet cities.
Domestic and foreign vacation travel also seems to be more available to residents here than Soviet citizens elsewhere. A billboard in a coal truck pit advertised excursions to such far-off places as Cuba, India and Finland, vacation destinations most Soviets only dream about. One driver said he was saving 2,000 rubles ($2,600) for a three-week vacation to France this summer.
Shortages of adequate housing and schools continue. Although builders are shooting up 10-story complexes in a matter of months, local officials said that the wait for an apartment can take 3 1/2 years. In the meantime, single persons live in cramped dormitories. Although rent is cheap at $7.50 to $28 a month, many of the units are small.
Still, the state offers enough incentives to attract a stable core population.
Attractions to the place vary.
Many young men come for the salary advantage offered at the coal mine, according to Yuri Vargin, a mining union worker.
Why do the women come? "For the men," he said.
Getting rich quick is apparently possible. Yuri Mechin, a foreman in a coal mine, told of a family of three that managed to save 24,000 rubles ($31,200) in three years.
Others, like Mechin and his wife, Nina, came in answer to the call of the wild. Like a third of the town, they are both Siberian born and die-hard fans of winter and the adventure of unsettled land. As a Young Communist leader in the 1950s and 1960s, Nina Mechin said, she was weaned on the spirit of constructing a new Russia.
"That spirit exists here," she said in an interview, "it doesn't in the big cities."
According to some residents, a surprising number of people come here to escape -- a failed marriage, family problems, the urban grind. Many bear the tatoos common to Soviet soldiers. One 26-year-old coal mine worker said he came "just to get away" right after a tour in the Afghanistan war.
"I will stay for the rest of my life," he said.
With an 11 percent annual turnover, the population of Neryungri loses about 5,000 people a year.
Some cannot bear the bitter winters, which last from October to May, when temperatures of 40 degrees below zero can stretch on for weeks.
Others complain about about the lack of social life. Despite an active state-run House of Culture, the one restaurant and occasional discotheque party are inadequate entertainment for the city's residents, whose average age is 26.
There is no theater for plays or films. Even Pravda and Izvestia, the big nationally circulated official newspapers, arrive a day late.
"This place is a cultural vacuum," said one 34-year-old economist from Leningrad. "I'm leaving in a few months."
Others will follow. When reporters asked a class of 11 adolescents how many expected to stay in Siberia, only five raised their hands.