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Saturday, May 22, 1999 Published at 20:56 GMT 21:56 UK

Saving the 'big rouble hunters'

In Siemchan, "orphans" are children whose parents cannot feed them

By Sue Lloyd-Roberts

Sometimes I wonder how people living in Russia can bear to get up in the morning.

With inflation in some areas running at 200%, years of hard-won savings have been made worthless.

World War Two veterans are begging on street corners, housing estates are plagued by child drug dealers, there are teenage prostitutes and hospitals without medicines.

It has become, for millions, a hell on earth.

I thought I had seen it all before I stumbled on the town of Siemchan.

Eight-thousand miles and eight time zones from Moscow, the town lies on the Kalamar river - a name which, in Russia, has the same resonance as "Auschwitz" in the West.

Russia's 'Auschwitz'

Its banks were once lined with Stalin's gulags where up to 20 million are said to have worked, starved or frozen to death.

The wooden remains of the infamous camps still stand as their ghastly memorial, preserved by temperatures which fall to -40C even at this time of year.

[ image: The Kalamar river is the Auschwitz of Far Eastern Russia]
The Kalamar river is the Auschwitz of Far Eastern Russia
Siemchan grew out of the gulags. Even when a prisoner was released, he or she seldom had the means to get back home to Moscow or St Petersburg.

As 72-year-old Tatyana Vladiminova, who still lives on the river said to me, indignantly - "How could we go home? There were no trains or planes."

She was 17 when she was sentenced to five years' hard labour for insubordination at her workplace. She explained that she sang a song at work one day in a fit of teenage folly.

She was only 22 when she was released but, she said, "we had to walk over a hundred kilometers to get to the camps, barefoot - that was easy, but to walk 10,000km back home? We couldn't do that."

The 'big rouble hunters'

And so the few prisoners who survived stayed, married and had children.

And then, to maintain the gold and salt mines which the inmates had worked on, Moscow offered huge incentives.

[ image: Twenty million died during Stalin's purges]
Twenty million died during Stalin's purges
Moscow held out salaries three times those which could be earned in European Russia - to encourage others to come and settle in the area.

They were called the "big rouble hunters" and they came in their thousands.

Today, they are stranded and hungry, just like those original gulag inmates.

Lost hopes

As the Russian economy collapsed, the infrastructure supporting the mines was abandoned, wages were not paid, savings were exhausted and now those families who dreamed that their spell in one of the most inhospitable places on earth might buy them a Lada or even a "dacha", can't even afford a train ticket home.

Igor is one of them. He was delighted to invite me into his two-bedroomed flat.

Apologising that there was no coffee, tea, milk or sugar to offer, he rushed off to collect his wife from work and three children from school to meet the visitor. You do not get that many in Siemchan.

"We've been totally forgotten," he says when the family is assembled. "We are the modern gulag inmates."

Modern gulag inmates

Igor came as a skilled mechanic 10 years ago from the Ukraine.

He is not even Russian, and now no one wants to take responsibility for him.

He has written to the local and central governments in Russia and even to that of the newly-independent Ukraine and no one is prepared to get him out.

To get a measure of their predicament, I must describe Siemchan. The mines and the once busy port are industrial graveyards.

Only the town's huge coal-fired boilers continue to belch smoke, staining black the mountains of uncleared snow and enhancing the image of a community marooned.

Add to this a suicide rate which has increased fourfold in the last two years, a hospital without drugs, one shop selling rotten cabbages and an orphanage where the entrance requirement is not being without parents but simply having parents who cannot feed you - and you begin to get the picture.

And Siemchan is only part of it.

According to the Red Cross who are bringing emergency food supplies to the area, there are another several hundred such communities in an area which covers thousands of square miles, much of it beyond the Arctic Circle.

Shattered dreams

The husband and wife Red Cross team, Luba and Valery Zonoda, were themselves once "Big Rouble Hunters".

She worked as a government cartographer and Valery was a geologist for the gold mine.

They have one teenage daughter who, they hope, through a scholarship might escape back to Moscow.

He smiles at the dreams he once had - "I'd read all about working in the Far East", he says. "You know, the scent of the tiger, sitting around open fires drinking vodka and of course making enough money to build a dacha back home and now we're desperate, helping the desperate."

With that, he and Luba deliver a food parcel to Igor and his family.

The children tear open the box with delight, fingering the rice, pasta and tinned meat like precious jewels. The couple leaves the flat subdued. Luba is in tears.

In a town like Siemchan it is humbling to find that that there is always someone worse off than yourself.

The problem is that they have been given a list of 700 families, in dire need like Igor's.

They have only got 300 food boxes.

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