|2004-11-09 - A Siberian settlement of today
Zyryanka - a small Siberian settlement of today
It is the 9th of November today and we´re expecting our delayed winter gear to arrive from Yakutsk today. Weather´s warm, it´s only -22°C (F), overcast, after a night of spectacular polar lights.
´´What´s the normal indoor temperature in your house back in Sweden?´´ one of our good friends here in Zyryanka, Sergei Novikov, asked me the other day.
´´17-18 degrees´´ , I answered.
´´Hot or cold?´´ Sergei questioned.
Only a Siberian living in Zyryanka could ask a question like that!
There´s a good reason for that, though! Let me explain. Since all indoor heating in Zyryanka originates from one of six smelly coal stations which surrounds the settlement. The coal itself is transported to Zyryanka every day in big coal trucks from a place called Coal City (Oglne), located 60 km:s west of the settlement. The heat itself, as hot water, gets transported from the coal stations through big pipes which dominate the settlement scene, since the eternal permafrost forces the pipes to be above the ground. And, the closer you live to a coal station the better heating you get and the hotter the water becomes! For example, Johan and myself live very close to one of the smelly coal stations, and the heating in our apartment is almost unbearable. 24-25°C with both windows fully opened and there´s no way one can use the hot water for a shower. It is smoldering hot! None of the 4000 inhabitants have any cold water in the winter, since it is all frozen. In comparison, Sergei Novikov who lives at the end of a coal pipe, hardly has any hot water at all and the indoor temperature is at least 7-8 degrees lower than ours! At times, there´s no heating at all, even if the outdoor temperature is -60°C (F)!
´´Several times every winter´´ ,explained Sergei, ´´the coal doesn´t get here from Coal City, since either the trucks have broken down or doesn´t start. We do feel cold those days!´´
Unpredictable indoor heating is one of many obstacles that the
inhabitants have to face every winter. And the lack of money is the main culprit. Neither the local businesses or the local government have enough money to buy new equipment or do any proper maintenance on old machinery, housing or people. Everything is extremely run down. Before the arrival of perestroika, Zyryanka was a typical Soviet settlement of the north, where people from the western part of the Empire either moved because they wanted to spread the gospel of Communism or/and because wages were far higher in this part of the Soviet union. Today, wages are far behind those in the west and the cost of living and food much higher! The arrival of perestroika isn´t the only perpetrator, but also the complicated transports and the geographical isolation. Basic necessities, like food and fuel, arrive to Zyryanka during summer via the Kolyma River by boat and during winter, either by lorries who travel on the ice or by the odd transport plane. Costs are therefore enormous.
This also means that one only has the chance to buy certain things three times a year. For example, when we arrived to Zyryanka a month ago, we did it at the same time as the last boat with food. During our first few days shops were full of luxuries like bananas, vegetables, seafood and sweets. Today, a month later, there´s basically only tinned food, Chinese noodles, rice, vodka and acidy vegetables in big glass jars for sale.
The average monthly wage for a teacher today in Zyryanka, is around 7000 rubles, approximately $ 200. A doctor earns double that, $ 400 a month and a handyman around $ 120. A modern, fully equipped apartment, with electricity, telephone, water and heating is at least $ 40 a month. And food is expensive. Johan and myself, we have tried to live as cheaply as we can during our time here, just to see what our costs a month would add up to when it regards food and basic necessities like washing powder, shampoo and so on. As a comparison. And if we take away all these cream pastries we eat every day to put on fat, and the fact that we eat twice as much as other people, we´ve found it impossible to live under 10 000 rubles a month. (approx.$ 310) We´re talking only basic necessities and food. Shampoo, soap, washing powder and food like eggs, porridge, butter, cheese, pasta, the odd sausage, tinned food, tinned salad, coffee and an enormous amount of Chinese noodle soups. And plenty of bread. And, than I should add, that since we´re in one of the most generous regions in the world, we ´re given a lot of food from friends.
Milk, cream, bread, Russian salad, many liters of fresh fish caviar and moose meat. There´s no doubt about: I admire people who can survive on these wages and still live with so much dignity! And I do understand why everybody has there own little vegetable garden (teplitsa) to be able to get necessities like potatoes and vegetables all year around. And, why they either have to know somebody who does or have to fish and hunt themselves to survive. There´s no other choice!
The money problem apart, Zyryanka is badly treated by the natural circumstances. The forces of nature. The eternal permafrost rebuild houses and roads every year, all year around. The yearly spring flooding makes landing at the local airport impossible during the summer, since it is a meter under water! Funnily enough, they don´t only have extreme winters, but summer temperatures average 30-40°C, due to the fact that Zyryanka is isolated from warming sea streams and winds. Mosquitoes and flies makes the autumn hard, and than, the extreme winter, for example, means that I so far haven´t passed one building which hasn´t a broken pie or a stench of mold. But than again, all this gives us a genuine perspective of life. Whatever happens in the way of small problems we face all the time, we just look at each other and say:
´´It could be worse!´´