Russia's 'Amerika' Finds It Can't Live by Peat Alone

APResidents of Settlement No. 4 unloading groceries last week. Food is delivered once a week to all the 'Amerika' settlements.
NAZIYA, Northwestern Russia -- Amerika is a forsaken corner of the Earth, where towns that once thrived are left to rot and rust in a swamp and hardworking people are abandoned in their old age.

This is Russia's America, a nickname born of historical accident for a patch of land left behind amid historic change. Just 80 kilometers east of the bustling St. Petersburg that U.S. President George W. Bush will visit this week, it is a place of shattered dreams and hungry desperation.

Not so long ago, it boomed with activity, harvesting the peat that fueled the power plants around Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was known in Soviet times. People converged on the town of Naziya and the marshy forest around it, coming from all over the Soviet Union and even from the United States.

In the 1930s, a group of American peat specialists came to work near Naziya as part of a technical exchange program. Little is remembered about their stay, but on maps of the area, the place where the visitors lived is marked "Amerika."

Later, Workers' Settlements Nos. 1-5 were built to serve the peat industry -- five gleaming towns with schools, day care centers and clinics.

"Life was good. There were a lot of people," said 73-year-old Anna Yefimova, who arrived in Workers' Settlement No. 4 in 1944. "We were all young."

But as Soviet-era subsidies dried up and power plants switched to coal, diesel and gas, the peat industry died. The railroad, the settlements' lifeline, was dismantled in the 1990s by scavengers who sold the metal for scrap.

There are no paved roads to the settlements, and only big trucks and jeeps can cut through the mud. As the towns became more desperate, the electricity supply died because the scavengers stole the power lines. Next to succumb was running water, supplied by an electrically operated well.

The local administration had no money to rebuild the utilities, and the towns emptied out. Today the five settlements, once home to up to 10,000 people, have a total of 45 inhabitants, most of them elderly.

Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

Broken and rusting mailboxes standing in the virtually abandoned Settlement No. 2.

Ornate apartment buildings, neat one-family houses, schools and stores stand abandoned. Old mail boxes creak in the wind. Abandoned tractors and railroad cars rust in the mud. Only the occasional human figure on the bleak landscape, or some laundry hung out to dry, suggest there is still some life here.

Meanwhile, to compound the humiliation, Russian journalists have taken to calling the settlements "Amerika," with a heavy-handed irony that makes Naziya officials bristle. The residents themselves seem indifferent to the name. They have other problems on their minds.

"I live badly. Can't you see?" said Vasily Shilo, 79, before bursting into tears. All around his dark and dirty apartment are signs that he once lived decently. There is wallpaper, now blackened by smoke from his wood-burning stove; a faded and drooping rug hanging on the bedroom wall; a refrigerator that stopped humming when the lights went out four years ago.

Only one other woman lives in the long, two-story building with Shilo. Five others live elsewhere in the settlement. For food, they must walk 5 kilometers to the store that opens once a week in neighboring Settlement No. 4.

In emergencies, the only help is in Naziya, 19 kilometers away.

A 10-minute trudge through the mid-spring snow from Shilo's building stands the tidy red house of Uliana Shramko, 87, and her son. Years of standing waist-deep in peat bogs has damaged Shramko's legs and just moving around her home is a major effort. "I don't know what's left for me -- just to die," she said.

Regional politicians have argued long and hard about Amerika's predicament. "Nobody needs our settlements except around election time," said Alexander Vavilov, a Naziya businessman who operates the loss-making store in Settlement No. 4.

Naziya officials hope to resettle all the families in a new apartment building in the center of Naziya. But the building has been under construction for 14 years, and they have no idea when the money for completion will come through.

Meanwhile, the local government has put 21 elderly people, mostly women, in a dormitory in Naziya. Conditions in the run-down building are Spartan but the residents say they're relieved to be out of Amerika. "What is there to do there?" asked Vera Kolotova, 62, who shares a room with her 86-year-old mother. "Everything has fallen apart."