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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yakutia: Life of Squalor Among the Diamonds

YAKUTSK, Russia -- The streets of this remote Siberian city perched on permafrost are not paved with gold, but its long-neglected inhabitants say they should be.

The Republic of Yakutia is the hard-currency engine of Russia's economy, the heart of its lucrative diamond industry, a wellspring of oil, the mother lode of its staggering riches of gold, platinum, copper and other metals.

But the people who unearth Yakutia's natural bounty toil in the same Dickensian squalor that pervades mining and industry across the federation's bleak landscape. They return home each night to the same shabby housing blocks that blight the rest of Russia. They can escape 100-degree summers and winters of 70-below only by engaging in undignified battles for scarce seats on ramshackle planes or the rattling Trans-Siberian railroad that takes six days to reach Moscow.

The only hint of luxury in this primitive republic capital is the Swiss-built President Hotel, where a one-night stay costs twice the monthly salary of the average Yakutian worker.

"I don't see any gold or diamonds in my life,'' harrumphs Valentina Kins, a widow with two grown sons who works for the state-run telephone company that has yet to extend its services to her own home. "It certainly isn't obvious in our day-to-day existence that we are sitting on top of enormous wealth.''

The conspicuous absence of even basic needs, like affordable food and indoor plumbing, has given Yakutians and their leaders cause to accuse the federal government in Moscow of neglecting the goose that lays its golden eggs.

In an era of growing restlessness among Russia's scattered regions, the discontent evident in Yakutia -- twice the size of Alaska and one-sixth of all Russia's territory -- could confront the federal capital with its most costly challenge yet if the dissatisfaction should one day spur the region to market its treasures elsewhere.

"Yakutia has already managed to blackmail the center into granting it more rights than any other region,'' says Albion Brechalov, a senior official of the Ministry for Minority Affairs and Regional Policy, who coordinates relations between the federal government and the 89 autonomous republics and provinces.

But he concedes that Kremlin bullying of renegade regions, like the brutal war against secessionist Chechnya that has killed 20,000, is as much a threat to the future of Russia as the independence-mindedness of some republics.

"Such a vast country as Russia cannot exist in such boundaries as it has today unless we revert to the totalitarian tactics that were employed in the past or work together to enhance our economic interdependence,'' Brechalov says. "We must choose the second option, so that the regions stay in Russia of their own volition.''

A history of common statehood has fostered in Russia an integrated network of governance, transportation, industry and education, which sociologists and social planners believe provides the glue holding the country's far-flung and fractious components together.

But in an age when jet transportation and telecommunications make contact with the better-developed Pacific Rim states more feasible than reforming indifferent bureaucrats in Moscow, officials have come to fear that rich regions such as Yakutia could opt to abandon Russia.

That it would be cheaper and more efficient to trade Yakutia's riches through Tokyo or Seoul - both considerably closer than Moscow - is the underlying threat compelling the central government to cede more autonomy to the republic.

Vasily N. Ivanov, head of the Sakha People's Committee representing the indigenous population of Yakutia, insists autonomy is the only hope for improving life here.

"The dictatorship of ideology is over. We are free people now,'' says the native Sakha, or Yakut, of the Turkic-language ethnic group that has inherited the title to the republic despite being outnumbered by Russians.

Salaries paid from Moscow for resource extraction here are higher than elsewhere in Russia because of a Soviet-era bonus system for hardship regions. But the differential has fallen far behind spiraling prices for food, energy and clothing that must be imported through the federal trade structure directed by Moscow, 4,000 miles away.

Ivanov repeats the lament of many regional leaders in accusing the Kremlin of scaring off needed foreign investment with its endless series of power struggles and crises -- another factor in Yakutia's desire to take more responsibility for its affairs.

Yakutian and federal officials in June agreed on a new constellation of income- and power-sharing agreements that both sides hailed as an acceptable framework for managing the republic in the short term.

But fear of resurgent Russian nationalism and heavy-handedness with the provinces pervades Yakutia as much as it does regions where the disputes with Moscow are more ethnic than economic. With threats of a federal rescinding of autonomy agreements emanating from Moscow, regional officials have begun to worry that a return to federal subjugation could spur revolts.

"We have some worries about the Chechnya syndrome, and we have resolutely condemned Moscow's handling of that crisis,'' Ivanov says. "But people from the north are different. Yakuts are very tolerant. We have never fought a war with anyone.''