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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lonely Souls Brave Empty Villages

TRANSPORTNOYE, Far East -- Nikolai Pribytkov, the last resident of this abandoned village, didn't become a hermit for love of solitude. It's just the only way he can think of to leave the Arctic wastes for good.

Pribytkov lives in a one-room apartment on the ground floor of an otherwise empty four-story building, alone but for three stray dogs he has adopted. He is one of the last survivors of an old Soviet era dream - to colonize Russia's vast Arctic north, whatever the cost.

Like most of the remaining residents of the Chukotka region, he was lured here by high subsidized state salaries. In his case, he came 10 years ago from the Crimea in southern Ukraine, hoping to earn money mining gold. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the money and the work disappeared. Now Pribytkov would like to leave.

But when Transportnoye was abandoned in September and its residents evacuated to the nearby outpost of Pevek, Pribytkov, 33, decided not to go. He did not want to lose his place in line for an apartment back in European Russia. Now, alone in the ghost town, he lights his apartment with a kerosene lamp and heats it with coal in a stove.

Wearing thick felt boots and a heavy coat, he offers a visiting reporter a cup of tea. His staple food is reindeer meat, a chunk of which lies frozen on his kitchen floor. "I am fine here," he said.

Occasionally he hikes to Pevek to earn money shoveling coal at the heating plant there. He also goes to Pevek's market where he sells fur hats that he makes from hunting and skinning stray dogs.

Transportnoye is on the most remote northeast edge of Siberia, about 300 kilometers north of the Arctic circle and 900 kilometers from the Bering Strait that divides Russia from Alaska. It was built to house a vehicle service center, which closed earlier this year. All the village's residents were thrown out of work.

At noon the sky pales slightly. It is December and the sun won't rise today. Wind shrieks across the tundra. Stray dogs howl and shiver in the cold.

Empty apartment blocks loom like totems of a lost civilization, windows long-since shattered, walls coated in sheets of thick white ice. The frozen remains of abandoned trucks litter the ruins.

"He is not the only one," said Nikolai Svityk, deputy mayor of Pevek, one of the few towns in the Chukotka region that still receives fuel shipments. "We have already closed five villages like this one and moved all the families to Pevek. The reason why some people have stayed behind is that they don't want to go to Pevek, they want an apartment somewhere in central Russia." Despite the authorities' best attempts to lure them to Pevek, people like Pribytkov are holding out for grants under a government resettlement program designed to give them money to buy apartments elsewhere.

But it may be an idle hope. Alexander Nazarov, governor of Chukotka, said the region received only 12 million rubles ($600,000) from the federal budget this year for the program - far short of the 46 million rubles it was promised.

Svityk said the local authorities regularly check on hermits in outlying ghost towns but cannot move them out by force. "When it gets colder Pribytkov will have no choice but to come to the city," he said.

In Pevek itself, the Arctic hermits are viewed with suspicion.

Two teenage girls were murdered in the town last summer, and some say hermits from nearby villages may be to blame. The girls' mothers have campaigned to have abandoned apartments in the area searched for evidence of the murder.

There may be more ghost towns in the future, as Russia retreats from its Arctic frontier. Next year local authorities say they want to evacuate 200 families from the village of Baranikha, 260 kilometers from Pevek. The population of the region has shrunk from 180,000 in 1985 to about 90,000 now.

Even Pribytkov acknowledges he cannot hold out forever.

"This is only temporary," he says. "Sooner or later, I will leave."