Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Life of Suffering on Edge of the Earth

UST-PORT, Northern Siberia ? The helicopter alights on the edge of this remote Arctic settlement and clatters impatiently as a group of Red Cross employees and journalists, who arrived a few hours earlier, attempt to heave themselves aboard. Inside, about a dozen passengers shake their heads vehemently: There is no more room on this flight back to Dudinka, the nearest city.

"Another helicopter will pick you up later!" the pilot shouts before slamming the door. The would-be passengers have no choice but to take his word for it.

For most of the year, the occasional passing helicopter is the only way in or out of Ust-Port, a fishing village located 100 kilometers from Dudinka. The word "remote" barely begins to describe the isolation of such settlements in Taimyr, the only one of the country?s 89 regions located entirely above the Arctic Circle.

When the helicopter lifts off, the 450 residents of Ust-Port, a cluster of wooden houses with no running water or sewage system, are on their own, surrounded by an endless Arctic tundra. On one sunny, mid-October day, the temperature hovered around minus 25 degrees Celsius ? not cold enough to keep children, who ran around with runny noses and giant fur hats, inside.

Located on what feels like the edge of the earth, such northern settlements are among the worst affected by the collapse of Soviet-era subsidies. The Red Cross has responded over the past four years with tens of millions of dollars worth of aid to keep people in the north from going hungry. Now, with no sign that the crisis is letting up, the organization has launched another appeal for the country?s polar regions.

The residents of Ust-Port are a diverse bunch, including indigenous people, descendants of Russian exiles and those lured north decades ago by high wages or romantic idealism. Long-running ties to the region and the lack of a place to go keep many people from packing up and leaving.

Their only connection to the mainland, as they call central Russia, is satellite television, which shows the state-owned channels ORT and RTR, and the telephone ? although often the latter does not work. It?s no wonder they sometimes feel forgotten.

"After perestroika, from 1992 to 1997, very little attention was paid to the village," said Alexei Marchenko, head of the Ust-Port administration.

Although things are looking up ? in large part thanks to recent injections of money into the region?s budget from nearby metals giant Norilsk Nickel ? the people of Ust-Port remain vulnerable. The harsh Arctic climate wears on everything from power lines to houses, and the village does not have the means to improve its aging infrastructure.

"We should be replacing two houses a year," Marchenko said. "The last house we built was completed about eight years ago."

More than half of Taimyr?s 44,000 residents live below the region?s official poverty line. Salaries at the fishing and reindeer-herding companies ? the main employers in rural areas like Ust-Port ? are the region?s lowest.

Dina Tuglakova, who lives with her son in a one-room house that is almost bare save for a broken television, says her pension of 790 rubles ($28) is not enough to make ends meet. Because of the village?s remoteness, prices at the two stores are high. A loaf of white bread, which costs about 5 rubles in Moscow, goes for 15 rubles in Ust-Port. Eggs, which cost 13 rubles for 10 in Moscow, cost 20 rubles in the village. Little remains in Tuglakova?s budget for Arctic essentials like warm boots.

"I?m not happy with my life," Tuglakova sighed.

This year, the Red Cross added Taimyr to a list of impoverished northern regions where it provides winter assistance. Its newly formed local committee is overseeing the distribution of 230 tons of aid ? food, clothing, hygiene supplies and first aid kits.

The international aid organization is also seeking to raise $10 million for next year?s program, which will deliver assistance to 209,000 people in the most vulnerable northern regions ? Taimyr, Nenets region, Magadan, Kamchatka, Chukotka and Sakha. The impoverished Tuva republic is also being targeted even though it is located at a lower altitude than the other regions.

The Red Cross is best known as an organization that responds to emergencies. But this emergency is chronic. In communities like Ust-Port, there are few opportunities that can take the place of the stability offered by a planned economy. As elsewhere in the world, economic depression here has come hand in hand with other social ills, which the village does not have the means to cure. Recently, a woman who had been drinking burned down her house with herself and her four children in it, said Olga Busovikova, chairwoman of Taimyr?s Red Cross committee.

In October, the tragedy seemed poised to repeat itself.

"We don?t work," said an Ust-Port resident who introduced herself as Aunt Nina and lives a few doors down from Tuglakova?s house. Slurring her speech, she pointed to a black eye that she said she got from falling down.

Nina, 39, and her friend Olga, 37, were both visibly drunk. The house, which they said belonged to Olga, was poorly heated, and the two sat in their coats. Matches were strewn on the floor near the door. A teenage boy sat silently in the next room.

Taimyr officials say the only hope for the region?s remote settlements is to develop the traditional local trades of fishing, reindeer herding and hunting.

"It?s time to move on to another level of humanitarian aid ? technical assistance," said Deputy Governor Maria Popova, adding that the region needs factories to process fish, which could then be sold in other parts of Russia.

While such large-scale technical assistance falls more in the realm of the World Bank than the Red Cross, the relief organization has incorporated elements of economic development into its aid. In Ust-Port, for example, 100 people are receiving fisherman?s boots from the Red Cross this year.

Of all the Siberian regions where the Red Cross has delivered aid, Taimyr is one of the most logistically challenging and expensive. Taimyr?s rivers are open for navigation only briefly; some communities are accessible for just two weeks a year. The only year-round means of transport is the helicopter, which costs 22,000 rubles an hour to rent.

In most regions, transport accounts for 5 percent to 10 percent of expenses, Red Cross relief manager Alexander Yakovlev said. In contrast, transport accounts for 22 percent of the combined budget of the Taimyr, Nenets region and Sakha programs, he said.