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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death's River Now a Lifeline

ReutersThe once-bustling port of Chersky, in northeastern Siberia, is now filled with unused cranes, a signature of the industry that existed during the Soviet Union.
MARKHAYANOVA, Sakha -- The Kolyma used to be a river of death for prisoners in some of the harshest camps of Stalin's gulag empire. Now the camps are long gone, but so too is the activity of a once-bustling Soviet Arctic outpost.

In the 1930s, barges plied the Kolyma river taking their cargo of scurvy-stricken prisoners to penal camps in Siberia's northernmost settlements or the nearby Magadan region, a trip along what inmates dubbed "the road of bones."

Once dubbed a "cursed black planet" in camp inmates' songs, the river is now a lifeline for a shrinking community.

Under Soviet rule, the authorities used to fly in fruit to make sure residents had a balanced diet. Now, without state subsidies, local industries or ships in the port -- which made life possible in this remote corner -- those who still live here relish what the river offers: fish.

Just the names of the local species are enough to tantalize the taste buds -- sturgeon, Siberian white salmon, broad whitefish, Arctic grayling, cisco and burbot with its butter-soft liver.

"For the neighborhood, this river is its daily bread," said Valery Gizatulin, a 45-year-old fisherman at the Markhayanova fishing concession, which in Soviet days hosted a large fish factory.

"There used to be good infrastructure around this area. Now only fishing and hunting remain for locals."

Eight time zones east of Moscow, residents here call the rest of the country "the mainland" -- it is so difficult to reach that this region might as well be an island.

Gizatulin gulps down a shot of vodka and forks up a generous chunk of steaming-hot fried sturgeon: "The river provides us with a livelihood; it gives us fish, money, everything. Otherwise, we would not have survived here."

In the nearby regional center of Chersky, bread costs three times more than in Moscow. Apples and onions cost $5 or more per kilogram. Local fish is sold at just $2 per kilogram.

"Our staples, fish and [reindeer or moose] meat, are real lifesavers," Gizatulin said.

The fisherman guides visitors into what looks like the eerie realm of the Snow Queen: a maze of ice-covered underground corridors cut in the Arctic permafrost.

The temperature down there is a steady minus 16 degrees Celsius. The tunnels used to be a huge fridge, big enough to accommodate 250 tons of fish for the factory.

Now the fishermen catch just a fraction of this amount but still store it in the natural freezer.

What little glory Chersky -- a tough, blue-collar town -- may once have had is now thoroughly faded.

Dmitry Solovyov / Reuters
A residential building still standing in Chersky, where many had to be razed.
In Soviet days, it was not only a major supply route for northern Siberia, it was also the main lifeline to support the Soviet Union's Arctic expeditions and was Moscow's main military outpost in the area.

Its airport had daily flights to Moscow and the regional capital, Yakutsk, and up to 25 giant barges and tankers were anchored off its busy port daily, waiting to be unloaded. People were compensated for the hardships with wages several times higher than in Moscow.

But Chersky's heyday was over soon after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since then, the population has fallen almost fourfold to about 3,000. Most of the cranes at its port are rusting, and at the airport, when the occasional small plane makes a landing, it bumps along a gravel runway where the tarmac has crumbled.

The town looks like a war zone. Many apartment blocks were demolished or set on fire after the residents left, and the buildings developed huge cracks in their walls, caused by the permafrost thawing beneath the foundations.

Mounds of rubble, mangled metal constructions, wrecked military installations and plundered storage facilities dot the area surrounded by the wild Arctic tundra.

Chersky is the center of the Nizhnekolymsky district in northeastern Sakha. The district is almost three times the size of Belgium but populated by no more than 5,000 people.

In the twilight of a crimson sunset over the placid Kolyma, repair worker Yegor Danilovich was casting his fishing rod from a pier in Chersky's port.

He will either eat his catch or sell it to supplement his monthly salary of 7,000 rubles ($270), half the national average.

"Everything was good back then, in Soviet days, everything was great, there was work, now there are no jobs," sighed the gray-haired 51-year-old. "Now everything is expensive, and wages are low."

"Is it possible to live on this pittance? But I survive, I fish for that. That's what all my life is about."