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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Siberians Sell Souls to Black Gold

APCoffins being prepared last week in Novokuznetsk for miners who died in the Ulyanovskaya coal mine explosion.
OSINNIKI, Kemerovo Region -- Coal is so deeply ingrained in this Siberian community that everywhere you go, the snow is stained black with coal dust and soot.

But after an explosion at a nearby pit killed at least 108 people last week, this town is having doubts about the profession that has provided it with a decent but dangerous living for generations.

A slim, 19-year-old mining apprentice, Dmitry Yershov, has spent the week watching footage of body bags being brought out from the Ulyanovskaya mine, the scene of the country's deadliest mine accident since the end of the Soviet Union.

"It was really scary to watch the television reports over the past few days," he said. "In fact, at times it's really scary to go underground."

The Ulyanovskaya disaster hit Osinniki particularly hard; last week the town buried 17 residents who were killed at the mine.

Osinniki, a bleak town with a population of more than 60,000, is defined by its industrial heritage. It is part of a sprawling network of industrial towns with the city of Novokuznetsk at its hub.

Built in the 1930s as part of Stalin's industrialization drive, the area is a landscape of mines, metal works spewing smoke that leaves a salty taste in the mouth and peeling Soviet apartment blocks and wooden barracks. Despite the dangers, men work in the mines because it is in their blood -- some families lost fathers, brothers and sons in the Ulyanovskaya disaster -- and for the money.

"I come from a large family, and I need money," Yershov said when asked why he signed on as a mine apprentice. "I could have chosen another job, but just so many of my friends are working in the pit."

The pay is not generous. As an apprentice, Yershov's monthly salary is 5,000 rubles ($190), a far cry from the national average of about $450. But it is better than other options in the area.

Now, though, he is reassessing whether the money justifies the risk. Even as the region was mourning the Ulyanovskaya dead, workers at the nearby Alardinskaya mine where Yershov works were evacuated because of smoke underground.

A miner's life was always hazardous, but in Soviet times they had social status.

Soviet propaganda did its best to glorify the producers of the "black gold" that drove the Soviet economy.

"Glory to miners," says a huge Soviet-era banner made of reinforced concrete that greets newcomers to Novokuznetsk. "Black gold is the pride of the Kuznetsk area," reads another.

There are monuments too -- more modest and unassuming -- to the victims mining has claimed.

Alongside potholed roads are simple shrines to dead miners and cemeteries where fathers and sons killed on the same shift share a plot.

"I feel the authorities treat miners like scum these days, while society is just indifferent," said Alexei, in his mid-30s who declined to give his last name.

He used to be an electrician but has been working at the local Osinnikovskaya mine for five years because his monthly salary of 18,000 rubles is more than he could earn elsewhere.

Like other miners, he said safety standards throughout the industry were sacrificed for high production.

"Why did Ulyanovskaya explode? They only tell you all the time: 'Give us more coal.' Safety is often a secondary issue," he said, smoking nervously.

But -- again like other miners in the region -- he took a fatalistic approach to the dangers of his profession. "I don't care: I live alone. And there are those with families getting much less," he said, shrugging.