#42 | July 2 - 15, 1998  smlogo.gif

Feature Story

In This Issue
Feature Story
Press Review
Kino Korner
Moscow Babylon


Life in Hell

By Matt Taibbi

After 33 long years working in the Severny coal mine in his native Vorkuta, Grigory Mikhailovsky decided one day in 1996 he'd had enough. He'd spent the last ten years of his career working in a part of the mine so cramped that he had to do most of his work on his knees, leaving him unable to walk without a cane, but the mine administration had lately seemed less than appreciative of his efforts. Not only had he not been paid his salary for months, he was beginning to suspect that he was being lied to about the reason for the delay. So he took matters into his own hands.

The Severny administration had told its employees that the reason no one was being paid was that its chief customers, among them the Novolipetsk and Cherepovetsky metallurgical factories, were delinquent in paying for recent coal shipments. The managers said they had no money at all. Mikhailovsky didn't believe them. Among other things, the administration offices had been furnished with new computers in recent months, and a new slate billiard table had mysteriously appeared in management's swank rec/sauna room. You could pay a lot of miners with the cost of one fancy pool table.

So when Severny sent its next shipment to Cherepovets, Mikhailovsky hopped on the train with the coal, armed with a video camera. At the factory, he filmed the coal being unloaded, then filmed the Cherepovets accountants making out a platyezhka proving payment for the load. Smoking gun secured, he hurried back to Severny, showed the tape to the other workers, then took it to the director's office and publicly demanded an accounting of the mine's bank transactions.

Mikhailovsky never got paid, nor did he get his accounting. Instead, he was fired by the mine two days later.

A year afer that, in August, 1997, an independent medical commission from Moscow sent for by VorkutaUgol, the conglomerate which owned Severny, reviewed Mikhailovsky's invalid status, which had allowed him to collect 30% of his salary every month in "regres", or injury compensation. After being examined, Mikhailovsky joined 600 other VorkutaUgol miners who had their invalid status revoked by the visiting commission. He was left with nothing. The panel of hired guns from the Moscow Institute of Work-Related Injuries concluded that his mangled knees had been caused not by work stress, but by old age.

Mikhailovsky had it pretty good, relatively. Overnight, the conclusions of the medical commission had rendered Vorkuta the most dangerous city in the world to grow old. Among those 600 whose injuries had been judged to have been caused by simple aging were ex-miners missing legs and arms. And even the amputees who didn't lose their benefits were told they would henceforth have to be reviewed by the commission once a year-as though their missing body parts might grow back in the meantime.

By late June, 1998, a month after the so-called "railway war", Mikhailovsky's lone occupation was now volunteer work at "Vzaimopomosh", the Vorkuta Invalid Society. The society was not funded by the state, and did not collect dues from invalids. It subsisted entirely on sporadic contributions from working miners. Left in charge of the office when the Society's director, Vladimir Potyishniy, went to Moscow to join in the White House protest, Mikhailovsky was surprised one morning to receive a bill for the phone and a notice from city hall. The note said that the city had revoked the Society's rent-free status, and that the state would no longer be picking up the phone bill. In fact, the bill for the society's May telephone calls charged the Society at private consumer rates-or twice the rates for commercial organizations.

"I understand that they want the building, but still," he said, throwing his hands up in the air. "These people go beyond just being greedy. They're mean just for the hell of it."

On Tuesday, June 24, I changed into a blue canvas spetsovka (a set of miner's work clothes) in the management dressing room at that same Severny mine where Mikhailovsky had worked. The notorious billiard table was still there, and had been joined by a wide-screen TV and a jumbo chess table with mahogany pieces the size of wine bottles.

While I was struggling to put on my partinki-the rags miners wrap around their feet instead of socks-a maid named Irina came into the room with a big smile on her face.

"Here's your helmet," she said. "See how it's white? White is what the bosses wear. The regular miners wear orange. When you wear this down there," she said, giggling, "everyone will fear you!"

Great, I thought. Thanks a lot.

Like a lot of journalists who'd visited lately, I'd come up to Vorkuta to do "the miner story." In light of the recent railway protests, what "doing the miner story" mostly meant was attempting on the one hand to ascertain how close the unpaid miners are to more drastic protests or even revolt, while on the other hand trying to uncover what the causes of the crisis were. In particular, that meant finding out where, if not to worker salaries, the proceeds if the sales of coal were going.

The more general reason for coming to a shithole like Vorkuta-a place so grim that on the day I arrived, the longest day of the year, it was snowing-was the sense that "the story" in Russia was no longer in Moscow. If during the previous years of the Yeltsin regime a journalist could give a good account of himself by staying in Moscow and documenting the distance between the government's "Democratic" image and the uglier reality, or by dissecting the efficacy of the Western aid effort, or deconstructing "reform", the country by now had flown so out of control that these mostly intellectual assignments were no longer relevant. With the government faced with an irresolvable non-payment crisis and the threat of a crippling currency devaluation, with even the IMF unable to feign enthusiasm about Russia's future, Moscow was, journalisticaly speaking, already nowhereland.

Instead, covering the next and probably last phase of the Yeltsin regime would be mainly a matter of recording the physical process of this society's deterioration. The places that were hurting the worst would probably be the first places where the seams would come apart. And by all accounts, coal-mining cities like Vorkuta were really in crisis.

By the time I'd reached the Severny locker rooms, I'd already come to the conclusion that some kind of breaking point was being approached by the local non-payment problem and the accompanying deterioration of morale at the mines. Exacerbating everything was the surge in industrial accidents, which had caused the atmosphere around the mines to resemble a guerilla war zone.

Earlier that morning, on the way to Severny, I'd had to listen as Independent Miner Union deputy head Yevgeny Shumeiko calculated the number of fatal industrial accidents that had taken place in Vorkuta-area mines that year.

At the Severnaya mine with Union deputy head Yevgeny Shumeiko
"Ras, dva, tri..." he counted, going through one hand full of fingers, then the other. Then he repeated the process, then repeated it again, and finally turned around to say that in mines like the one I was about to go down in and in five others, there had already been 35 deaths since January of this year. There had been two that week, including a gruesome death that very morning at Aich-Yaga, the smaller mine whose entrance was just a few meters from Severny's. That miner had been caught in a combine and ground to bits.

"People are losing fingers and hands on almost every shift," said Shumeiko, who'd just retired to union work after 13 years as a Severny miner. "The guys are terrified."

Without knowing a thing about where the proceeds from coal sales are going, it's clear that the miners aren't getting much of it to go down into the thresher every day. As far as cash goes, miners at Severny, for instance, have at most been periodically receiving what they call "advances"-actually small installments of their back wages-at random increments throughout the year. Severny miner Nikolai Polyakov, for instance, says he's been paid a total of 700 rubles in the past three months as an "advance" against his delayed October salary. Others report different figures. But both Shumeiko's union and the press office of VorkutaUgol confirm that advance or no advance, no one at Severny has received so much as a kopek for November yet, meaning that the constant reports of miners not having been paid for over six months is fact, not journalistic cliche.

With cash more or less out of the picture, the daily routine at Severny is virtually indistinguishable from prison labor. There was a place near the mine entrance I'd already seen on the way which drove the gulag flavor home with especial force-the "tormozhki" window. The "tormozhok" is a food ration the mine administration hands out every day and which the miners eat on their breaks (hence the term, derived from the word "tormozit" or "to stop"). The tormozhok is a little bundle wrapped in brown paper containing a small chunk of kolbasa, a half an onion, a piece of cucumber and a hard-boiled egg.

The meat and eggs stink; they're usually spoiled. Severny gets its food for free (well, for coal, anyway) in a barter deal with the Cherepovets factory; it's low-quality stuff. The mine administration gives out this rancid food on credit, and the miners, lacking the cash to buy anything else, take as much of it as they can. The only problem is, each tormozhok ends up costing them six rubles
Welsh miners at the turn of the century bringing a canary underground. Vorkuta's mines can'r even support rats.
a pop-the cafeteria keeps a record of how many each miner takes each month, and the administration then strikes the amount from their salaries, thereby making the miners involuntary consumers of their own coal.

When I got to Severny that morning, miners were lining up at the cafeteria window and stuffing five to ten tormozhki apiece into their bags before heading to the locker room. That's how these guys feed their families, with tormozhki taken on credit.

"We're just barely staying alive," Polykov told me. "My son came to me the other day and asked for money to buy a banana he'd seen for sale on the street. I had to tell him no and hand him another tormozhok. He's been eating two a day for about a year."

The survival scenario for the average Severny miner therefore ends up sounding like a sob story clipped from old Soviet anti-capitalist propaganda. The average miner makes about 2300 rubles a month, but he usually won't see more than a half of that sum, even if the mine makes the unlikely decision to pay him. At Severny , 220 rubles come out of each miner's salary automatically to pay for his monthly bus pass: miners pay for their own transportation even though the mines own most of the buses. If a miner has a small family, and only takes 5 tormozhki home after each of his 22 shifts in a month, then he's out another 660 rubles right there. Now he's down 880 rubles out of his 2300. His 12% income tax also comes out of his 2300 rubles automatically, leaving him now with 1144. If he takes more tormozhki, he gets even deeper in the hole. Some guys I talked to said they felt lucky if they didn't actually owe the mine money at the end of the month.

In exchange for the privilege of living like this, these guys got to work in a coal mine. And what a coal mine!

Russian coal miners don't use canaries to detect trouble. Canaries can't live in Vorkuta. Rats can. Rats are the miners' best friends.

In old Welsh coal mines, miners brought canaries in cages down into the mines with them. As long as the canaries stayed alive, the air in the mine was considered free of gases and safe. If they died, the miners headed for the surface as quickly as possible.

The main threat gas poses to miners isn't asphyxiation. It's explosion. Miners at Severny's neighboring mine, Tsentralnaya, could have used a canary earlier this year when a drill combine hit a methane deposit, blowing a whole section of the mine to hell and killing 23.

Shumeiko had spent the better part of the first forty minutes down in the mine explaining the methane threat to me. When, after a short mini-railroad ride and a long walk through a series of howling dark tunnels, we finally reached our target destination- a spot called the 12th uchastok about 840 meters underground- he sat me down on a plank and explained the methods miners used for detecting methane. The 12th uchastok was a relatively large tunnel, about the width of a Volga automobile, and the gas and water pipes that ran long its edges were hissing loudly as we spoke.

Shumeiko explained that methane makes a noise that miners can sometimes hear, like running water; an experienced miner could put his ear to the tunnel wall and hear it coming. And if instead of glittering, coal "cries", or grows wet, that's another sign of methane. There are also electronic methane detectors; we'd passed one about forty meters before which pronounced the area clear. But the key indicator, he said, are the rats.

"Rats are everywhere down here," he said. "They follow the people around .They sense danger better than we do. That's why we say: if you don't see a rat, you're in trouble."

I looked around. "Zhenya," I said. "There are no rats down here."

"Yeah, well," he said. "That happens, too. Actually, we've had a bit a of a problem with the rats lately."

"What's that?"

"Well," he said, laughing, "the rats basically live off of our scraps. There's no other food down here, obviously. That's why they hang out where the miners are. But lately, you know, the miners can't spare that much food for the rats. Most of these guys are living off of two tormozhki a day, and they're not about to give any of that to a rat. We used to feed them out of our hands.

"So," he concluded, "we have fewer rats now."

By the time Zhenya finished his rat story, I was more than a little nervous. I'd been trying not to be a wimp about spending the day in the mine, but these guys were making it hard for me. Everywhere I went I was running into the kind of apathy and inattention you don't like to see on any manual-labor job, much less one in a place as dangerous as this one. The beams supporting the tunnel walls were rotting and haphazardly placed, and the ceiling was hideously cracked, with rusted chains and gravestone-sized slabs of rock jutting out from under the support slats. Zhenya had warned me that falling boulders was one of the biggest sources of injury, and it was clear that ill repair was the main culprit on that score.

Another thing were the bolts. The iron beams holding the walls together were bolted to horizontal runners, and as Zhenya and I had walked down to where we were, I couldn't help noticing these piston-sized bolts littering the floor. Zhenya explained to me that this was another feature of gas buildup: when the pressure mounted too high against the tunnel walls, the older and rustier of the bolts shot off the walls like bullets. He said he'd known a couple of miners who'd gotten concussions when these things bounced off their helmets. But the absolutely scariest thing about the mine was the apathy. Go to any construction job involving big machines anywhere and you normally hear guys shouting nonstop-move to the left, you're all right there, etc. Here in the mine you heard nothing. These guys didn't give a fuck. An example: at one junction, Zhenya and I reached an intersection with a railroad-track-lined tunnel that headed down at a steep incline. We wanted to go down, but when we got there, we heard two bells ring. In miner terminology, he explained, that meant a conveyor wagon was on the way up the tunnel.

"We'd better wait," he said. "We don't want to get caught in that tunnel with a car coming."

But three, four, then five minutes passed. Zhenya turned to an indifferent-looking miner who was standing on a little platform full of levers, a kind of wagon station-master.

"Hey," Shumeiko shouted. "Is a conveyor coming up, or what?"

"Fuck if I know," the other said, shrugging.

Shumeiko paused. "Let's go, Matt," he said, and headed down.

I followed behind. "But what about the conveyor?" I asked.

"Matt," he laughed, "you and I are now officially breaking the safety rules. The thing is, if we followed all the rules to the letter, we'd never get even a kilo of coal out of this place."

So we went down. I saw a lot of scary shit on the way. We stopped at one point to look at the "combine", the giant digging machine used to carve out some of the tunnels. This is a huge crawling snake of a machine some 220 meters long, bordered on both sides with thick circular saw-blades the size of tractor wheels. Once turned on, the blades cut into the coal and send it shooting back onto a metal belt, which conveys it back into the main tunnel and onto a network of lighter-weight conveyor belts that lead it down and out to the main pit some 10 kilometers away. The tunnel where the combine lay was only about four feet tall, and when we reached it, Zhenya insisted that we go down it to take a look at the combine blades. Before we did so, he shouted around the corner at some miners standing next to the controls. "Hey, don't turn the combine on for about ten minutes, okay?" We heard a lazy response in the affirmative and then headed down.

The walls of the tunnel were pure coal, cut sheer and glowing like a precious metal. We crawled down about fifty meters to where the combine lay, then peered around the blades to look at its length. A similar combine had been in the blast area during the methane explosion at Tsentralnoye and had been tossed a full 100 meters forward by the impact. From where I sat, it was hard to imagine anything propelling something that heavy that far in an enclosed space. As we crouched over to stare at the thing, a smallish miner noiselessly approached us and scrambled past to fix something far up the combine: he had to crawl about 90 meters up in the tiny space between the blades and the rock face. It was a claustrophobe's nightmare. As he did so, Zhenya explained that that morning's fatal accident at Aich-Yaga had happened just like that-a worker had gone up to fix the combine, and someone had forgotten he was there and turned the machine on. By the time they found him, his body was totally unrecognizable.

Factory workers Lesha Akulov, left, and Sasha Kurakin, right. Akulov: "Tell Yeltsin he's a pederast."
We got out of there, then returned about a half-hour later to watch the machine in action. The combine had been turned on and was now crawling back in the direction of the main tunnel, shooting huge chunks of coal out the hole as it did so. Some of the rocks that shot out were as big as medicine balls, and bounced violently off the conveyor belt machinery, shattering and flying in all directions like shrapnel. And as all this was going on, miners were standing around the hole, refitting the support beams of the main tunnel.

The combine, when it moved back toward the tunnel, exerted force against the main tunnel walls, so much so that as I stood at the hole entrance with my hand against the wall, I could feel bits of coal sloughing off behind the beams. When the blades finally emerged from the hole, the walls were literally disintegrating before our eyes. Zhenya, just a few weeks out of this job, shook his head nervously.

"Let's get the fuck out of here," he said. "I don't need this anymore." The trip out was a long, cold walk along mostly empty tunnels. Occasionally we'd pass a piece of machinery that would be half-submerged in water or covered in "anti-explosive" powder, a lime-like white substance that supposedly reduces the volatility of gas-filled air. After almost an hour on foot, we finally reached an abandoned corridor with an entrance to a tunnel leading sharply up. Of all things, there was a ski-lift in there. Poles spaced out about ten meters and ending in metal chairs the size of tenspeed bicycle seats hung from a giant pulley. I hopped on and hung on as we were hauled up toward the kleika elevator. It was so much like a decrepit old fun-house amusement park ride that I had to laugh. Welcome to VorkutaUgolWorld. Take a seat on Mr. Toad's Unpaid Ride. Step up to the sign and measure; you must be at least this screwed from birth to ride.

II. Where's The Money?

"Tell Yeltsin," said Lesha Akulov, "that he's a pederast."

Akulov, 19, is a worker at the coal-processing factory at the Zapolariya mine who lives in what has to be one of the shittiest towns in the whole world-a little village called Mulda. Once populated mainly by railroad workers, Mulda has emptied out in recent years and now has a year-round population of about 400. One of a rapidly-growing number of semi-ghost towns in the Vorkuta area, Mulda is filled with abandoned houses with shattered windows, doors hanging on hinges, etc. Most of the people in the town live in one-story huts, glorified gulag barracks, with no running water and only coal-oven heat. In winter, which in Vorkuta is a serious thing, with temperatures dropping below -40, people like Lesha have to get their water from a well, carrying it in buckets back to their homes.

Just before I met Lesha I'd been in the house of one of his neighbors, a heavyset Ukrainian woman named Irina Spetsina who worked at the village school. By way of apologizing for the smell in her hut, Irina gave me one of the great all-time quotes. She'd opened the door to her bathroom, which in essence was an indoor outhouse adjacent to the kitchen-a crude hole without even a toilet seat. A pile of used toilet paper literally two feet high stood in a basin next to the stinkhole.

"I know, it stinks," she said. "In the summer it's worst. There is no permafrost in a toilet."

Outside Irina's house, a bunch of guys were gathered around a garage. The scale of devastation in Mulda was such that it might convincingly have been used as a set for a post-nuclear sci-fi flick. In this case, it was a Mad Max movie. Akulov and his friends, all dirt-covered and in raggedly clothes, were tinkering with a home-made amphibious all-terrain vehicle made from found parts. It was the only thing to do around there. There were a few others besides Akulov there who worked in coal factories, and they hadn't been paid since the previous fall. Akulov, who that very day had gotten an "advance" of 300 rubles, was the rich one. To celebrate, he took me on a helmetless ride on his "Izh" motorcycle. I'd been pestering him with questions about where he thought the money was that wasn't being paid to people like him, and he shut me up by finding a straight road and accelerating to 120 kmph.

As we approached a sand-covered turn, I screamed for him to slow down. He didn't. Finally we slowed down to a less fatal speed and talked as we toured the dead town, passing, among other things, a boarded-up "Disco-Club" that would almost certainly have been a finalist in a competition for the world's lowest "fakhie factor."

"The company has the money, of course," he said. "Everybody knows that. They're all crooks."

His friend Sasha Kurakin agreed. "It's all the management. They're a bunch of liars."

I had a pretty good idea of that already. Before coming to Mulda, I'd met with Vyacheslav Davidov, the press secretary for VorkutaUgol, and he was indeed a lying little scumbag if there ever was one. I'd travelled to Vorkuta with two other journalists, and this Davidov, a rat-faced company man with red cheeks and a bristly moustache, had met us at the plane. From the airport we repaired to the headquarters of VorkutaUgol, a stark slate-black building in the center of town which had the feel, given the company's omnipresence in the lives of everyone in the city, of a sort of post-Soviet Dracula's castle. Significantly, the offices of the city's three major unions are also behind the drawbridge and high up in the building- a situation which in any normal country would be an embarrassment to organized labor, but in Vorkuta, apparently, is just business as usual.

In any case, when we'd finished interviewing him, we told Davidov we wanted to leave the castle and go visit some of the dying miner villages. Flipping out, he immediately grabbed his coat and headed after us.

"Don't trouble yourself," one of the reporters said. "We'll go by ourselves."

Davidov balked and crowded into the elevator with us. We tried again to separate ourselves from him and he refused, playing the concerned host, telling us that the roads were bad, that we'd get lost, etc. Out on the street, he quickly waddled over to a parked car and started negotiating our taxi fare. In the meantime, my colleagues and I discussed how best to get rid of him.

"Okay, I've got a car for us," he said, smiling. "The only thing is, it's going to cost twenty-five dollars. Is that okay?"

"Listen, Vyacheslav," I said. "We've changed our minds. We're too tired to go out tonight. You know, the flight and all. So we're just going back to the hotel."

He bit his lip. "Okay," he said. "But when you want to go, just let me know."

We said fine and took off, letting him go back to this office. Ten minutes later we got our own cab out to Mulda for ten bucks.

Davidov, in his interview with us, had insisted that the administration of VorkutaUgol had gone as long without receiving their salaries as the coal miners. "The only people who get their salaries on time are the maids," he said. Then, smiling and folding his hands together as though in prayer, he added, "I swear."

Some time later he added, with a straight face, "All the money we get, we put toward paying people."

Given the fact that salaries are backlogged between 8-10 months in the VorkutaUgol mines, Davidov's statement would have to mean that the company hasn't received any money at all for the coal it has been producing and shipping out throughout that time. Davidov claims that the consumers of VorkutaUgol's coal, in particular the Novolipetsk and Cherepovetsky factories, are delinquent in their payments, and that the State Tax Inspectorate takes a huge chunk of the little money that is paid-leaving, one has to assume, just exactly enough money to pay for the maids.

Davidov gave us a makeshift balance sheet indicating VorkutaUgol's profits and losses for 1997. It showed a gross of 4.6 billion new rubles, expenses of 4.51 new rubles, and an after-tax loss of 521 million rubles. According to the sheet, the overhead of the company, which included salaries, was a full 4.2 billion rubles.

The sheet, obviously, was meaningless, because there was no indication on the side of either expenses or income of which money actually came in or which money was actually paid out. To even hand us a sheet like this in the middle of a non-payment crisis was absurd; Davidov might as well have handed us a Swedish frequent flyer brochure. As for the real flow of money, Davidov didn't have any consistent answers-and within a few days of my arrival, it was clear that neither the company nor the unions had ever bothered to look for any. That VorkutaUgol has a lot more money than it professes is something virtually everybody in the city outside of Davidov's offices agrees upon. Only occasionally, though, does anyone ever go on the record saying so. In one well-publicized case earlier this year, the local newspaper Zapolariye published a story based on testimonials from miners which alleged that the accountants at several local mines were offering to pay miners their back wages if they would kick back 10% of the sum to the accountants themselves. After the story came out, the administration of VorkutaUgol called the editors of the paper, whose majority shareholder is the city, in and "proved to us how such a thing could not possibly have happened," as the Zapolariye editor put it.

The paper printed an apology to the company, but the reporters there still insist it's true. Deputy editor Roman Kursurov said that printing those kinds of stories had simply caused too much trouble for the paper for it to be worth it to them. "Clearly, though, you've got to look for the missing money in the conglomerate, and in the middlemen who sell the coal," he said.

The miner Polyakov, when asked about the Zapolariye story, agreed that it was common knowledge that the administration was always in possession of more money than it claimed. "Those kinds of kickbacks do happen, sure," he said. "But they've got more than just the salary money back there. They're building banks, buying stores-before long, they [i.e. VorutaUgol] and the middlemen are going to own the whole town."

As an example, several miners, who asked not to be named, said that the local Polus-Bank, founded two years ago, is privately owned by the directors of four local mines; the bank itself denies this. A firm called StroiNort, a middleman company, has opened four department stores in downtown Vorkuta in the last year- the time period when, according to Davidov, its customers have been delinquent in their payments. At Severny, miners claim a Western-style supermarket in the village was secretly funded by one of the mine's union representatives.

Whether or not any of these stories are apocryphal, it's clear that neither the miners nor anyone else in the city believes the line that the VorkutaUgol's customers haven't been paying the bills.

The federal government in all of this appears to be playing the role of the distant mafia overlord, taking its cut in the form of taxes while providing VorkutaUgol's racket with blanket protection and occasional favors like the medical commission review. Just how much in taxes the government gets is not exactly clear. Vasily Pirozhkov, the head of the Mine Engineers' Union, claimed that the State Tax Inspectorate takes 38% of the gross receipts-a percentage it should normally take out of profits, as payroll tax. What's more, he said, VorkutaUgol compensated for the draconian taxes by taking the payroll tax out of miner salaries-thereby forcing almost a 50% tax on miners, when you figure in income tax. However, he changed his story when Davidov came into the room. Whatever the real tax story is, the Yeltsin regime is clearly not making many friends in Vorkuta. One of the main reasons some 178 Vorkuta miners are currently in Moscow demonstrating at the White House and demanding Yeltsin's resignation is the so-called "777 fiasco", widely cited as the government's greatest act of treason against the miners. In 1996, prior to the presidential elections, Yeltsin visited Vorkuta and courted the miner vote by signing Executive Order 777, which would have reduced railroad tariffs on coal transport and lowered sales taxes. Executive order 777 never took effect and was formally revoked by Yeltsin in May of this year. As a result, Vorkuta coal remains prohibitively expensive. To transport coal to Ukraine, for instance, VorkutaUgol must pay what amounts to a 100% tariff.

There are other stories circulating among the miners, among them that the mine directors are selling coal shipments at five and ten percent of cost for cash to various customers under the table, and keeping records of the sales secret from the government and the miners. Evidence for this includes the recent institution of "subbotniki", weekend shifts, which the miners say have never been satisfactorily explained by management.

"No one knows where the coal we're mining on Sundays is going," said Polyakov. "And we'll never find out."

Can't the unions demand an answer?

"Our unions," said Polykov, "are a joke."

III. The Unions

I spent a lot of time in Vorkuta with Shumeiko, the new deputy head of the Independent Miners' Union. Zhenya clearly lacked experience as a union hack. When we first met he was wearing a black suit, with a black shirt and a silver tie-a horrible outfit by any standards, and one he clearly felt uncomfortable in. He later told me it was the first suit he'd ever bought.

Not only was his dress all wrong, but as a political leader he was a total flop. Occasionally he would forget to stick to standard labor doublespeak and blurt out ugly and impolitic revelations about himself and his union. "I'm not really a union worker. I'm more like a racketeer," he said once, blushing. "All I do is go around trying to worm money out of mine directors. That's all we do around here-look for money."

Only 32, he clearly had mixed feelings about the job he'd just left the mines to take. His driver Igor had told me, in fact, that it was only by chance that Zhenya had even ended up a union delegate.

"They change deputies like gloves around here," Igor said, laughing. "Zhenya was only elected after about hundred other guys who got nominated refused the job. Most of these guys would rather stay underground than do his job."

"Why?" I asked. "If I were a miner, I'd do anything to get out of that goddamn mine."

"Why?" Igor said. "Because it's a lousy job. All you do is beg for money and listen to old ladies complain."

It was true. One morning I was with Zhenya when we stopped off at the Komsomolskaya mine, where a miner's wife was apparently threatening to throw herself in the pit if the management didn't pay her husband's back wages. The woman's daughter, it turned out, had been accepted at St. Petersburg University, and the family hadn't been able to find the money to send her away. She needed to be there by July 3, or she would lose her place in the school. Now she was telling management that if they didn't pay, they were going to find her body at the bottom of a 700-meter pit by the end of the day on June 24.

Management had to take these suicide threats seriously. Last year, a miner at that same Komsomolskaya mine killed himself by throwing himself into the pits. And only a month ago, a miner at Severny hung himself when management refused to pay him his back wages. That workers are killing themselves over back wages is a testament both to how desperate their situation is and how little faith they have in the unions to agitate on their behalf. It was an ugly situation for the union. As in the case of the rail protests, this miner's wife was sidestepping Zhenya's union and creating her own form of protest. If the union didn't get involved, their irrelevance would be more evident than ever. Zhenya went to Komsomolskaya that morning to meet with the mine director and essentially beg for money. I waited in the car while he held his meeting. Ten minutes later he came out smiling. The way he told it, the director had agreed to allocate a small portion of the money owed in exchange for a guarantee that no one would kill himself on the premises.

When we went to Severny together, practically every second miner came up to Zhenya to ask him what the word was about salaries. Few of them smiled, patted Zhenya on the back, or even said hello before asking. Zhenya was clearly barely a human being in their eyes and the miners clearly had little faith in anything he said. That day he had good news-Vorkuta Ugol had just received some money from the Cherepovetsky factory, and some money had apparently been earmarked for salaries-but there wasn't much leaping for joy when he spread the word. And no wonder: by the end of the day, no one had been paid yet. And they wouldn't be, for the next three days I was there.

When we went down in the mine together, Zhenya and I took a detour into one tunnel and pointed out where a miner had recently camped out and held a hunger strike to demand his back wages. As in the Komsomolskaya story, Zhenya had intervened to ask the director to pay the miner enough money to call off the protest.

"I told him [the miner], you know, you can't do this," he said. "Because if the director gives you the money, then everyone's going to go on a hunger strike."

"But, Zhenya," I said. "That's the point, isn't it? If they pay up, that proves they've got the money."

"Yes, but we can't bankrupt the company," he said. "We have to be responsible."

All of the unions in Vorkuta have taken the position that strikes are fruitless. They have all apparently bought the company line that a strike will only drive VorkutaUgol's customers to find new coal suppliers. During the rail strikes, for instance, when Inta miners cut Vorkuta off from its customers, Novolipetsk was able to buy Finnish coal at competitive prices. Zhenya and Pirozhkov of the Engineer's union both repeated the Finnish coal story like a mantra when I raised the question of strikes. And in general, the anti-strike propaganda has penetrated the ranks so effectively that virtually every miner you talk to will tell you that work stoppages "only take money out of our own pockets."

That they also take money out of the pockets of villains like Davidov and his cronies doesn't seem to matter to most workers. Strikes are not even discussed, and not only because they're held to be against worker interests; they're also not considered possible.

"We'll never have real strikes, because the union people are bought off," said Mikhailovsky, the retired invalid. "We used to have one union here. Now we have three. There's no unity. As long as the unions are splintered and bought off, the miners will never organize."

"The unions are a bunch of zeroes," said Kursurov. "They don't do anything. In 1989, the unions were strong. They sent Gorbachev packing. But these guys are clearly bought off and won't do a thing to challenge the company."

All of which is why no one wants Zhenya's job. In essence, the union delegate doesn't really agitate on behalf of the workers. He negotiates on behalf of the mine directors. Throughout my stay, I watched Zhenya run around, trying to calm down angry workers before they did things like throw themselves into the pits or threaten to hang themselves or even just stay home from work. In one discussion down in the mine, he castigated miners for supporting a planned rail blockage by workers at Inta.

"You're all fools," he said. "If they sit on the rails at Inta, we're the ones who aren't going to get food. It's your families who are going to starve."

"So what?" said one miner.

"So what? You people have to be responsible," he said. "You've got to stand up for Vorkuta. Those guys in Inta are going to kill us. They don't care about us."

In private, though, "responsible" Zhenya knew he'd been set up as a patsy. After a day in the mines and few bottles of cheap champagne, he grew dewey-eyed and confessed to me that he was thinking of quitting and going back to the mine.

"That was so much easier," he said. "I felt so much better about myself." A little later, when he was drunker still, he leaned over to me and whispered; "You know, in the end, the real enemy is VorkutaUgol. I know that. They've got the money. There's theft going on, I know. Everybody knows that." He shook his head. "But we're just not ready to take them on. They're too strong."

IV. The Breaking Point

Local legend has it that in 1983, an army of Vorkuta teenagers descended upon the city of Lyubertsy, travelling in small groups by train over a period of days. Lyubertsy teenagers had been spreading the word that they were the toughest in the country, and the guys from Vorkuta were pissed. They decided to make a point, planning their attack like a commando raid. The biggest and toughest of the group went out and picked up Lyubertsky girls on the street, and over ice cream and coffee casually claimed an interest in weightlifting and asked where they could work out. The girls complied and coughed up the addresses for "basements" all over town. That intelligence led to a massacre. In those days, weightlifting was just coming into vogue in the Soviet Union, and the toughest street kids usually hung out in basement gyms full of freeweights. Once they'd found the "basements", the Vorkutintsi descended on them all over the city, beating the shit out of every weightlifter they could find.

When they were done, the Vorkuta army returned home heroes. A reporter at Zapolariye told me there was even a headline in a local newspaper: "Vorkuta: The Capital of the World."

The miners in Vorkuta today are desperate. They're getting screwed from all sides and dropping like flies in the mines, and no one, not even their own unions, are standing up for them. The math is pretty simple. No one can work forever in a coal mine without getting paid. Eventually, these guys are going to quit. And then what?

Well...even Vorkuta's optimists know what "then what" means.

"I'm afraid of what might happen," said Kursurov at Zapolariye. "If they don't get help in Moscow, this place could explode. One drop of blood is all it will take, and everyone will take to the streets."

"If the government doesn't intervene by the fall, I think you're looking at thousands of people descending on Moscow," sighed Pirozhkov. "It will be out of our hands by then."

"I'm worried, just praying that everyone keeps cool," said Shumeiko. "Miners are generally reasonable, but...there are some guys here who might not be able to control themselves. Miners aren't afraid of anything, and they know what death is. I can only imagine what might happen if the OMON are sent to clear our guys out from the White House. One wrong move and there'll be mayhem. If they show it on TV, every miner in this city will be looking to fight someone. This city is famous for it-we'll be the first to take to the streets."

Mikhailovsky says he's afraid the situation will degenerate into violence because there is no leader to organize miners to a better purpose. "Just give us any leader, even a fucked-up one like Lenin," he said. "We'd follow him to the end of the earth if he could figure out a way to get us out of this. But there's nobody out there. And pretty soon people are just going to go crazy. There's a limit to everything."

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