By Marzio G. Mian
Everybody’s talking about Alexey’s eggs. It’s big news in town, Alexey Alexandrovich Koriapov’s eggs. Alexey himself is strutting between the cages like a rooster, his quiff of blond hair like a comb; he’s transformed in an instant from the reserved man I’d met at the entrance of what used to be a Soviet coast guard compound. He coddles his 1,500 hens, giving them affectionate taps here and there on their protruding beaks. “Look how the little ladies fight over the food…knock it off, you!”
He tells me how they arrived as little chicks in September 2019, carried by ship from Vladivostok through the Bering Strait. Before Alexy’s brilliant startup, eggs in Pevek cost 600 rubles (or more than $8) a dozen, making this basic staple a luxury item in a town with an average salary of less than $200 a month. They were literally more expensive than caviar, which comes from native fish, mostly from the Kolyma River in the Stalinist gulag of the same name. The eggs came on cargo flights once a month from the Amur region of inland Russia or were shipped across the Arctic Sea. Now they cost half as much. Alexey, who is 37 years old, apprears moved by what he has done, “Mothers hug me and say they can finally make their kids a proper breakfast. We sell them for a nominal price to the school, the hospital, and the nursing home. My eggs are a sign of hope, things are going great,” he says.
It is 70 degrees F in the coops, the pungent smell of poultry manure and feed is overpowering. Electric wires dangle like festoons, cloaked in spider webs and white feathers. The temperature outside is -31 degrees F, and the tenuous pearly light of winter noon is already fading in the flat frozen tundra, swallowed up by the dense polar night. Alexey tells us how he and his cousin Viktor were unemployed, which is to say they were among those who couldn’t afford eggs. He explains how, even without a bank account, they were able to access funds at zero interest in a new federal development program for the Far East that Moscow started two years ago, and by way of explanation he pointe reverently to the photo of Vladimir Putin hanging on a nail in a crick in the reinforced concrete. “We’re going to expand. We’re aiming for 5,000 hens in three years. A lot of people will come here. Destiny is on our side,” he declares solemnly.
IN Pevek, September 14, 2019 will be remembered for two extraordinary events, both symbolic of the change underway here in Russia’s northernmost outpost, a port town founded in 1967: the arrival of Alexey’s chicks and that of the Akademik Lomonosov, the world’s first floating nuclear power station. It was towed from Murmansk for 3500 miles across the length of Siberia and anchored in Pevek, fueling Putin’s Arctic obsession and the gold rush in Chukotka, the Russian autonomous region directly across the Bering Strait from Alaska. As such, it is under a special regime as a border area because only three nautical miles separate it from Alaska, the space between the American Little Diomede Island, inhabited by a hundred Inuit, and the Big Diomede, occupied by a Russian military base.
It is very hard for non-Russian residents to gain access to this bunker-region; it’s a feat for Russian journalists and practically impossible for foreign ones. But, after a year of digital bureaucracy bouncing from the Foreign Ministry to the local government of Anadyr, from the FSB, the federal security service, to the “border” security authorities, the photographer and I seem to have benefited from one of the rare gaps in the usually airtight system of Russian control. And now we are here — unwelcome guests — in this place that is one of the most uninhabited, cold, mysterious, and protected in the world. We have arrived at just the wrong moment for them: we are eyewitnesses up close and personal to the steel and reactors of what Greenpeace calls “Chernobyl on ice.” But Alexey is certain that everything will be OK. The two “enterprises” are closely linked, “Like the egg and the chicken, the nuclear station brings progress, new work, new families. And who won’t be wanting a nice fresh egg in the morning?”
It’s recess when we visit the Pevek school. We come in from minus 40 degrees F or maybe less because an icy wind is blowing from the north, but inside it’s warm and smells like pine. A mountain of snowsuits is piled in the entrance. This is a middle school and high school with 512 students. The atmosphere is relaxed but contained, no voice stands out over the hum of the hallways; there are few sneakers, no cell phones at all. They go one by one in a line to the women who are already busy in the steam of the large modern kitchen, where nice-smelling things are cooking in the pots for lunch (halibut and turnip soup). They get their snacks and then form little groups, boys and girls largely separate, as is usual among teenagers. Elena Stepanova, the principal, teaches Russian literature. She is about 50 years old with large green eyes and a pleasant oval face framed by a chestnut bob. Her office is decorated with silk flowers and sculptures and paintings by the kids, ones that won competitions. She is in none of the photos. She is discreet, and she never talks about herself, but you can feel her power. They say she is the most important and respected person in town, not because she runs its most beautiful building — there’s little competition for that in the generally frightful desolation — but because it is an institution that everyone considers the “heart and soul of Pevek.” It is here that the young people live almost year-round, far from family problems and alcoholism. This is a refuge and an oasis. Putin’s photo is here, too, along with a photo of the oil magnate and billionaire Roman Abramovich. Before he became owner of the Chelsea Football Club in England, Abramovich was governor of Chukotka. Putin, his friend or partner, had given him this province of the empire. He was the one who paid for the new school in 2005 “out of his own pocket,” as Elena says.
The hallways of the three floors of the school are painted in pastel colors and depict great men of Russia in situations that are surreal, far from the standard tropes of portrait painting. There is one, for instance, of Pushkin having a ball driving a sidecar motorcycle. Chukotka is also portrayed in a style outside of stereotypes, with images inspired by the words of poets and writers like the great Yuri Rytkheu, the son of a shaman who grew up in a Chukchi tribe to become one of Soviet literature’s most powerful voices, only then to be canceled by Putin’s new tact. Elena talks about Rytkheu with passion but almost in a whisper as if talking of a secret love. She says that it was Abramovich who broke the taboo by financing the new publication of his favorite novel, Anna Odintzowa, but only for Chukotka’s schools.
Each classroom has a different color reminiscent of a burst of summer tundra. It feels like being in one of the top Finnish or Japanese schools. The whiteboards are bright and multi-purpose, the industrial technology and IT labs are already well equipped and about to be upgraded to judge from nearby boxes waiting to be opened. The principal talks about her school as if it were the finest thing in Russia, like the Hermitage or the Bolshoi. But this is Pevek, Chukotka, at the end of the world, Earth’s least inhabited region after Antarctica and the Sahara. Here the economic crisis after the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s hit like a cataclysmic avalanche, driving the population down from 148,000 people in 1991 to about 50,000 today. “Until 1989,” Elena says, “there were almost 15,000 of us here in Pevek. There were three schools and two large boarding schools for indigenous children of the Chukchi villages. Pevek had a community of scientists worthy of the Moscow State University. There were scientists who came for mining explorations and who stayed after the gulags closed and who started a family like my grandfather did. In the 1990s, we went hungry, there was no milk, we ate potato peels, candles were a luxury.” But now, she says, even if the population is under 5,000, “The energy is back. Young geologists and engineers are coming with their families; we have the internet thanks to a new satellite launched specifically to cover Eastern Siberia; roads are being built. We are becoming the symbol of Arctic development. Pevek will be one of the main ports of the new polar route, a shortcut for globalization. It is the modern-day challenge posed by the Great North, like in the days of the Soviet pioneers. We are key players at the forefront, no longer the outcasts of humankind.”
Then we hear a piano playing from the hallway. We are on the second floor, on the side overlooking the port and the bay of Chaun, on the ice floe. We ask to take a look. Elena says that they are rehearsing in the dance hall, and it might not be the best time. But after a moment of doubt and unease, she discreetly opens the large oak door and lets us see in. The five girls do not stop their dance steps to Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus. Here, what we had seen, but not mentioned, from the windows of the third floor, north-facing classrooms makes even more of an impression: the burst of lights from the Akademik Lomonosov reflecting off the ice. The windows are big and the nuclear power station looks like an ocean liner cutting through the darkness, pointed straight at the school. It is 500 yards away, wedged in the 10-foot-thick ice floe, but it feels as if we could reach out and touch it. The dancers take no note of it as if it were part of the dance. We meet the principal’s eyes; she’s long understood what brought us here and what we want to know from her. “They say it’s safe. Why shouldn’t we trust it? They even invited us on board, explained to the kids how it works, answered all questions, showed us the gym, and the swimming pool. What could I do? Now it’s done. But come back and we’ll talk about it more.”
PEVEK can only be reached by plane (weather permitting, there’s one flight a week from Moscow, with a layover in Yakutsk). There seems to be no way around controls. At the small airport, we are subjected to a lengthy interrogation by six border guards who are the FSB agents here. We have the right permissions, but they still write down the names of our relatives, properties, and movements in recent months. They also questioned the person who will host us, Igor Ranav, a small business entrepreneur of Chukchi ethnicity. Indigenous people in the area turn to him first, and he is a well-known activist for having made accusations of electoral fraud and challenging the government ofAnadyr, the capital city. Over the next few days, we take advantage of the half-hour of light and use a drone over Pevek without permission and without consequences. So we go further and on four occasions fly over the power plant from different sides, reaching a few dozen yards from the ominous square barge, painted the colors of the Russian flag. And nothing happens. How could it be that no one would intercept a drone, despite the armed fortress of security and radar that surrounds the Akademik Lomonosov? How high is the actual level of protection and the government’s ability to intervene in the event of a hostile act or accident?
This is Russia’s 11th nuclear power station, the most northerly in the world, and it is the first mobile nuclear station ever to go into operation: a 53,165-ton, 140-foot-long, 30-foot-wide platform equipped with two low-uranium-enriched KLT-40S reactors that can generate 70 megawatts and supply electricity and heat to a city of 100,000 for 40 years. The idea of a portable nuclear station has been around since the 1960s, and the United States also long considered the possibility. But the Americans rejected the idea, as did the Russians, because of economic and security concerns. Then at the explicit request of Vladimir Putin, Rosatom, the Russian state atomic energy corporation, overcame the hurdles. It invested ten years of construction in St. Petersburg and spent about $534 million in state funds (still 10 times less than the cost of a traditional nuclear power plant). Moscow considers this type of station the only solution for bringing the energy needed in the furthest regions of the Russian Arctic to fuel mining and fossil fuel extraction, while making it easier to support old towns and establish new ones. Russia is building a full fleet of reactors to be anchored in the ports along the Northern Sea Route, the old northeast passage. The Kremlin and Rosatom have announced that in Chokotka alone another five plants will be in operation (two by 2024) for an estimated $2.25 billion.
Jan Haverkamp, Greenpeace’s nuclear expert, is only one of many to have raised the alarm, “It is not a submarine or an icebreaker. This is a barge that cannot be maneuvered,” he says. “What happens if the mooring breaks or an iceberg or waves of ice blocks hit it? The Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the world. The progressive melting of ice creates unprecedented conditions, and it’s an increasingly dangerous ocean with storms whose power is impossible to predict. And what would really happen if there were a tsunami, even if Rosatom claims to have taken that in consideration? The Russians have long experience in nuclear power, but they also have a long history of nuclear disasters. We know what it takes to intervene in nuclear accidents on land, so just imagine in the sea and in areas that are so hard to access.” The Akademik Lomonosov’s radioactivity is 25 times less than Chernobyl’s, but the consequences of an accident, according to Haverkamp, would be magnified by arctic winds and the currents of the Siberian Sea: “It would be the end of the world’s most fragile ecosystem.”
Valentin Poskotinov, a 65-year-old geologist, has apartment windows overlooking Chemodanova Street, the road, or rather beaten path, that crosses Pevek, parallel to the ice floe. Lenin’s statue is lit yellow by a streetlamp. Covered in ice and snow, he is only recognizable from his classic pose and open hand that seems to be pointing to the window that Valentin keeps cracked open to let out his cigarette smoke. If Valentin exposes his face for so much as a second, his nose hairs and thick eyebrows immediately turn white. He returns to the warmth and the ice melts, and then he puts his nose outside and it freezes back up. Valentin keeps on asking the same question between each cigarette: “Where else in the world is a nuclear power station put 500 yards from a school full of children? Where? Tell me, where? I first asked this question to Mr. Ivanov from Rosatom, the night they came to explain the project to the people. They said that they wanted to move forward only with the approval of the people; meanwhile they were already pouring the cement to build the wharf where the station would be docked. But Mr. Ivanov didn’t answer my question.”
Our host Igor Ranav was also there that evening at the Zal Aisberg theater. He was one of the few Chukchi there, and he was in favor of the platform’s coming: “I thought that anything new would be better than nothing. For my people, it couldn’t go any worse than it was.” According to him, the people were facing a no-win situation: accept the clean energy of the nuclear station moored in the port or keep on breathing the coal from Chaunskaya HPP, the old plant that stands in central Pevek; take on the electrifying challenge of change and progress or live with that black wind-whipped plume of coal dust that has long blackened snow, lungs, and hopes. We need only climb up the hill to grasp it all in a vanishing moment of opaline light, the sight before us summing it up. Below we see a smoking heap of junk in the midst of a landscape of cement ruins over which giant crows fly. A little further in the distance, what seems a spaceship is glistening in the ice, projecting a foreboding sense of clean, and further on, near the horizon of the Arctic Ocean, marked by violet fog, we seem to glimpse the North Pole.
Rosatom promised that the decrepit old coal plant — referred to as the “rusty stove” — would be put out of commission immediately, because the Akademik Lumonosov, “the Russian pride of the world” as the director Vitaliey Trutnev called it, was there mainly to bring electricity and heat to the people and replace the worn-out nuclear reactors of Bilibino, 150 miles inland across the tundra. But, in actuality, both the coal plant and the nuclear one will remain in operation at least until 2025. “There are other priorities,” says Valentin. He was born in St. Petersburg, a member of the generation of young graduates/pioneers who set off in the 1970s and 1980s with a patriotic spirit to have an adventure in the Great North, exploring the great riches beyond the Ural Mountains, in the wild northeast, the land not yet exploited by the forced labor of political prisoners, which had been used on a massive scale until the 1960s. “I’m one of the one’s who stayed,” he says. “Because of nostalgia for that youth and because I had become a hostage of nature. I call it ‘white fever.’”
We inevitably end up talking about Roman Abramovich, the oligarch who was governor of Chukotka from 2000 to 2008. He has suddenly resurfaced as a big topic of conversation in Pevek as well as in the indigenous community — and not because his Chelsea soccer team won the Champions League. He had sentimental ties to the Great North because his grandparents had been interned in the gulags; but it was first and foremost a matter — a deal made — between two friends: Abramovich, the oil tycoon had invested more than anyone else in the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. He was rewarded by the new “tsar” with an assignment to the remote Arctic province. Almost no one understood it at the time because Chukotka was the most destitute region of Russia. But Abramovich saw opportunity. He moved three subsidiaries of Sibneft, the oil company he controlled, to Anadyr. This filled the government coffers, supplying 80 percent of the the autonomous region’s budget. The benefits were immediate. They were especially obvious in Pevek, where, in addition to the school, the hospital, and the new town hall, several affordable, residential buildings were built in the 2000s, making even more ghost-like the old Soviet complexes abandoned in the 1990s, which had become lairs for packs of stray dogs. The indigenous population, 14,000 Chukchi, reindeer herders living only in villages scattered in the tundra, were also raised slightly from the bottom of the bottle in which they’d been drowning their desperation: the average life expectancy among the indigenous people in the year 2000 was 34 years old, in 2010 it was 38.
“Abramovich was basically investing his taxes in Chukotka”, says Valentin. “He bought land for a pittance from the government he led, huge tracts of land where the maps drawn by Soviet geologists like me suggested there might be valuable resources. Here we have the largest copper and gold deposits on the planet.” Now they’re in Abramovich’s hands. For instance, at the Baimsky mines copper reserves have been estimated at 9.5 million tons and 16.5 million ounces of gold. The deposits in Peschanka, in the district of Bilibino, are especially large; 23 million tons of copper and over 2,000 tons of gold will be extracted. At both mining sites, Abramovich works with KAZ Minerals, the biggest copper mining company in Kazakhstan, but whose headquarters are in London. “We were the ones to discover them. We were young and full of ideals, living for months in the tundra feeding on berries and hares. We mapped other deposits of gold, copper, platinum, silver, and tungsten, too, that they are now starting to mine, at sites like Mayskaye and Kupol,” says Valentin. “The Bilibino district is the new Klondike, but much bigger than the one in Alaska, and it needs energy, a lot of energy to generate real wealth.”
This is why Abramovich never truly left Chukotka. And this is why the Akademik Lomonosov came to Pevek and the port is undergoing enormous expansion work with investments from Kazakhstan and China. It will be a strategic port on the Northern Sea Route, which the Chinese call the Polar Silk Road. After the recent blockage in the Suez Canal and because of the surging price of raw materials as a result of the pandemic, Putin has pressured Rosatom to hurry. It is in charge of developing 3,700 miles of the arctic route, which is increasingly accessible with the progressive melting of the ice and because of nuclear-powered container ships that can travel all year round without needing an icebreaker. From the current 40 million tons of goods transported to and from Asia — mostly natural liquid gas from the Yamal deposits (an annual LNG production capacity of 16.5 million metric tons) — the Kremlin aims to reach 80 million tons by 2026. The growth in goods passing through Pevek has been 100,000 tons per year since 2018.
“Abramovich’s gold and copper will end up in China,” says Valentin. “Sixty percent of copper in the world is consumed in China. Why should they go get it in Chile, Peru, or Australia if they can get it from Chukotka? They just need to cross the Bering Strait and fill up.”
Akademik Lomonosov and its blinding white lights can be seen from Igor’s apartment too, which is about a hundred yards from the school. The sight of it stirs his propensity for grandiose ideas, making him fantasize that the region will soon no longer be subject to a surveillance regime “worse than in the Soviet era.” He thinks, for instance, that he can realize his dream of buying a Cessna plane and starting an air-taxi service to Anadyr or Bilibino, or his dream to build a greenhouse for vegetables. Like all Chukchi, he was a reindeer herder in the tundra, but his talent for business, including construction, funeral services, and scrap metal, freed him from poverty and made him a rich man by the standards of his people.
He’s been across the Bering Strait to Alaska a couple of times, and that’s his idea of a civilized world. He says that “they are two different planets.” Until 13,000 years ago, people cross ed the the Strait on foot and the landscape remains identical. The buildings are built on the permafrost with the same stilt method. The melting of the permafrost causes the same problems, landslides in many coastal villages and corpses emerging from the cemeteries after hundreds of years. Until 1867, Alaska belonged to the tsars, when it was sold off to the Americans for $125 million in today’s dollars, equal to the value of the oil pumped in just four days at Prudhoe Bay. Many Eskimo families — Inuit in Alaska, and Yupik in Chukotka — were separated between the two shores. With the Cold War in 1948, all relations ended, and then there was a moment, in the Reagan-Gorbachev era in the late 1980s, when the “Bering Wall” seemed to have fallen, and cultural exchange was rampant, visas were granted, and there were even some flights. “You see it on the map, they are two noses touching; we are separated twins,” says Igor.
I have also had the chance to visit the other “nose” recently. I have been to Nome, the American port town on the Bering Sea, where the private plane parking area is as large as that of Newark airport in New Jersey, and there are 8,200 pilot licenses in the state. In Nome, there is a hundred-year-old newspaper, the Nome Nugget, which is now edited and published by two young Germans, whereas there are two state newspapers in Chukotka and not one independent media outlet. The average monthly salary in northern Alaska is about $1,500. The indigenous people have been paid over a billion dollars in reparations for the persecutions they suffered. In the North Slope, where the Inuit are the majority and where there is the most productive oil, the tribes run 13 corporations listed on Wall Street and get royalties collected from oil extracted by white people. Alcoholism is a scourge in northern Alaska, too, but their “twins” in Chukotka drink six times more (according to the Moscow Ministry of Health) than the average of Russia, hardly known as a nation of teetotalers.
IGOR does not touch alcohol, but he puts away gallons of hot tea. He is a vigorous man of irrepressible vitality. He changes his wife every three years on average but maintains excellent relationships with all his exes. He is constantly on the phone managing the logistics of his complicated relationships. The one companion he never parts from is Yashka, a small white reindeer with some neurological deficits who lives in his apartment with him after having been abandoned by her mother in the tundra.
A few years ago, he got his hands on an enormous old Gaz-66 Ural 4×4, which was used in tin mines, and he cleverly converted it into an overland vehicle that could carry as many as 15 people on the zimniki, roads of ice and snow crossing the region’s interior. It took three hours to get to Rytkuchi, a Chukchi village of about 500 people, south of Chaun Bay. Three rivers flow into this wetland, and it’s a summer nursery for reindeer and a pristine world for a dozen native fish, including “prehistoric salmon.” We take the snowmobile to go see Sacha Prokopoiev, one of the community leaders, in his balok, a cabin on sleds, warmed by kerosene stoves for ice fishing. The cold is fearsome; as soon as the fish come out of the hole in the ice, they sizzle like they’ve been thrown live into boiling oil.
Sasha confirms that they are building a new port at Cape Nagleynin for Abravovich’s copper and gold. The Chukchi call it “the womb of the world,” and it is where Rytkuchi’s shepherds bring their 25,000 reindeer to fatten before calving. “It’s been this way for 400 years,” he says. “But in five years there will be no more pastures, there will be no reindeer and villages will disappear, because there is no life in the tundra without reindeer.” Moscow has already allocated more than a billion dollars for the port. It is unknown how much KAZ Mining will pay for the road that will connect the mines in the Bilibino district to Cape Nagleynin, “They could use the Pevek port, but this way they save the trucks 250 miles. That road obstructs reindeer migration, and then they’ll divert the upper course of the rivers where our fish lay eggs. To extract gold they use cyanide, which ends up in the rivers. The tundra isn’t about ownership for us, it’s a matter of responsibility.” This was explained perfectly by Yuri Rytkheu, the school principal’s beloved writer. He was an environmentalist when the USSR was devastating the environment in the name of the “new man” and collective prosperity: “Time itself in the tundra is not linear, but circular. Time, like nature, is not consumed, it is renewed.”
The communities that will be affected by the new port and mining road wrote a letter to the UN, appealing to the declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples. Igor is at the forefront of the fight. This is not like in Pevek, an iossue among the Russians, this is his land and his people. In Nagleynin, they will put in five platforms like the Akademik Lomonosov. “When Abramovich came, our lives definitely improved,” says Sasha, looking out of the porthole on the estuary, now engulfed in darkness. “His people distributed food, and during every election in Rytkuchi, they came with irons, televisions, and toys for the children. In reality, he just bled us dry. He may have invested a billion dollars, but he took ten, twenty, who knows how much. He bought us with glass beads and in return he got Chukotka. Now we’re just five hundred obstacles in their fucking way.”
Igor swears that they will defend the land at all costs: “Abramovich knows our history.” The Cossacks in the 17th century tried to demand a jasak, tribute, but they were sent packing worse for the wear. Peter the Great tried to subjugate the Chukchi. He sent his trusted man, Afanasy Sestakov, and his ship sank, and the castaways were killed on the ice floe. The tribes signed a peace treaty that allowed them to decide how much tribute to pay. The revolution of 1917 came the following October, and two Bolshevik emissaries were exterminated two days after taking power. We get to the village. The lights have just gone out. Someone says that a crow got on the high voltage wire, which has happened before. But Sasha is convinced that this time it’s because of work on the line to connect the nuclear power platform to the power grid of the Bilibino region: “We are in their fucking way,” he repeats.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to see Elena Stepanova again when we return to Pevek. Right before our new meeting , for which we’d planned to talk to some students, she lets us know that she got a “suggestion” from the police headquarters not to see us. She could have made up a million excuses, but she prefers to tell the truth. By then we are used to it, interviews being canceled at the last minute. We know that the authorities have visited people we have already contacted. In the last few days, we have been followed, watched by a car parked permanently under our house, and interrogated. The third time they come into Igor’s house at six in the morning. A young woman officer curtly explains that signatures are missing from the interrogation of the day before. “We have to send a correct report to Anadyr,” she says. We ask to reread our statements, to which has been added that “the purpose of our trip is to document the flora and fauna of Chukotka.” This would allow them to seize our materials and prove that we did not report on flowers (in the middle of the Arctic winter!). When we refuse to sign, another officer arrives. Igor records them with his cell phone while they try to force us to sign. There are some very tense moments and then they leave. We hurry to the airport, far ahead of our scheduled flight. A moment before takeoff, a soldier gets on the plane and heads straight to us to make sure we are indeed leaving Chukotka.