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Feature Story December 11, 2002
Not Dead Yet
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 5 of 7
It turns out it's warmer to sleep without your pants, but you definitely want to wear a hat to bed. Once you get into the bag, take your last draught of fresh air and prepare for a suffocating night in a lightless womb. It's far too cold to even consider having any skin exposed.

Sleeping on the ground actually wasn't that uncomfortable and the cold isn't noticeable with proper insulation. My only problem was that I didn't fit in my bag. The Yevenks are a short people and apparently this was a custom made bag. If I lay straight in it, my head would stick out of the top about three inches. I was forced to curl in the fetal position and flounder in the airless womb whenever one side got sore. I have never been so glad that my watch glowed in the dark as in those hours anticipating morning.

Ust Nukzhe only has 617 residents, a third of whom live in the taiga most of the year, but you'd never guess it from the variety of ways in which people die. In the last few years, two babies died because their parents were too drunk to feed them, there were two deaths from tuberculosis, and pretty much every year someone will get drunk, pass out and freeze to death. Even murder is not unheard of. Add to that 20 percent unemployment, frequent brawls and alcoholism that affects up to 90 percent of the adult population, and you've got a village with some pretty serious problems.

But you'd never guess it walking around most days. It just looks like a quiet snow-covered hamlet on a riverbank surrounded by breathtaking mountains. The only time it looks the part is around New Year's, late-March for the celebration of Deer Herds' Day and the beginning and end of summer vacation. During these times, Yevenks pour in from the taiga and the town is bathed in vodka, fights and partying. Yevenks, who are so responsible, sober and resourceful in the taiga, apparently let themselves go completely in town.

Deer Herds' Day sounds especially fun, with Yevenks coming from all over to take part in the reindeer races and festivities.

More than half of Ust Nukzhe's residents are Yevenks, although many of the Yevenks spend most of the year in the taiga. School-aged kids whose parents live in the taiga are put up in a free internat paid for by the government.

However, Russians run all of Ust Nukzhe's institutions -- the village administration, the hospital and the school. This isn't so much about paternalism as one might suspect; Yevenks just don't want the responsibility.

The only employer besides the government is the Nukzhe Kolkhoz, formerly known as the Sovkhoz Leninskogo Puti, or Lenin's Path. The kolkhoz offers a perfect microcosm of everything that's gone wrong with Russia in the age of privatization. Even with such small stakes for grabs, corruption corrodes everything.

Back in the USSR, the kolkhoz was the largest reindeer sovkhoz in the Amursky oblast, with 6000 head, and it ran a pig farm and fox farm as well.

It even had a helicopter to drop Yevenks off in the taiga. But the upheavals of the 90s were not good to it. The real watershed, however, was six years ago, when its director came down with a liver ailment and Viktor Krapevin became the interim director.

I should admit that I haven't ever spoken with Krapevin -- the week I was in town, he was off hunting and his assistant, a dull-witted former driver, was in charge. Apparently, leaving the assistant in charge is business as usual. Krapevin is to Ust Nukzhe what Chubais is to the country as a whole.

I never heard a single thing said about him that wasn't hateful. Even on the train home, I started talking to a man from Ust Nukzhe by chance and he launched into an unsolicited invective against Krapevin.

Once in power, Krapevin quickly got himself elected as director. When I asked Anatoly why they didn't elect a Yevenk, he said because Krapevin was the only person available with a higher education. Krapevin has a degree as an electrician. (Anatoly also has a degree, in veterinary medicine.) Once entrenched, Krapevin, they claimed, started stealing as much as he could.

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