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Published: April 18th 2011
Eight time zones and half the world away from Moscow, Russia's Kamchatka peninsula dangles into the Northern Pacific like the straggling tail of a large beast on the run. Despite its wealth in gold and oil, despite the deep-pocketed tourists who shell out $2000 an hour on helicopter rides over its 300 active volcanoes and pay thousands more to hunt the bears, lynxes and wolverines that infest its endless mountain ranges and forests, the corrupt officials who run this easternmost province have ensured that it remains the most woefully godforsaken of all the far flung Russian regions I have visited.
"Get out of our capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, as soon as you can," a local vulcanologist called Ilya, who I had been in contact with through Couchsurfing, told me before I arrived. "It's one of the most disgusting cities in Russia, and according to one recent survey the worst of all. Staying here would be the best way to ruin your impression of Kamchatka."
After my plane touched down on the old and crumbly-looking concrete runway the passengers filed off and through a gate in the nearby fence where friends and relations were waiting. Ilya, a tall, bearded, late twenties man
dressed like a Goth all in black and with a small black hat that rose six inches off his head, stood waiting in the crowd with a sign saying "Ed Vallance", internet printouts of the weather forecasts for a couple of places I had shown an interest in visiting and catalogues from local sports shops advertising skis and boots. Although I had told him that I had already arranged to stay with other people in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, he had been so keen to help out a budget traveler that he had offered to drive me from the airport to their house.
"The best piece of advice I can give you," he said, "is to buy some skis. In theory they open up the whole of Kamchatka for you and can get you to places that are so swampy in summer that they require a helicopter."
"Sounds excellent," I said. Having only decided a couple of days ago that I was coming to Kamchatka I had no real idea how to get around or where to go, so was greatful for any advice.
We drove down a mostly empty, tree-lined, asphalt road that gave the illusion of leading in
a straight line to the base of a gargantuan snow-streaked volcano that loomed way up into the heavens and was so close that it took up a disorientingly large proportion of your sphere of vision.
"How can you say this place is disgusting?" I asked. "I think it's beautiful."
"The place itself is beautiful," Ilya replied, "but wait until we get into the town. Everyone who lives there hates it. Back in the day it was a great place, the first city to be built in the Far East. It was clean, with good houses, and the people were good. It was a choice between Khabarovsk and here to be the main city in the Russian Far East. They chose Khabarovsk and forgot about us, which is why everything is falling apart now, as you'll see."
I wondered whether that was not just wistful thinking. What chance could this city ever have had, inaccessable by sea except for three months during summer and almost completely impossible to reach by land from the rest of Russia? It's endless swamps, volvanoes, bears and wolves had ensured that only one or two exceptionally hardy and well financed expeditions had ever
made it here overland since Cossacks "discovered" it in the mid-seventeenth century.
We drove into the town and I realised that Ilya had not been exaggerating. The houses were falling apart, covered in dirt and rust. Not a single modern building could be seen and the vast majority of apartment blocks were khrushovki, the notoriously low quality flats that sprung up across the Soviet Union between the late 1950s and mid 1980s. Not one edifice in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky exceeded their five storeys in height. Filthy, black snow lay piled up in mountains several metres high at the roadsides, bottles, cardboard boxes and other rubbish beginning to protrude from its depths as the thaw began with the coming of warmth in early April. Ice covered every pavement and all but the most central streets. Plastic bags and black bin liners flew about in the wind while old and young aliked picked their way slowly and carefully over slippery surfaces and attempted to avoid falling.
"You see," Ilya said to me, "the place is in collapse."
The shape of this 200,000 strong town was bizarre: Avacha Bay on one side and the huge, steep-sloped volcanoes on the other hemmed it
in and seemed to have compressed it into into a long, thin, snaking, concrete and wooden mess, stretching some twenty kilometres along the shore but at points barely more than one wide.
It was true: nowhere in the Far East, Far North or Siberia had I seen such utter dilapidation as was on display here, where absolutely nothing new had been built since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But I could also say, with my hand on my heart, that the mountains and the bay made for the loveliest setting of a town that I had seen anywhere in Russia. In a way, I thought, the juxtaposition of this crumbling concrete sprawl and its spectacular, primordial surroundings was symbolic of the massive Soviet push to develop the Far North, Far East and Siberia, to conquer the vast, untamed Russian wilderness, to subdue nature herself and harness all her goods for the benefit of industry.
Having followed the city's one main street for twenty minutes, winding up and down hill after hill, Ilya and I said goodbye and I got out of his car near a small market where I had arranged to meet Denis and Olga, the
couple from Couchsurfing who I would be staying with. The ground everywhere was black with ice, snow and filth. Some burly men dressed in camouflage clothing sold goods out of the backs of lorries while babushki stood behind stalls laden with fish, crabs, vegetables, home-knitted clothing and pots of syrup and jam, rubbing their hands together in the cold and calling out to passers by and prospective customers.
"This kiosk sells beer," Denis said after we had met and shaken hands. "Shall we get some to take back to mine?"
We filled up two poltarashki, one and a half litre brown plastic bottles, with Kamchatskoe beer. We then walked through the iced-over market, up some life-threateningly slippery and steep steps then down an uneven and completely ice-covered track thant ran along side row after row of khrushovki.
"I've never seen anything like it," I said to Denis, having already nearly fallen over twice. "In Moscow they pay people to break up the ice, or at least some of it. But here it's just everywhere!"
"That's because the government in Moscow actually does something. The most important and richest people are there, foreigners go there, so they
have to do something. Here they try to make sure that those rich hunting and helicopter tourists don't actually stay in the city or see how awful it is. Here they just steal all the money and keep it for themselves. They don't break up the ice, they don't clean the streets and they don't repair anything. You know, they haven't built anything since the collapse of the Soviet Union? They only things they've built are shops, so that vodka's on sale twenty four hours a day. Under Communism there were sports halls, fitness clubs, basketball courts and football pitches everywhere. Now they've all closed down, been demolished ot fallen into disrepair, so the only thing to do is drink." He had a quiet, soft voice and a kindly face that looked a decade younger than his thirty five years.
"In Moscow and St. Petersburg," I said, "people say the opposite. Now there are more ways to spend your leisure time, so young people drink less than they used to."
"Moscow and St. Petersburg aren't Russia," Denis said, shaking his head.
Having not managed to sleep on the plane I could not keep my eyes open when
it came to 7pm Kamchatka time (11am Moscow time) but Denis and I continued our conversation the next day. He laid the table with crab, fish, salad, salami, gherkins, potatoes, chicken, crisps and nuts and we got some more beer.
"Look at the state of the place," Denis said, not complaining but as though just observing something in a casual, conversational way. "That's what you get from twenty years of democracy. If Stalin was still in power all the housing would be good and we'd all be living well. The Soviets built everything you see here, but the democratic government and especially Putin has done nothing but lie, cheat and f**k us over."
"So you admire Stalin?"
"But what about the tens of millions of people he killed?"
"It was just a necessary sacrifice. Ordinary people were living so poorly before that, dying earlier, freezing and without enough to eat, and he made everything better for them. It probably actually worked out that he saved lives. And anyway, since the end of the USSR the population has dropped from two hundred million to a hundred and fifty. We've lost fifty million people, way
more than Stalin killed. And anyway, how many people did Britains and Europeans kill in their conquest of the world? How many people die of starvation every day even now due to that colonialism?"
He had a fair point, I supposed. We celebrate Columbus as a pioneer, an explorer who set the foundations for the most powerful country on Earth, without dwelling on the two continents whose native populations were practically wiped out in the centuries following his "discovery".
"Let me show you a song that every Russian can relate to," Denis said, "it sums up exactly how we feel."
The title of the song he played translated as "Drink, my man!" The guitar music was cheery. The voice of the singer was not the best but he sang from the soul, causing the tune to stick in my mind for weeks afterwards. Each verse described how there was no future left for Russia, how nothing could ever be any good again, and ended with the words, "So drink, my man, drink to all this f**king sh*t!"
"Back in the USSR there just wasn't such despair and hopelessness as you hear in that song," Denis told
me. "Everyone had enough to eat, enough work, and even the most insignificant worker or farmer in the remotest village could see his country sending the first man ever into Space and feel that he was a part of something great. Now Russia is sleeping. A hundred and fifty million Russians are drinking and waiting for someone like Stalin."
"You know," I said, "in Moscow I can't recall a single time I've heard anyone talk like this. Everyone says things are better now."
"But look out of the window," Denis answered. "Does Moscow look like this?"
"No," I replied.
"Exactly, Moscow isn't Russia."
When Olga came home from work we began talking about the possibility of going out to a bar.
"You know what a ryumochnaya is? Or a pelmennaya?" she asked me.
"Of course," I said, grinning. They were the two lowest classes of Russian drinking establishment, often without any seating and serving bits of lard or herring on bread as the only food.
"Denis likes that sort of place," she said, smiling.
"Well, they're always very cheery," I replied. "And you can usually meet both very educated people there
and utter tramps."
"That's one of the things I like about them," Denis said. "I like talking to those trampish ones, who are also usually quite educated, to find out how they became tramps."
"Denis can talk to absolutely anyone," Olga told me. "You know on Kamchatka we have one black man and one gay, and Denis knows them both. The gay dresses like a woman and is always trying to get the government to move him off Kamchatka, because people don't accept him here and it's so hard for him."
"I met the black guy in a bar," Denis went on. "I just saw him sitting there on his own, bought two beers, went up to him and asked if I could sit down and have a drink with him."
"I can't do that," Olga commented.
"No, neither can I," I agreed.
"I do it all the time," Denis said. "I love talking to random people. I studied botany at university, which is why I work at customs, like inspecting imported plants. Anyway, my work sometimes brings me into contact with some of the richest people in Kamchatka. Every time I meet one
of them I ask them if they're happy. And every time they say no. I met the head bodyguard of our mayor and asked if the mayor's happy. The bodyguard said no, he's always alone and just paces up and down his rooms all night. He's afraid of people, afraid to go out of his house without an entourage of bodyguards carrying machine guns. But one night he decided to get completely drunk on his own then go out and walk around town without his bodyguards. People just pointed and laughed at him."
"Poor guy," I said. We swigged our beers and munched salami and gherkins for a few moments. "So anyway, you guys think life was better under the USSR than now?"
"Much, much better," Denis said.
"In some ways it was worse," Olga said. "You had to find out when certain products would be available and in which shops then go there at the crack of dawn and queue all day to get them. I remember, to get milk my mum always had to bring my sister and me with her to prove that she had two kids and get our full ration. We had to stand in line for hours on end. But apart from that the town was cleaner, safer, there was less crime and alcoholism and life was just easier. You didn't need to worry about where the money for your next month's food and rent was coming from."
"Look at this video," Denis said, fiddling around with his computer. "This guy just stuck his video camera out of his window for two hours and he caught twenty seven people falling over on the ice. It was never like that in Soviet times."
The clip began. It was a grey spring day, the snow all already disappeared but the streets still coated in ice and the wind blowing fiercely. It showed pedestrian after pedestrian, aged from toddlers to babushki, falling over and in some cases gliding for several metres over the filthy ice where the street sloped downwards.
"And it's not only the ice that they don't get rid of," Denis told me after the clip with its hauntingly sad music had finished. "It's the snow as well. This year we had much less than usual, but during a usual winter the first floor windows of every building are completely buried. The snow usually reaches about half way up the second floor windows. Residents have to keep the area around the doorway clear themselves."
We went out to refill our poltarashki several times. For the first time after four years in Russia I fell over on the ice. Denis, trying to catch me as I fell, slipped and also went sprawling. I landed on my shoulder with a sickening crunch and for a few seconds was completely unable to get up, as if the fall had drained ever last drop of energy from me. Eventually I managed it and began shuffling forward. Then, for the second time in ten seconds, and the second time in four years in Russia, I went flying and landed on my behind.
Back home in Denis' living room the conversation flowed merrily, hugs were repeatedly exchanged between all parties and we continued late into the night. At 3:30 we went to sleep and at 7am I was awake and heading out to begin hitch hiking up Kamchatka.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Kamchatka
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