Board of honor near the Kingcoal’s building. Photo: Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved.Two years ago, four mines in Gukovo, in the southern Rostov region, closed down. The mines were the town’s main employer, but Kingcoal, the company that owned them, had gone bankrupt. Kingcoal’s CEO was sentenced to five years in prison for failing to pay employees for over a year and using company funds for his own purposes.
Next month will mark the second anniversary of the start of the Kingcoal miners’ campaign to get their wages. Almost every day, residents of Gukovo, who are mostly older people, take to the streets to demand their back pay: the Rostov regional authorities have paid out less than half of the outstanding sum. More than 2,000 people have been affected: half of the miners have yet to receive all the money due to them.
I went to Gukovo to find out how the miners are battling with the bureaucrats, how people live in a town without work and whether there is any hope of the mines reopening.
Kingcoal: a story of bankruptcy
As a town, Gukovo developed thanks to its coal deposits: mining began here before the 1917 revolution. The mines were originally state owned, but were privatised in the 2000s.
The Kingcoal company appeared in 2007, and by the end of 2012 it had acquired four pits: Almaz, Gukovo, Rostov and Zamchalovo. The company’s CEO Vladimir Pozhidayev announced that, under his direction, these mines would become the leading coal producers in southern Russia. In April last year, Pozhidayev was sentenced to five years behind bars for misuse of power and failure to pay his employees: between April 2015 and March 2016, Kingcoal’s employees received no wages. The mines were shut down at the end of 2016 and the company declared bankrupt, and at the end of last year Pozhidayev was charged with a second offence: deliberate bankruptcy.
“From 2002 on, the mine was run by people who hadn’t a clue about the mining industry,” says Nikolai Shulepov, an officially decorated Distinguished Miner of Russia with 42 years at the Zamchalovo mine behind him. “One of its CEO’s was a former submarine commander. These people would put on their suits to go and inspect the mines. Pozhidayev just robbed us. Rumour has it that he raked in a couple of billion dollars and sent it all offshore to Cyprus. As soon as he took over, the wage delays started: a month, two months. I argued with Vasily Golubev, the Rostov regional governor, about it, but he just told me, in so many words, not to get in Pozhidayev’s way: he was developing the business.”
Nikolai Shulepov. Photo: Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved.When the four mines went bust, there were around 2,500 people working at them. They were gradually made redundant, and those that were still there were working on two shifts – some were spending 12 hours a day down a pit. In the end, there were just security staff left: at the Zamchalovo Anthracite mine, for example, they went on working until June last year, hoping they’d get their back pay. But then all four pits flooded, and there was no one to pump out the ground water. It became clear that this was the end.
“Some people say that the mines were flooded deliberately,” says Tatyana Avacheva, a member of the local initiative group and former surveyor at the Zamchalovo pit. “And that was why sink holes were appearing both next to the mines and in Gukovo itself. The water leaks into the foundations of buildings and destroys them: some houses have become unfit for habitation, with cracks in their walls. If it’s not pumped out in the next few months, it’s going to stream into people’s cellars. Toxic so-called blackdamp will also be released, so people could be suffocated in their cellars.”
“Some people say that the mines were flooded deliberately”
Most of the coal from the Gukovo mines was used to power the Novocherkassk regional power station. The highest quality stuff came from the Zamchalovo pit – the so-called “gold” coal, known for its clean burn and lack of impurities. It used to be exported to Canada and numerous European countries. But now the area around the mine looks like Chernobyl, with half-demolished buildings and rotted roofing, and the entrance to the mine blocked with rubbish and bricks.
“It’s all crumbling and overgrown. The window frames are rotten, the ground is sinking,” Nikolai Shulepov tells me. “It used to be so fine, all clean and tidy. I spent my whole life at that mine; I’d walk to work through the fields. It was all old-fashioned then, of course. The mine was opened in 1955 and was never modernised, but it produced good coal: there are still more than 40 million tonnes of the stuff under here, it’s not exhausted.”
The Rostov mine is in a similar state: there is no security, you can get onto the site through a hole in a fence. It looks just like it did after the Second World War, with cracked foundations of administrative buildings, smashed windows, heaps of stone and rubbish. It’s strange to think that just two years ago it was still heaving with activity.
The fight for back pay
The pickets began in June 2016. Every day, except weekends and public holidays, hundreds of people would crowd round Kingcoal’s main office. In June last year, Rostov’s Regional Development Corporation (which is responsible for investment and infrastructure projects in the region) made a payout of 310m roubles (£3.7m) to the miners, and the regional officials announced that they had honoured the main part of their commitments. In fact, it was less than half of the sum owed.
“The miners are due another 374m roubles (£4.436m),” Tatyana Avacheva tells me. “This amount includes both ordinary wages and the many other types of additional financial compensation required by law: for late payment of wages, for example, or production stoppages. It also includes child support payments and some other things. Plus we are also due compensation for the free coal allowances that the miners didn’t have for the three years between 2014 and 2016.”
The coal allowance was a statutory benefit in kind for those miners whose homes were heated by coal fired stoves (which was most of them). When the mines were state owned, the coal was delivered regularly, but when they became privatised many owners, Pozhidayev’s company included, stopped this service. The miners were promised social aid – 300 tonnes of coal from other mines in the Rostov region. The first 100 tonnes were supposed to be delivered by the end of March, but they never appeared.
Coal in the yard of Aleksandr Ilyanov. Photo: Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved.“People have barely survived this winter without coal,” Nikolai Posokhin tells me. Posokhin has worked in the coal industry for 28 years, most recently at the Rostov pit. “They have managed as well as they could, pulled down their fences – the mine was ransacked for firewood. Some people would walk along the railway line, picking up lumps of coal. You need about seven tonnes of coal to last you through the winter, and it’s expensive – seven to eight thousand roubles a tonne. Here in Gukovo, it’s like living in the 18th century – heaven knows what people in Moscow would make of life here! I don’t understand what our state is doing. There was a meltdown in the 1990s, but it feels as though it’s even worse now. On the TV, they show you Ukraine and Syria enough, but there’s nothing about what’s going on in our own country.”
Gukovo activists are trying to have the whole wages shortfall and compensation demands met out of regional reserve funds, which can then be offset by selling the mines and their equipment. They also want to change the rules on free coal allowances for pensioners. Currently, the extra free coal supply is only available to those who worked at the mines for 10 or more years when they went under state ownership and retired before they passed into private hands. The activists, however, want this benefit to also apply to miners who retired after the privatisation. Their proposal has been passed to the State Duma and should be debated in the next six months. If it is accepted, it will be incorporated into law in 2019.
The miners, meanwhile, continued their public protests. In December 2016, they decided to travel to Moscow, attend a State Duma session and organise a mass protest while they were at it. One hundred and fifty people were due to travel to the capital in two buses, but a few weeks before they left they started to receive threats from the police, and on the day they were due to travel they were prevented from leaving Gukovo.
“I’m writing to everyone I can think of: local officials, the Presidential Administration – I’m planning to contact the prosecutor’s office now. I have a small child; we can’t live in a place like this”
“The police kept knocking at our doors; literally breaking into our flats. They threatened us, tried to make us sign some bits of paper and said they would fine us, that we had no right to go anywhere,” Tatyana Avacheva tells me. “The firm that we had ordered the buses from refused to take us: they had been leaned on and threatened with losing their business. Some people decided to go from Kamensk (where there are mines as well), but the police had set up a cordon around the bus station.”
Tatyana Avacheva, member of the initiative group and one of the organizers of pickets. Photo: Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved.“Before the trip, our local police officer knocked on our door three days running,” Irina Litvinova, a member of the initiative group and representative of the People’s Unity miners’ movement. “He threatened to fine my husband and me 150,000 roubles each. They dangled some papers in front of our eyes but wouldn’t hand them to us. They also mentioned my child: ‘Don’t risk it: you have such a small daughter’. We tried to buy rail tickets, but they wouldn’t sell them to us.”
The miners went on several hunger strikes. At the end of last year, the authorities banned activists from picketing outside Kingcoal’s head office, claiming that they were stopping the movement traffic and pedestrians, and that this spot was not on the list of places permitted for public assembly. They were sent off to the edge of the town. Now the miners picket outside the House of Culture close to the Rostov mine, with a permitted limit of 85 people – otherwise they face a fine. And while officials used to give picketing permits out for six months at a time, now each action has to be negotiated individually.
“We’ve been standing here now for two years, in frost, slush and thunderstorms. We meet three times a week,” Nikolai Shulepov tells me. “I’m lucky, I got all my back wages and benefits repaid, but I keep coming here, to help other people. Last September, I went and stood outside the Rostov regional administration building with a placard reading: ‘Governor, give us back our money!’ I wore my jacket with all my decorations on it, but when the TV people started filming the police surrounded me. They brought me to the regional Deputy Minister for Fuel and Energy and I asked: ‘Why have you abandoned people, leaving them without pay? Gukovo is a lost town: a wasteland with nothing to do and nowhere to work and a playground for criminals.’ They said: ‘We’re working on it.’ What else could they say?”
“There’s a problem – our people are unfriendly,” says Irina Litvinova. “Those who have got their money have stopped picketing. There used to be 140 people there. Now it’s down to 70-80, you won’t get more than that. I keep writing to everybody: ‘We helped you, you got your money early, so help us now, come and stand, if only once a week. We need to gather momentum!’ But they don’t come, and they even write offensive messages back.”
A dialogue with the authorities
There used to be a lot of talk about Gukovo, at both regional and national level. In April 2018, Communist Party Deputy Dmitry Novikov raised the mining issue with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during the government’s annual report to the State Duma. Medvedev promised that the remaining money would be paid, but he didn’t say when. Vladimir Putin is also aware of the issue: Mikhail Shmakov, who heads Russia’s Independent Trade Union, has brought it to his attention. And last year, decorated miner Nikolai Shulepov travelled to Moscow to talk to the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.
“I told them all about our hopeless lives: how the town is in decline and lives are destroyed; how people are suffering. A load of human rights campaigners visited Gukovo at the end of 2017: they visited the town council and discussed the issues, and afterwards they went to Rostov and spoke to various ministers. We were then told that there was a plan to build a factory that would provide jobs for 50 people. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut at that, and told them that they’d need 50 of their factories to provide work for everyone! Gukovo, after all, is a mining town: everything revolves around the pits: the technical college, the storage and equipment facilities – everything.”
Both central and regional government have fallen silent now. The miners constantly write to every possible authority, but without success: “You can raise the money by selling the pits,” goes the written response. That’s not a lot of help for the former Kingcoal employees: mines are sold for much less than their declared value. Two mines have been sold this year – Zamchalovo and Rostov.
“This year, two of Gukovo’s four mines, the Zamchalovo and Rostov, have been sold,” Tatyana Avacheva tells me. “The Zamchalovo was on the market for 96m roubles, but eventually sold for 65m. Only 15% of the sale of the mine will go towards covering the miners’ back pay – that’s not enough. They also sold the Rostov. Both of these mines’ new owners have promised to revive production and return employees to their old jobs. But this all remains to be seen: returning the mines to production will require vast investment. We’ll probably need to go cap in hand to central government.”
The entrance to the Zamchalovo mine. Photo: Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved.The authorities are also doing nothing to help people living in unfit housing – and there is more and more of that in Gukovo. The Litvinov family live in one such building: the foundations are collapsing and the wall of the flat next door has split.
“A tractor turned up to do some repairs, but when they poked around a bit, water started streaming out,” says Irina Litvinova. “We were promised new housing by 2019 – we’d either be given money or rehoused. I went to the housing office with all my papers, and they said I was on a waiting list for new housing in 2030. Our building won’t last that long! ‘When the wall collapses, call the housing office,’ they said. I’m writing to everyone I can think of: local officials, the Presidential Administration – I’m planning to contact the prosecutor’s office now. I have a small child; we can’t live in a place like this.”
Activists tell me that the miners were slightly cheered by the news of the two pit sales, but not many people believe that the mines will reopen and there will be jobs again
For a short time, the authorities tried to offer the miners work, but it was usually unsuitable and in other towns. Many such offers were sent to Tatyana Avacheva, as an active initiative group member. She was offered work underground, and as a technician and warehouse clerk in regions all over Russia, from Kuban to Kamchatka – in an attempt, she believes, to stop her protest activities. Staff from the local job centre would even turn up to watch her picketing.
“My husband has been offered absolutely absurd work – as a seamstress in a clothing factory, for example,” says Irina Litvinova. “Or a job in a fish processing factory in Novoshakhtinsk, 40km from Gukovo. They came every day; everyone got fed up with it. We asked one of them what age of person they were looking for, and they said, ‘under 40’. Well, we said, you won’t find anyone of that age here: we’re mostly pensioners. It was all part of a general attempt to stop us protesting, but it didn’t work.”
Life without the mines
Practically every business in Gukovo worked for the mines in one way or another, which is why there is now a 100% unemployment rate. Young people move away: some work on a long rotation system, interspersing a few weeks or months earning money in Moscow, Yakutia or Norilsk with a similar period back home. But there is practically no work available for people over 40 (and most of the ex miners fall into this category).
“I managed, after a lot of effort, to get a security job at 10,000 roubles (£118) a month (average monthly wages in Gukovo are 12,000 roubles, while an average miner’s wage is 20,000 roubles (£237) and higher)”, Nikolai Posokhin tells me. “Plus, I have my pension. I have two daughters with children; their husbands have both gone off to earn money elsewhere, and I help them as much as I can. I’m still owed about 100,000 roubles (£1185). I got injured down the mine in the 2000s, a tunnel fell in on me, so they also owe me compensation for that as well, but I’m still waiting for it.”
“I earn 15,000-16,000 roubles (£180-190) a month as a mechanic at the Krasnosulin chicken factory; I used to earn twice that when I worked underground for 10 years at the Rostov mine,” says Igor Litvinov. “I have a wife and a small child, and we survive on very little money. Fortunately, our parents are still around and help us out. Here, like everywhere in Russia, prices are going up but wages are frozen. I had real problems finding a job here – I searched all over the town. I’m also an electrical fitter and take appliances home to mend, which gives me a bit more cash.”
Aleksander Ilyanov, Former employee of the Almaz mine. Photo: Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved.Pensioner Aleksandr Ilyanov worked at the Almaz mine for 19 years. He lives in the village of Yasny, near Gukovo: there is no public transport there, and he used to cycle to work in the summer and walk the seven kilometres in the winter. He has received just half of the money owed to him, and is still owed 200,000 roubles (£2370).
“My wife had a stroke at the end of last year and is in hospital now,” Ilyanov tells me. “I’m up to my ears in debt: I have to borrow from a neighbour as I’ve only got a pension of 16,000 roubles a month (£190) and up to 7,000 roubles can go on medication alone in a week. I live in a house with a stove, and barely survived the winter: I had hardly any good coal left and had to cut some wood. It was cold. I’d like to refurbish my house, but I don’t have the money, and recently my back was hurting so badly that I wept. It’s a miner’s condition, you know what I mean. But I don’t have any money for medicines.”
Many miners have occupational illnesses. They are usually conditions affecting the lungs: silicosis (breathlessness, a dry cough and chest pain), pneumoconiosis (the same plus heart problems, digestive disorders and the risk of pneumonia), bursitis (inflammation around the joints) and so on. Lung cancer is also common.
“Just think,” says Tatyana Avascheva, “the miners are mostly pensioners; they go on these pickets and get stressed out. They were all ill already, and this endless stress has just exacerbated their poor state of health. Plus, radiation levels in Gukovo are higher than normal. A whole family died recently: first the husband, then the wife, and their 16-year-old son was left an orphan. In two years of picketing, 15 miners of working age have died.”
According to local residents, the crime level in Gukovo is rising: people have started drinking more, there have been more burglaries. Things are generally pretty depressing. Activists tell me that the miners were slightly cheered by the news of the two pit sales, but not many people believe that the mines will reopen and there will be jobs again. They will, however, continue picketing until their wages are paid.