Russia's far east is the site of an experiment in government and social development led by Roman Abramovich, billionaire businessman and owner of Chelsea football club. Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, who has tracked the Chukotka story for six years, uses his unique access to the region to send this progress report.
When he begins to speak there is silence. His audience sits on the grass in front of their tented camp. Yakov Marshak wears metal-rimmed spectacles, a fancy sports-jacket and tennis-shoes. In this far corner of Russia he looks as out of place as a visitor from outer space. Dr Marshak, a famed Moscow anti-alcoholism expert, is addressing an audience of Chukchi reindeer-herders, walrus-hunters, their children and their wives. Their faces have been sculpted by the extreme climate of the far north, their hands stiffened by exposure and hard work.
The concentration on the crowd's faces is as complete as when they watch from their boats for the signs that whales are about to break the surface of the ocean. "When you feel depressed it's natural to look for something to make you feel better, some magic formula", says Marshak, raising his voice to be heard above the winds whipping in off the sea. He tells them that he has just finished a training course for local therapists in the regional capital, Anadyr. They now have the expertise to deal with alcoholism, and will return to their villages to prescribe yoga, breathing exercises and a special nutrition programme to supplement diets with vitamins and minerals.
"I like new challenges"
Marshak is in Chukotka because of a bright young woman called Ida Ruchina, who stands next to him in a blue jacket, scanning the audience's faces for signs of understanding and approval. She tells me that alcoholism may kill them, and that she is ready to do anything to prevent that. She is the president of theChukotka Red Cross, as well as being a cousin of the regional governor, Roman Abramovich. She came to Chukotka with him six years ago, helping him carry out humanitarian work during the tragically cold winter of 2000-01.
Ruchina speaks fluently as she reels off dry and detailed information about her cousin's gubernatorial achievements, conveying a slight air of exasperation if she feels it's not being fully absorbed. She thinks that Abramovich's efforts in Chukotka are not properly recognised, and that sensation-hungry tabloids in particular want only to throw more dirt at him.
I first met Ida during the ice-cold January of 2001 when I visitedAnadyr for Roman Abramovich's inauguration as governor, a month after his election. Even then I felt that his connection with Chukotka made this exotic and isolated corner of the country an important part of the Russian political patchwork. At first glance it was far from obvious why one of the country's richest men, with his close Kremlin connections and ownership of an extremely profitable oil company, would come to this remote place, first representing it in the federal parliament and then as governor.
The conspiratorial talk over kitchen tables across Moscow had little doubt as to why Chukotka had proved so alluring to the billionaire. He was either in search of parliamentary immunity for the turbulent times that lay ahead once Boris Yeltsin stepped down, or he knew something about the region's mineral deposits that others did not.
"I came here because I like new challenges", was how Roman Abramovich modestly explained his motives to me after granting a rare interview.
Chukchis have lived a nomadic life in the Chukotka region for centuries. Life in this frozen and remote corner of the Eurasian landmass has always been a struggle for existence. Things changed dramatically under the Soviets, with indigenous tribes being forced to settle, to learn the orthodoxies of collectivisation, the planned economy and the communist party's drive to construct a better tomorrow. Children left their families to study in boarding schools, and started speaking Russian rather than the native languages of their families. Moscow showed no mercy towards its remote far-eastern colony, and the area became a notorious destination for Gulag prisoners who toiled like slaves in the gold and lead mines.
After 1945, Chukotka remained a military zone, packed with troops readied for any potential invasion of nearby Alaska. The move away from the harsh excesses of Stalinism brought voluntary workers to the region, attracted by high wages and privileges. When communism finally collapsed it only brought more troubles and hardships to Chukotka. Most of the imported Russian labour fled, and the indigenous people were left in poverty, unemployed and unable to go back to their pre-Soviet way of life.
It took several painful years before whale-hunters were sufficiently trained to catch the quota of 135 grey whales allotted to Chukotka by the International Whaling Commission. One habit the locals did retain, learned in Czarist times and refined during the Soviet years, was drinking vodka. People who faced the hard challenges of post-communist life fell victim to alcohol addiction in record proportions, and increasing numbers committed suicide.
In the village of Lavrentia, where Yakov Marshak was giving his talk on fighting alcoholism, the traditional July festival of Beringia attracts visitors from across the region. Some take part in a boat race while others eat meals of whale or walrus meat, cooked on temporary stands. But Marshak's talk is as big a draw as the traditional activities. Many of the Chukchi people know that the fight against alcohol addiction is a battle for the tribe's survival. If this big-nosed Muscovite (to them all white Russians have large noses) can help them, then they have to listen.
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of the book Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.
Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:
"Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shadow" (3 April 2006)
"Russia: racism on the rise" (26 April 2006)
"Russia’s corruption dance" (15 June 2006)
" Kinoeye: Russia’s reviving film industry " (15 June 2006)
"Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux" (14 August 2006)
I remember my visit to Chukotka in January 2001 better than most of my Russian trips. The temperatures were scraping record low levels, battered by gales and carpeted by heavy snow falls. The region felt on the verge of total disaster, with remote villages running out of food and fuel, power generators breaking down and airplanes grounded with frozen engines. Abramovich brought his own team of former executives from the oil company Sibneft (renamed Gazpromneft in 2006), who worked around the clock carrying out an impressively successful humanitarian rescue operation. Children were evacuated and emergency supplies were delivered. Remarkably for a country riddled by corruption, success was won without the theft or embezzlement of the funds that the new governor donated out of his own, admittedly sizeable, wallet.
Over the next three years he was a regular visitor to Chukotka, using his energy and dynamism to enervate the region. An official from the village of Providenie has vivid memories of one visit, when he accompanied Abramovich to an indigenous village. They met people in the local school, the billionaire confronted with the other end of the Russian social scale. Many of the Chukchi resembled tramps, dressed in worn-out clothes. Some were obviously drunk. The school stank of walrus meat. The meeting was over quickly.
The governor, even as he walked to his helicopter, rapidly dictated instructions to his assistants. First there was to be a new school, then a power station, then a clinic, and new houses for everybody. When they reached the helicopter he asked his bodyguard for a bottle of vodka. It was not for drinking - It was to disinfect his hands.
Despite the achievements of his first term as governor, by the end of 2005 many members of his team there were hoping that he was not going to run for re-election, thus allowing them to return to more advanced parts of Russia. Abramovich, his attention taken by his passion for the London football club Chelsea, was also said to feel like quitting. Vladimir Putin, however, was of a different opinion. An oligarch as the governor of a remote region, willing to subsidise the local economy out of his own pocket, was an ideal option for the president, one that was also proving a success in a couple of other Russian regions.
Roman Abramovich, who was hoping to get the Kremlin's approval for the sale of his oil company to the state-owned Gazprom, had no choice. In October 2005 his private Boeing 767 landed once more in Chukotka for the inauguration of his second term as governor. Since then he has administered the region by telephone from London.
An ecotourist future?
My recent visit to Chukotka was my first since that winter visit five years ago. The region now looks very different. The old post-Soviet spirit has largely disappeared from the streets of the capital, Anadyr, which now boasts a new airport, roads, hotels, orthodox church, college, hospital, supermarket and automatic bank cash machines. During my two-week tour of Chukotka I saw plenty of new housing dotting the villages and towns of the region. Some local Chukchi have even been able to equip their hunting boats with new and expensive Japanese engines.
The size and beauty of Chukotka is best appreciated from the governor's private helicopter. It takes hours to reach one settlement from another. In the summer the land is painted in greens, greys and blues, vividly different from the shades of winter white I saw in 2001. I am especially impressed by the tundra, carpeted thickly in grass, miniature bushes and berries. We fly over rocky fjords, volcanic hills and ice-free lakes. With the sea packed with marine mammals it seems the entire region could blossom as an ecotourism paradise.
Indeed, my tour of the region was organised by the local Red Cross and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who both believe that ecotourism could be the key to helping the indigenous population in the future. Unfortunately, even after five years of Roman Abramovich, Chukotka's tourist infrastructure barely exists. Outside Anadyr the land still needs a major clean-up. Even the most remote settlements are scarred by piles of abandoned rusty fuel-barrels. The deserted, windowless military camp in Providenie reminds me of the Chechen capital, Grozny, after heavy shelling. The forsaken communications installations on Mount Beklemesheva look like the set of a science-fiction film about a mysterious civilisation that perished in unknown circumstances.
There are other obstacles to developing ecotourism in the region. Every time the helicopter lands, uniformed border-patrol officers check our documents. According to federal regulations Chukotka is a restricted zone for visitors. An entry permit takes forty-five days to organise. The unpredictable weather can ruin any trip, a gamble made worse by the limited working hours of airports and air-traffic control services.
A resident of the village of Egvekinot tells me that the governor's first deputy, Andrei Gorodilov, landed his helicopter there recently for refuelling, only to be told that despite the excellent weather he could not take off again until the next day. The airport in Anadyr, his destination, was shutting down before he would arrive, a situation that even urgent calls to the organisation that runs aviation services in Chukotka was unable to resolve.
Another key factor in shaping Chukotka's future is politics, both local and national. To some degree it seems like a miniature Russia, the relations between people and power regulated by the same patterns as elsewhere. Economic and social goals are set by local officials without consulting ordinary people. Critics of the administration say that one of its major errors was the large-scale recruitment of specialists from other regions, and the payment to them of wages several times higher than locals could expect.
The icon and the people
In the village of Uelen, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska, I met a French filmmaker, Frédéric Tonolli. He was making a documentary on the indigenous Chukchi, and also believes that strangers from central Siberia who were brought in as heads of villages failed to understand the nature of local challenges and problems. "Their major concern is when they can return home, rather than how to help the Chukchi," he argues. "They have no idea how to cope with alcoholism, or how to find a balance between old values and new ways of life."
Another criticism of the Abramovich approach is that it has been too businesslike and technocratic, underlain by a conviction that all that Chukotka needs is money, clever managers and modern technology. When confronted with criticism about its isolation from locals, the governor's team responds by blaming the local people themselves for their lack of energy and entrepreneurial spirit. I sometimes have the impression that although the governor himself remains a semi-holy icon for most of the population, his officials find their own efforts are not appreciated.
Maybe some of their critics have gone too far, like the author of a recently published and scurrilous book on the governor which contains sordid allegations about his Chukotka team. But the technocrats' irritation does follow an age-old Russian pattern: government is good, the people are not.
Before leaving Chukotka I try to find the answer to a question that is on everybody's mind: how long will Roman Abramovich stay as governor? This time I was not lucky enough to meet the man himself, although back in Moscow I spot him on a television screen hosting Russia's defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, in Anadyr, following a meeting over in Alaska with Donald Rumsfeld.
When I call a friend who remembers the early days of Abramovich in Chukotka, he tells me that this time the governor seemed tired and vaguely uninterested in what was going on. But we do not waste much time discussing his future, as we both know that the real answer will come from the Kremlin.
Will others keep their interest in the region? Yakov Marshak, after finishing his current round of anti-alcoholism work with the Chukchi, says that he will return to Chukotka. For him, finding a solution to this blight is as important as his high-society patients back in Moscow. At the ends of the earth, human-centred medicine as well as politics has work to do.