Vladimir Shityikov Mines 'Black Gold' (and the Good Life) in Some of the World's Harshest Weather

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Seen from afar amid the Siberian taiga, the city of Neryungri looks like a great white ship sailing on a sea of dark pine. A Communist version of the company boomtown, Neryungri has risen out of the land in just the past 10 years, one of the more successful symbols of the U.S.S.R.'s determination to exploit the phenomenal mineral wealth of the remote, frozen territory of Yakutia. Today, Neryungri is a bustling town with a population of 120,000, according to Soviet officials (Western sources put the figure closer to 60,000), and virtually everyone works and lives for coal. Yakutia, Soviets say, holds an estimated 40 billion tons of the stuff. Much of the 12-square-mile Neryungri deposit is high-grade coking coal ideal for steel production. To get at it hasn't been easy. The Soviets had to mortgage half Neryungri's reserves to Japan upfront in exchange for a much-needed $450 million credit. The numbing cold caused endless machinery breakdowns. The area's remoteness raised prices for everything—quadrupling, for instance, the estimated cost of Neryungri's apartment buildings. Nevertheless, Soviets say Neryungri's huge open-pit mine, a lunar landscape that scars the formerly pristine wilderness, now produces some 15 million tons of coal a year, shipped everywhere from the Ukraine to Japan. One of the thousands who work in the mine is excavator Vladimir Shityikov. An account of his day follows.

The morning haze of ice fog has begun to burn off over the vast black-and-white bowl of the Neryungri mine, and the day is warming up nicely. It's—33°F. Hundreds of feet below the mine's snowy rim, Excavator No. 660 is in full swing, biting off 12 tons of coal at a scoop and heaping it in to awaiting 180-ton dump truck, id ling and shaking on its 10-foot tires. Working am id a cloud of black dust and steam, its 390-ton bulk waltzing to a rhythm of scoop-turn-dump, the excavator seems more beast than mechanism. With a parting diesel hoot, the heavily loaded truck rumbles off, then out of the excavator's cab comes the ghost of the machine. Vladimir Shityikov is a mite next to his monster, but he is the man who makes it dance.

"The most important thing is it's really satisfying to me to be the first in the line of coal from here to its destination," says Shityikov, 30. "Among the millions of tons of coal that this mine produces, part of it I give." There's family pride in Shityikov's words; not only Volodya, as he is known, but also his brother, Slava, 29, and father Anatoly, 55, operate excavators in the mine, drawn by high pay and a new life in the Siberian wilderness.

Scraping Siberia's "black gold" from beneath the frozen ground can be grueling work. The mine operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, unless the temperature drops to—58°F, when even steel becomes brittle. On this mid-November day Volodya and his assistant, Volodya Ryadov, are working the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift. A heater warms the excavator's cab, and there's hot water on tap for making tea, while Shityikov himself radiates easygoing humor and friendliness, every crease and dimple of his amused expression grimed with coal dust. Despite the nominally sealed cab, the fine black powder works itself in everywhere. Within 10 minutes of the last truck, another rolls up, and Volodya is digging again, the cabin rocking back and forth as he maneuvers the machine, guiding it like an extension of his own body, a lever in each hand and a pedal at each foot.

By midday the low, wintry sun has barely crept above the canyon of coal dug out by Volodya, and the mobile commissary rolls up. Inside the large cafeteria mounted on an old mining truck bed, the two Volodyas, served by a grizzled, two-toothed fellow, sit down at one of four tables covered with oilcloth to eat their meals—vegetable soup, beef and potato stew, cheese, bread and sweet apple soup. After lunch Volodya goes back to mining coal until day's end, then returns to the plant headquarters, sheds his miner's khaki and takes a shower. Leaving the mine, he passes a giant poster of a worker in overalls carrying a red banner over the slogan "The Party of Lenin Is the Vanguard of Communist Construction."

Volodya is not a Party member and calls himself "an independent." As he sits in his living room with the TV tuned to a weight-lifting event, bouncing his daughter Anastasia on his lap, he comes across mainly as a dedicated young father. He and his wife, Louisa, 29, met in high school and have another daughter, Ksenye. Although Neryungri still faces a housing shortage—10 years ago the original settlers lived in tents, and newly arrived single workers are still housed for up to three years in dormitories—the Shityikovs are well established, with Volodya and his father renting both apartments on one corridor of their building. Each has five rooms, including kitchen and bathroom. Slava lives with his father and mother, Raisa, 53, who works in a commissary. The two brothers are proud owners of top-of-the-line Zhiguli sedans. Each of them earns between 1,000 and 1,100 rubles ($1,500) a month, more than four times the national average.

Thanks to special incentives created to lure workers to Siberia, salaries in the north are the highest in the Soviet Union. Workers receive a bonus of 70 percent over normal base salaries to start, and the state pays their moving expenses to the remote region. They are given 42 vacation days a year (compared with the normal 24), and every two years they are entitled to a free holiday anywhere in the Soviet Union. The coveted privilege of foreign travel also is more readily available. Tours are offered to Cuba, India, Finland, Japan and even France—but not, Volodya regrets, to the U.S. or Great Britain. Those who go to work in Siberia earn the right to retire anywhere they wish in the Soviet Union—a prize in a country where it's difficult to legally move from one city to another. But such emoluments sometimes are not enough to compensate for eight months of bone-cracking cold, and Neryungri's population reportedly has an annual turnover rate of 11 percent.

Excavator drivers are the elite among mine workers. "What's good about this trade is that you're respected and you make good money," says father Anatoly. "Only the really strong people can work in the north. Those who come here for the fast buck leave very soon because they can't stand the climate and the work." Anatoly brought his family to Neryungri six years ago from Rudny in Kazakhstan, about 3,000 miles away, where Volodya was born. As a boy Volodya often visited the mine where his father operated a gargantuan dragline excavator. "Naturally I was fascinated at how my father moved this huge thing and kept it under his control," says Volodya. His father used to take him up in the driver's seat. "By the time I was 12, I could drive a car and operate an excavator."

Anatoly Shityikov is due for retirement this year and is thinking of leaving his apartment to Slava, who's engaged to be married, and returning with Raisa to his birthplace of Zheleznogorsk, across the country in the Kursk area of the Ukraine. "It's a pity I have to retire, " he says, "but my car's back there, and I want to spend some time traveling." Later, over glasses of vodka and a family dinner featuring Ukrainian pelemeniye, a ravioli-like pasta dish, he sighs, "Such an old man in a new town."

Volodya feels he's found the good life in Siberia. "I have my family, my car, apartment, important work and everything I need," he says. An avid reader, he favors detective novels, but his library also includes Russian editions of Faulkner, Hemingway and Shelley. This year he will begin courses at the local branch of the Yakutsk State University mining department for an engineering degree that could lead to a promotion. But for now, he's happy digging coal. "If you make a career your life's target, you can do it anywhere, but we don't emphasize that here," he says. "We just work and do our best and don't try to become famous."

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