Siberia's New Women
updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
It's -40°F, and the wind rustles wisps of Valentina Yatsenko's flaxen hair peeking from under her fur hat. "Of course it's not cold if you're working," she laughs, as she drives a metal stake connecting two links on the Ayum railroad spur in Siberia. Valentina, 26 (below), is one of eight women among a 90-person crew laying track 500 miles through the wilderness from Neryungri north to Yakutsk. The call of the wild was an adventure for Valentina. When her husband, Vladimir, got out of the army in 1980, they answered an ad in Komsomolskaya Pravda, the young Communists' newspaper, calling for patriotic workers to develop the Siberian frontier. "It was a romantic thing," she says. "Our families were surprised, but they didn't object. Now I have two children, Albina and Alexei. Siberia is their home." Valentina has driven spikes for nearly six years, earning $600 a month, more than double the national average for all workers. But Valentina and the other women in the crew may be the last who will labor shoulder to shoulder with male comrades on the railroad. Several years ago the government announced that women would no longer be hired to run heavy equipment. "From the point of view of health protection, for our ability to bear children for the state, we think it is a proper decision," says Valentina, glancing at her friends. Asked if she then would give up her own job, Valentina replies, "Oh, no! I like it too much."
Women constitute 70 percent of the U.S.S.R.'s doctors, most of whom work in community clinics and have training equivalent to American paramedics. One of them is Tatyana Popovitch, 38, manager of the physicians' department at the spanking-new 1,000-bed Neryungri hospital. In Neryungri, as elsewhere, authorities are fighting alcoholism, but 70 beds still are reserved for alcohol-related illness. (Drinking has led to increased domestic abuse as well. Each town has a Women's Committee that can intercede strongly where necessary.) "These extreme Siberian conditions affect the health of women and children much more than men," says Tatyana. Many newcomers to Siberia become allergic to the blossoms of the larch tree. People need more daily calories and vitamins, and some lack essential minerals, perhaps because of permafrost's effect on groundwater (the earth in Neryungri is permanently frozen to a depth of more than 100 feet). Explains Tatyana: "Everyone not born in Siberia must pass medical exams before being allowed to move here. Pregnant women should not move here until after they deliver their babies because of certain infection problems. And parents in Neryungri must not take their small children away to warm, moist climates until they are five years old." Neryungri is, in fact, a lab of sorts for the study of the health effects—mainly respiratory problems—of extremely cold dry air. "I was expecting something terrible when my husband and I moved here three years ago from Kiev," Tatyana says. "But it wasn't bad. Our biggest complaint is still the common cold."
At age 60, Saima Karimova looks as if she still might seize her transit at any minute and march out of her office into the taiga. As director of the prestigious South Yakutian Geological Survey, with headquarters in Chulman, a Siberian prospecting settlement, she is responsible for surveying some of the Soviet Union's richest territory, an area slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Georgia. "No place in the world has the unique combination of coal and iron ore found here," she explains. Given the Soviet Union's crucial demand for these raw materials, Karimova's stature is impressive. She oversees a staff of 1,500 who survey, map and prepare sites for mining or development. Saima is part of a long tradition of women pioneers in Siberia. Two women geologists in fact, Lagisdina and Treshilova, originally mapped the huge coal deposits while surveying the region after World War II. When Karimova and her husband came from the Ukraine in the 1950s, Chulman was still only a tent camp of geologists. "This was virgin land," she recalls, her eyes glistening with the memory. "There were many varieties of trees, and the river was rich with fish." Karimova raised three daughters and watched Chulman grow into a bustling town. It was no surprise that the state awarded her one of its highest decorations—the Order of Lenin—in 1976. "Yes, I was very honored," she says with great dignity. "But our whole center has taken part in this work. I was sad everybody could not get a prize."
The Marion/Sumitoma 201 coal shovel stands 53 feet tall and weighs 684 tons, and no one in Neryungri knows more about the behemoth than Olga Naumova, 34, a slight, shy technical translator for the enormous mining company Yakutugol. "When I came here eight years ago I didn't know a nut from a bolt," she says. An English language grad of Yakutsk State University and later Leningrad State, her job was to translate the complex English manuals into Russian so that engineers could modify the huge American-Japanese machines. Only when they began to function reliably in temperatures that often plummet to—58°F could the coal mining begin. "That was a wonderful time," Olga remembers. "We worked every night until midnight. Then at 3 a.m. the telephone would ring. A shovel would have broken down. We would go back up to the mine. We would build fires in the night next to the machines, and I would translate on the spot from English to Russian. I loved that feeling of helping people communicate with each other. All the early difficulties made us closer as human beings."
Olga came to Neryungri from her native Yakutsk. "It was exciting, a new city, a new project, a new life," she says. It was also adventure and the opportunity to work with the foreign technicians from the firms that built many of the machines. She pored over books day and night, compiling a dictionary that is now the bible for the mine's technical staff. "There was great spirit. If it was cold, it was cold for everyone. If you missed dinner, everyone missed dinner. There were wild parties in winter, picnics in summer. I miss those times."
Being single, Olga has become an exception in Neryungri, where the average age of both men and women is 27 and most of her peers are married. She relies on friends for companionship and on her "great friend," Misha, her 9-year-old German shepherd. Olga thinks about marriage but admits that male chauvinism still prevails. "Truthfully, I do not meet many men I would want to marry," she says. "A man should give kindness to a woman. He should lead her away from foolish behavior. And we would have to have common interests. Some men think I am too independent."
Female independence may not be popular among men, but it is enthusiastically supported by the state, which encourages single women to bear children to stem the falling birthrate. "I am considering it," admits Olga, who has a single woman friend at the mine with two children. "Twenty years ago people would have disapproved. Now they say when it's a woman's age for childbearing, she should decide." The material incentives to become a single mother are enormous: a bigger apartment, state grants, priority vacation time and job protection.
For the moment Olga's affections lie elsewhere. "I'm crazy about the hydraulic systems of my shovels," she laughs. "But I'm considering changing to metallurgy. There's a new mine being built 400 kilometers away." Olga's eyes sparkle as they do only when she relives Neryungri's pioneer days. "So much is happening there. It's the future, I think."