Dispatches From Hell

Big as this thing is, loud and complicated, it was certainly once the embodiment of technology’s latest achievements. I suspect, though, that that proud moment was long before this particular dredge was constructed in the United States in 1952. It looks like a cross between a house and a steamship; its four stories were once, apparently, painted different happy colors: green, yellow, and red. Now the sheets of tin with which the walls are covered are the colors of swamp, dirt, and rust. And the name of the dredge–Progress, in all capital letters on the top level–has turned a peculiarly unappealing brown.

This dredge has been moving around the area chasing placer gold–the sort that has already separated from the rock in which it was lodged millions of years ago–for more than 40 years. Moving at the speed of about 1.5 kilometers a year, it has mostly kept close to the road, creating a sort of Kolyma landscape in miniature: endless naked hills. True to its name, it dredges up sand and rock from the bottom of the river–about 700 tons of it a year–puts it through its grinding, sorting, and washing paces and spits the remains out the other end. Its season is about five months out of the year, and during this time the dozen people on board produce a bit under two pounds of clean gold a day. Each stands to make about $2,500 in a season.

The actual gold is produced by three “washer women” in a tiny dark room inside the dredge. Dressed in rubber suits, they stand up to their ankles in water around a sloping wooden tray illuminated by a single powerful light bulb. With miniature brooms–tiny branches picked this morning on the way to work–wooden paddles, and their bare hands, they work the sand in the cold water on the tray to separate the black from the gold. Their movements, after more than 20 years on the dredge, are fine, fast, and failproof. After about an hour, they end up with an aluminum saucepan–the sort you would find in any poor kitchen–full of gold sand. At the end of the day, their boss tells me, “they will take it to the recipient agency in a guarded procession.”

“You have guards?” I asked.

“Yes, one, armed,” the head of the dredge, a short man named Junior, replied.

“What sort of arms?”

“Three-bullet.” A rifle, that is.

At the Russian gold-mining enterprises we have visited, the security of the gold could be compared only with the general security of the workers. At the next place we went, a mining enterprise called Matrosov, the factory room where the final separation of gold occurs was guarded by a woman in her 50s, wearing a red kerchief, an old soldier’s jacket too narrow to close over her chest, and a rifle on her shoulder. She paced beneath a semantically dubious sign: “The security of gold is the corollary of the workers’ level of consciousness.” Surely nothing but the worker’s level of consciousness determines his own safety–well, that and perhaps a helmet. No other precautions were to be observed.

At the factory, people work the cyanide mill without wearing respirators. In the mine, the workers are lowered, at breathtaking speed, on open platforms originally built for transporting ore. Once inside, they have to rely on their own ingenuity to secure their passage. Our guide, an earnest young man who took to heart our expressed desire to see everything, led us through vertical crawlways no more than two feet in diameter, leading to 15-foot makeshift wooden ladders leading, in turn, to simple boards thrown over bottomless pits. Flying rock everywhere, ill-fitting helmets, and no protective glasses.

“Are there a lot of accidents?” I asked one of the mine workers where we were alone.

“You want me to get fired?”

Good answer. The conditions and the lousy pay–around $200 a month at this mine–don’t matter, because these are the only conditions and the only pay available. The lucky 400 work for the Omolon Goldmining Co., the first place we visited on Kolyma, a joint venture in which workers make $450 a month and where every safety precaution is taken (and, as a corollary perhaps, the gold is guarded as I’ve always imagined it ought to be: with an intricate system of magnetic screens, searches, and a really armed guard). The rest are lucky to work anywhere at all.

Bill Fotheringham, the Canadian general director of Omolon, told me about a stalled gold-mining development his company attempted on Kamchatka, south of here. An American environmental group managed to thwart the effort. “It was outrageous,” he said. “There are people starving to death there.” Though my natural inclination would be to sympathize with the environmentalists against the capitalists, here I found myself entirely on Fotheringham’s side. The people in these gold-mining regions of Russia, if they have a chance of surviving at all, can survive only as long as the gold is being mined. Fortunately, says Fotheringham, much of it is still unmined: “It is like the United States at the turn of the century.” Russians working on prehistoric dredges like Progress have collected most of the placer gold, but what is called load deposits–gold lodged in rock–is largely untouched. Omolon, whose current mine is running out, is furiously looking for new sites.

Sasha and I flew around with the head of Omolon’s exploration operation, who visited some of the company’s far-flung exploring sites. Our helicopter would touch down and men would run up with white cloth bags marked “lab sample.” In Russian, the word for mountain range is the same as for human spine. The geologists, then, are performing spinal taps all over the place, drilling in as far as a couple of hundred meters, removing a sample, then, if there is gold in it, chasing its trajectory. Flying over, you can see the scars all over the hills and mountains. But anyone who is in this field, whether it’s a big international company or the dredge barge Progress, will follow the gold wherever it is.

“Next year, we’re going into the village,” Junior told me.

“Are you going to have to move people?”

“Not a lot of houses on the way, mostly gardens. We’ll just have to pay them off. The gold is there.”