National Geographic : 2014 Jun
Siberian Train 121 were as much the point as the railway itself. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev gave much of the responsibility for building the BAM to the Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth wing, which imbued the project with a spirit of exu- berance. Between 1974 and 1984, 500,000 people were involved in its construction. They were drawn by the romance of sleeping in wooden barracks in the forest and also by salaries up to three times the Soviet average. Many workers were even promised that after three years on the BAM, they would get a voucher for a new car, an almost mythical luxury at the time. Little did these pioneers know that the end of this heroic experiment was just a few years away. In 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared, so too did the resources and enthusiasm to promote and maintain the BAM. By the mid-1990s the region had fallen prey to alcoholism, poverty, and isolation. Many people left. Those who stayed have grown old in an unforgiving environ- ment. Winter temperatures often reach 60° below zero F. In a region with few roads suitable for automobiles, the main route in or out is the railroad. The vil- lages along the BAM survive like an archipelago of small, secluded islands carved out of the wil- derness. Not surprisingly, access to dependable health care is limited. The Matvei Mudrov train is not equipped for even lightly invasive procedures, let alone sur- gery, though its doctors can offer a diagnosis and recommend a course of treatment. But the medical train is one of the few points of contact those along the BAM have with the rest of the country. (Locals refer to other parts of Russia as “on land.”) The train offers them a sign that the rest of Russia knows that they exist, remembers them, and on some level, cares if they live or die. The town of Berkakit is made up of a few streets and rows of prefabricated apartment blocks, their paint long faded and foundations ever threatening to sink into the damp perma- frost. It was built in the mid-1970s as a transport hub for the BAM and was once home to as many as 9,000 people. Now less than half remain. By around nine in the morning, when the doctors on the Matvei Mudrov begin seeing patients, a line has formed along the tracks. Among those patiently waiting is Mikhail Zdanovich, a 61-year-old man with a wide face sheathed in heavy, pink skin. His right arm with its dislocated shoulder is in a fabric sling: He is waiting his turn for surgery in Khabarovsk, about a thousand miles away. That is months off. He wants to ask the doctors if he should work in the meantime. Zdanovich tells me he was sent to the BAM in 1976, when he had just finished Soviet military service. At the time Berkakit was a tiny settle- ment of a hundred or so young people living in hastily built dormitories. “ There was one road— well, they called it a road—but it was no road at all,” he says. Life was hard but also simple and charming. The work in freezing weather was tough but made bearable by parties at night with cognac and Soviet-made champagne. At school, children lunched on bread smothered with black caviar; the handful of shops in town carried al- most unheard-of treats, like Japanese clothes and Hungarian jam, shipped in at great expense to keep the workers happy. After a year Zdanovich met a woman who worked at the town bakery; she became his wife. Now he is employed as a repairman at the local depot. Three years ago he threw out his shoulder while pushing a train car into place; his bosses at the state railways agency urged him to go home and rest but not to file a report. He has been living with his painful, largely immovable shoulder ever since, somehow not so bothered by it, or at least not enough to get himself on a THE TRAIN OFFERS A SIGN THAT THE REST OF RUSSIA KNOWS THEY EXIST, REMEMBERS THEM, AND ON SOME LEVEL, CARES IF THEY LIVE OR DIE.