ASBEST, Russia — On a chilly afternoon earlier this week, an SUV parked at the edge of an enormous hole in the ground in the town of Asbest, Russia. Over six miles long and one thousand feet deep, it is the world's largest open-pit asbestos mine. Two young women in brightly-colored down jackets stepped out of the car to have a smoke and enjoy a panoramic view of what had been the town of Asbest's main industry and biggest source of pride for more than a century. Delighted, the women watched from afar as trucks and bulldozers, tiny as toys in the distance, excavated the mineral on the bottom of the mine, which was then loaded into wagons and transported along railroads. Stairs carved into the pit's earthy sides and layer after layer of roads and rails stretched towards the horizon, almost replicating, on a much larger scale, the striated look of asbestos fiber itself.
Workers at Ural Asbest, the company that operates the mine, refer to this spot simply as The Hole. The sight is at once impressive and surreal to anyone unused to the view of subsoil turned inside out. If you can brush aside thoughts of the carcinogenic dust that blows around this place, it's downright spectacular. Many generations of hard working Russians have labored in The Hole since the end of the nineteenth century. When I asked the two down-jacketed ladies about their history with the pit, Yulia Talipova explained: "My father worked in this hole for 20 years. This is our motherland." Talipova is outgoing and quick to smile. A professional cook, Yulia has been forced to leave her home to look for work. She found a new job in the Far North, in the city of Novy Urengoi, where she made 950 dollars a month -- twice the salary she had previously earned in Asbest. After suffering weeks of homesickness, she finally made it back to her beloved hometown. No sooner had she arrived than she was hurrying out to see the town's main attraction: The Hole.
Yulia and her friend, Lilia Orlova, were not concerned about breathing in asbestos fibers, which are widely understood in the West to cause lung disease. No, their worries were of a different nature. When I asked Orlova -- a young, pretty woman -- about the potential dangers, she gave me a long, penetrating look. "Are you here to criticize asbestos production? We worry that the aggressive anti-asbestos campaign in the West might somehow hurt our town. If, God forbid, Ural Asbest shuts down, the entire town's life will be over." Another observer on the edge of the pit, Nikolai Novosyolov, shared his belief that the chrysotile (or "white") asbestos produced in his city is harmless. He assured me that the dust can be "washed out of my body with liquids." But that doesn't mean he is has no worries at all. "For as long as we mine asbestos, Ural Asbest pumps underground water out of this pit," he explained. "But as soon as they stop, this hole will turn into a huge lake. I'm worried about the effect that's going to have on the environment."
The words "fear," "afraid," "frightened," and "concerned" littered my interviews in the single-industrial town of Asbest from day one. As in most of Russia's about 400 such monotowns, the lives of the majority of Asbest's 67,000 people -- about 6,700 of whom work in asbestos production -- depend on the interests, moods, and decisions of executives at the town's monopoly employer: in this case, the company known as Ural Asbest. Anyone in the town who falls out of the company's favor is likely to face a dark future. The town's residents see every journalist visiting the town as yet another critic of Ural Asbest, undoubtedly hired by the mysterious forces of the "international anti-asbestos campaign." Again and again we tried to explain that we had come as part of our continuing project on the future of Russian monotowns, and that nobody from the "anti-asbestos movement" had paid us. Our efforts were in vain.
The seriousness of the situation really dawned on us only on the third day of our stay, when a manager at our hotel broke some unexpected news: "Two men in camouflage showed up in a car and asked about your whereabouts around 6:00 a.m. this morning," the clerk told us. "But we refuse to share private information about our clients. They didn't show us any ID. All they said was that they're here for your security." Later that day, we interviewed patients at Polyclinic Number 3, one of the town's main healthcare facilities. The only oncologist in town receives some 40 to 50 patients a day, the clinic staff assured us. Of the four patients outside the oncologist's office on that day, two had cancer. Breast cancer patient Galina Brusnitsyna had worked at Ural Asbest for 36 years. "Every second person [at Ural Asbest] has asbestoses — tiny fibers of asbestos — stuck in our lungs and covered with scar tissue," Brusnitsyna told us. "Especially workers who neglect the rule about wearing respirators." Another patient, Ivan Solodayev, 56, had stage four lung cancer. He didn't know if his cancer was caused by asbestos, but he wanted help in reaching out to cancer specialists. Solodayev invited us to talk to his wife, who worked as a security guard at a gas station.
A few minutes after we entered the station, the phone on Nina Solodayeva's desk rang. The security service had called to urge her to stop talking to strangers. Later in the same day, Solodayeva was fired. It turned out the factory owns the gas station — and that she had broken the rules by letting strangers into "Ural Asbest facilities." To draw official attention to this most unusual situation, we hurried off to city hall to appeal on Solodayeva's behalf. Officials there promised that Solodayev and his wife would receive help and support from the city administration. They also assured us that "the strange car" that had stopped by our hotel wouldn't be following us again.
Civil society groups in Asbest doubted the reliability of those assurances. "There's nothing around here that's ‘independent,' you know that," Vladimir Shestakov, the head of the local "Club for Intellectuals," explained to me. Actually, I explained, I hadn't known that. When I asked him what he meant, Shestakov answered simply: "If you live in Asbest, you have to be cautious." Then he canceled a meeting we'd scheduled later in the day.
Why is there so much fear in Asbest? I posed the question to Yuri Druzhinin, an expert from the local government. "Everybody is afraid that asbestos production here could be shut down as a result of international criticism of the asbestos industry," Druzhinin said. "Ural Asbest's profit has shrunk by a factor of 2.5 over the last nine months. The future of the town is the main concern that all the officials here have."
That same day, officials at the Ministry of Labor in far-away Moscow came up with an idea that they believe will help citizens of Asbest and other monotowns to cope with their fears and move to other places. The Ministry of Labor promised to pay around 9,400 dollars to families that are willing to leave Russia's monotowns, and up to 25,000 dollars to families who chose to move to the Far East (presumably because the number of people in that part of Russia has fallen sharply in recent years due to low birth rates and the large numbers of young people who choose to move away). As early as 2014, every citizen living in or around the hundreds of industrious, polluted, or dying Russian monotowns will have a chance to bury their fears by leaving. Some unemployed residents, especially young ones, will be happy to accept the deal. The compensation on offer, while not enough to buy a new house, could be a good incentive for a young family that's prepared to start a new life.
So what about the rest?