The Last Miners of Snezhnoye

In this collapsed Ukrainian mining town, poverty-stricken residents risk their lives illegally digging a few dollars worth of coal

By Arie Farnam

On the outskirts of a dying city, the moon rises over the edge of the woods. Lines of small lamps appear on the crests of the hills, snaking down to the black mouths of abandoned coal mines. Miners dressed in ragged uniforms gather secretly in small hushed groups for the treacherous journey underground. Sasha, the 37-year-old leader of a gang of five, perches on a log waiting for two friends from across the ravine. "On a really good night, I can mine $15 worth of coal and return home safely," he rumbles in a low voice as he lights his cigarette. "God willing, this will be a good night."

The Ukrainian government, which is trying to downsize its inefficient coal industry, considers these makeshift mines illegal, but that doesn't stop several thousand men, women, and children -- some as young as 11 -- from making their living here outside Snezhnoye on the eastern edge of Ukraine. It isn't the job Sasha would have chosen: Digging coal 1,000 feet below ground in a tunnel so low he is bent almost double, and then hauling 100-pound sacks out on his back. Each sack brings just $1.50 on the black market, and the mines have killed two of Sasha's friends in the past year.

"SALVATION"?

  Yet, with a wife and children to support, he has little choice. "In truth, the mines are our salvation," he says. "The Ukrainian government has abandoned us, so I don't feel like a criminal. This is honest work. When the government returns to us, I will be happy to follow its laws and pay its taxes."

Sasha has been mining coal illegally for three years, ever since the nearby state mine shut down, plunging his village into desperate poverty. Snezhnoye was one of the places hardest hit by the fallout from Ukraine's transition to capitalism. Of 11 state mines, only one still provides employment, and that one often doesn't pay its workers for months on end.

As a result, Snezhnoye's population has sunk from 100,000 to 60,000 in the past 10 years. Potholes and deep black mud make the roads almost impassible in this wasteland of abandoned buildings, rusting industrial equipment, and slag heaps the size of small mountains. "The coal industry is the foundation of the economy, and when that was removed the town simply died," says Valeriy Lisiy, editor of the regional newspaper Strich, sinking his head into his hands. "We are still in shock."

ENORMOUS IMPACT.

  Snezhnoye was one of Josef Stalin's model cities. All of its industries, including metallurgy and chemical plants, are directly dependent on the coal mines for fuel and raw materials. In 1997, when the World Bank began closing local mines, the city's heart stopped. Factories, schools, restaurants, and shops went out of business. Unemployment soared to 50%. Most of the town is living on last year's potatoes.

"The Ukraine can import coal cheaper than it can produce it, if you discount the economic impact," concedes Jerry Triplett, an American mine specialist working in the region. "The problem with shutting down coal mines is that the whole town depends on them. If you displace 3,000 workers from a mine, the economic impact will be that 25,000 people lose their jobs."

Persistent hunger and a few hard winters have driven the unemployed back into the deserted mines. Ludmila, 40, a former shop assistant, wields a pickax alongside her 19-year-old daughter. The two women are covered with acrid black dust and gasping for breath. "We have to work, even if it is dangerous," Ludmila says, rubbing her black-rimmed eyes. "If you don't work you don't eat. Just last month, a woman near us died from the cold because she couldn't afford to buy coal."

WORSE DAYS COMING.

  Ludmila's husband was killed in a mining accident 12 years ago, so now the women work in the mines 12 hours a day. Each can bring out two to three tons of coal a month. At $29 a ton, that's good money for a Ukrainian family.

Hard times in Snezhnoye are likely just beginning. A World Bank report estimates that the Ukrainian coal industry still needs drastic downsizing. The country's mines are hugely inefficient. To make matters worse, industrial customers often can't pay for the coal they receive. And most mines haven't seen new equipment in 20 years and don't have even the most basic safety gear.

As a result, Ukrainian mines are among the most dangerous in the world, killing around 400 people annually. "Our coal is deep and dangerous to get at," admits Sergey Iliyashenko, head of the Independent Miner's Union at nearby Gorkovo Mine. "But it is of good quality, and our mines could be profitable if the equipment were upgraded."

"LOST CAUSE."

  Improvements, however, are expensive, and the cash-starved Ukrainian government is eager to accept World Bank offers of credit in exchange for mine closures. Only 35 out of Ukraine's 220 mines have been closed so far, and the World Bank is calling for half the remaining mines to be shut down. The result is likely to be economic devastation in the provinces of Dombas and Lugansk, once the richest and most populous part of the vast Soviet Union.

A top World Bank official in Ukraine, who asked not to be named, calls the country's mining region a "lost cause," adding that "the government shouldn't be using its scarce budget resources to support a failed mining industry. That is robbing more viable parts of the economy of the support they deserve."

The Ukrainian government has a plan to revitalize the area, which involves shutting down mines more slowly than the World Bank would like and retraining miners, but it has already run out of funding in the program's earliest stages. "There are phenomenal opportunities in this region, but too little money to make them happen," says Tom Fletcher, a consultant contracted by the U.S. Labor Dept. to retrain Ukrainian miners.

"WE STILL HAD DREAMS."

  The area is one of the world's most fertile, but farming is out of the question because private land ownership is banned in Ukraine. "Unless there is some major private investment, which is unlikely, given the complete lack of infrastructure, this area is doomed," says Strich editor Lisiy.

Lena Savina is struggling to keep her daughter out of the mines, which have already taken several members of her family. "Twelve years ago, when my daughter was born, we still believed in the future," she recalls. "We still had dreams." Then, the mines closed down and her husband, Aleksandr, lost his job.

At the age of 25, he found work at a machinery factory, but that too closed. After a third try at a sausage factory, which also folded, he joined an illegal mining gang. He was killed last December. "I don't have anyone to blame," says Savina with dull, dry eyes. "I can only hope my daughter and I won't have to follow him into the mines. That is the only hope I have left."

Farnam, who is from La Grande, Ore., has been covering Eastern Europe out of Prague for six years

Edited by Thane Peterson