Previously in Atlantic Abroad:
Snowed-in in Shangri-La (Mike Meyer, China, August 2, 2000).
India's Road Cool (Mike Youngblood, India, July 7, 2000).
Manhood and Bureaucracy in Ozyory (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, June 1, 2000).
Soccer in the City (Erik Barmack, Italy, May 10, 2000).
This Goat Goes to Market (Joshua Kurlantzick, Oman, March 29, 2000).
Monsoon Time (Rahul Goswami, Dubai, March 1, 2000).
Rank Strangers (Jeff Biggers, Italy, February 9, 2000).
Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).
The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).
Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).
New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).
Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.
Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.
August 31, 2000
I was already suffering from a bad case of "be careful what you wish for" when Nikolai Galushko pointed a wooden ruler at the map of the Oktyabrskaya coal mine hanging on his office wall. "The conditions are very difficult," he said, tracing a path down the 3,200-foot mineshaft. "This is one of the most high-risk mines in Ukraine."
Nikolai, a cocky twenty-eight-year-old who looks like he should wrestle bears, smirked and walked out the door. I hurried after him, down a flight of stairs, across an empty lobby, and up another flight of stairs. The place looked like an abandoned high school and felt like a prison. We entered a changing room, where a woman with tired eyes handed me the worn cotton jacket and pants of a miner's uniform. I stripped down to my boxers, slipped on a pair of hard plastic sandals and followed Nikolai into a room next to a row of showers. The far wall was covered by a grid of wooden cubbyholes where each miner leaves his underwear. I pushed mine into an empty slot. As we dressed, Nikolai explained that superstitious miners don't make evening plans before beginning a shift in the mine. Nikolai was trying to scare me again.
I had been trying to get down a coal mine all week. As a journalist, I needed to see the toll that decades of heavy mining and heavier corruption had taken on Ukraine's coal mines, among the deepest in the world. As a descendent of Welsh miners, I wanted to know the emotions of a miner's life. So I had taken the night train from Kiev fifteen hours across the frozen eastern steppe. I scrunched in the back of a beat-up BMW for a two-hour ride to a mine called Belitskaya. I pleaded, then argued, with four anxious mine directors who had started their careers when Krushchev was in office. I sat with them around a table for five hours, eating salted fish and drinking vodka shots in honor of hard work, safety, and a strong, independent Ukraine. I left frustrated and drunk.
The next day, Mikhael Volynets, the leader of a powerful miners' union, agreed to phone a friend at the government coal ministry, who called the director of the Oktyabrskaya mine, who then told Nikolai, a deputy director of the mine, that he had to take me to meet "Aleksandrovsky," Oktyabrskaya's three-foot-thick coal seam an hour's journey underground. Be careful what you wish for.
Nikolai settled onto a bench and showed me how to wrap a swath of thin cloth around each bare foot. Nikolai's cloth held tight. Mine started to unravel as I pulled on a pair of gum boots. I followed Nikolai to another room, filled with racks of helmets and headlamps. A woman handed me a light metal canister. Nikolai told me to hold the canister between my knees and yank on the cord. A flimsy air mask popped out, and I set the chalky mouthpiece between my teeth. Nikolai said I should do this in the mine if there were a fire or if a pocket of methane gas were to trigger an explosion.
Nikolai talked about a blast a few weeks earlier that had killed five men in the nearby Skochinskova mine. It could have been worse. Nearly half a million people still work Ukraine's 250-odd coal mines, aching relics of the Soviet industrial machine. Each year, some 300 miners are killed underground. Two weeks after my day with Nikolai, explosions in the Barakova mine, an hour's drive to the northeast, would kill eighty-one men.
I followed Nikolai across a slushy gray courtyard and into a shed that covered the main mineshaft. A woman named Galena pulled open the elevator door. Galena had warm, soft eyes, two gold teeth, and six kids. She tugged on my arm, patted her chest, and announced in broken English that I could live at her house. "I love you," she said, tugging again. I smiled weakly and backed onto the swaying utility elevator. Galena shrugged and swung shut the rusty gate.
The elevator's pulleys ground out a gentle rhythm. Water poured from the mineshaft's mud walls, falling faster than we were. After five minutes, we stepped from the elevator into a hollow room bathed in dim, yellow light and then followed a boardwalk of old two-by-fours into a tunnel, the beginning of a mile-long hike to Aleksandrovsky. Nikolai broke chunks of rock from the ceiling with his hand. The earth's pressure had buckled the tunnel's ceiling and floor, and we had to duck to pass through the tightest sections. Pipes hissed and clanged. A miner's voice drifted past. Water flowed in a ditch. Nikolai pointed to a snapped support beam. He told me that, if a fire started, I should run in the direction of the wind, toward the fresh air. Then Nikolai reminded me that Oktyabrskaya has sixty miles of tunnels. I clicked off my headlamp and looked back into the darkness. The air was cool, but tasted dead.
We descended one last, steep tunnel, and Nikolai squatted to look into Aleksandrovsky. He turned toward me with a taunting smile. I lowered to my hands and knees, and picked my way sideways to the entrance of the three-foot-high cavern. I angled around a wooden post and lifted my head to see a world of black shadows and hot lamps, stretching 600 feet to the coal face. Nikolai, despite his 200 pounds, moved quickly past me, crawling like a soldier on his way to the front line. He waved me on. I could taste the thick coal dust. My back scraped on the rock. I made it about ten feet, but didn't trust myself to go further.
A miner named Gennady Iskandiar crawled over. He was in the middle of a six-hour shift setting stout wooden braces to support 3,000 feet of earth. A second miner, Vladimir Yakovlev, stretched out beside us. We were all sweating. Gennady's face was caked in black dust. His eyes shone like a raccoon's. I had to raise my voice above the grinding of a coal conveyor and the crunching of rock. I asked Gennady if he was afraid. Gennady was angry. He told me that he and others in the mine were owed eight months pay. Some months, Gennady was given enough to keep him working, but not enough to feed his family. Vladimir talked of miner strikes before the breakup of the Soviet Union and after.
I started to feel cramped. I said an awkward goodbye and scrambled back to the mouth of Aleksandrovsky. The narrow rubber conveyor belt rattled up the steep tunnel a few hundred yards to waiting coal cars. Nikolai explained that it makes for a quicker uphill trip. I lay face down on the belt, then jostled along, my cheek pressed into the coal dust. I felt a loneliness Gennady must know, carried along by a system too big to kill quickly, though dying under its own weight. I climbed off the conveyor and followed Nikolai on the long walk back to the elevator shaft. We met a group of miners ending their shift early. They told Nikolai they had lost their coal car and suspected it had been stolen. Who, Nikolai asked, would steal a coal car?
As the elevator climbed, the banter picked up. Nikolai teased one miner, saying the miner drove a convertible sports car and kept a vacation home in the Canary Islands. Another miner made a crack about holidays taken by Pavlo Lazarenko, the former prime minister convicted of stealing millions of dollars from his country. I kept quiet. The next day, I would be sitting in a Kiev café, writing in my notebook. The others would be in the elevator again, going to meet Aleksandrovsky.
Tom Haines (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance journalist. In addition to riding a mineshaft elevator, he has traveled by helicopter, 4 x 4, and bicycle in search of stories from the edge of Europe. He lives in Paris and is writing a book based on his dispatches.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.