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Next Step : Erasing Another Communist Error : Neftegorsk was a village that never should have been. Now a tragic quake and Khrushchev's heirs are 'correcting' his folly.

June 06, 1995|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEFTEGORSK, Russia — Neftegorsk, a sickly creature of Soviet planning and the 1960s oil rush on big, cold Sakhalin island, died last week on the same dusty bed where it was born 32 years ago.

Death followed an earthquake that struck at 1:03 a.m. May 28 and brought down all 17 of the village's five-story apartment blocks. An autopsy revealed that a birth defect called khaltura had weakened its resistance to the 7.5-magnitude jolt.

Khaltura, believed to be endemic in the former Soviet Union, is Russian slang for quick-and-dirty craftsmanship--a fatal flaw of the Khrushchev-era apartment-building boom. The Sakhalin provincial prosecutor is investigating to determine whether anyone should be tried for criminal negligence.

But the official cause of the death of Neftegorsk in Russia's Far East was a decision by the creator, the Moscow bureaucracy, not to rebuild the place. With the Russian treasury short of funds and with oil wells near the village drying up, Construction Minister Yefim Basin pronounced Neftegorsk dead.

"Neftegorsk has been razed from the face of the Earth," President Boris N.Yeltsin said in a televised eulogy. He declared a day of mourning for the village and the hundreds of villagers who accompanied it in death.

Funeral arrangements were being handled by bulldozers flown in from the mainland. But the task of flattening the mounds of rubble was delayed by a painstaking search for inhabitants, living and dead, still missing beneath the crumpled concrete.

Neftegorsk, which means oil town in Russian, left no wealth from its depleted wells nor any sense of community. It is survived by fewer than half its 2,977 residents, who voiced little will and displayed no means to rebuild their lives here, even though most have no idea where they will go.

"I want to go far away from here," survivor Tatyana Bestalanaya said after burying her husband and daughter in a makeshift grave near the ruins. The only thing keeping her here is the uncertain fate of her two other children, whose names have yet to appear on any list of living or dead.

Earthquakes inflict sudden tragedy on people like Tatyana who live along the earth's seismic faults. But even in the poorest and most remote of these places, survivors usually pick up their lives and stay put.

Neftegorsk is an exception. The peculiar tragedy of last week's quake was that the village had no humane reason to exist in the first place.

Like too many mining and industrial towns, it was founded under a Soviet system that sent people and their families where the work was, no matter how hostile the environment.

The Siberian tundra and Arctic wastes are dotted with cities of tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of settlers with little in life but ugly, gray, boxlike flats and hard labor extracting the diamonds, timber, gold and oil that are Russia's wealth.

In other countries, miners and oil workers go in shifts to temporary quarters without their families. The Soviets just moved in the lot, and many of their frontier settlements cost the state more in subsidies to maintain than they produced.

Deputy Prime Minister Oleg N. Soskovets admitted that the creation of Neftegorsk was "ill-considered." The Russian government has reached the same conclusion about other settlements but is trapped by paternalistic instincts: It has nowhere to move the settlers, so it keeps subsidizing them.

Such artificial colonies are found on Sakhalin Island, Russia's eastern frontier, a former czarist prison camp. Its bleakness was immortalized in the writings of Anton Chekhov, the Russian dramatist, who visited a century ago.

Chekhov noted that Sakhalin has no climate, only bad weather. He coined the malady "febris sachalinensis": sensations of dampness, shivering fits, headaches, rheumatic pains and a sinking feeling of being trapped on the island.

"If only those who liked Sakhalin lived there, the island would be uninhabited," he wrote.

Eager to exploit its oil, the Soviet regime of Nikita S. Khrushchev sent thousands of pioneer laborers to Sakhalin. Thrown together in less than a year, Neftegorsk was dedicated in 1963 as a "settlement of the Communist future."

"The builders economized on everything--the size of kitchens, the height of ceilings and, of course, on safety," said Valentin P. Fedorov, a former governor of Sakhalin. "In fact, safety was the easiest way to economize."

Neftegorsk had an orderly layout, a school, a statue of Lenin and even a discotheque. But the nearest fire station was two hours away by road. For the better part of a day, the devastation of the quake went unnoticed outside the village, and flames killed many who might have survived.

If life in Neftegorsk was bad to begin with, it only got worse. Prospectors cut down much of the surrounding forest and spoiled the earth with spilled oil, turning the place into something more like a desert. Some Russian geologists believe that the drilling destabilized the underlying rock, making quakes more likely.

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