They don’t call it being “sent to Siberia” for nothing.
We learned this on the first day of our trip to Novokuznetsk, in the western part of this 5.1-million-square-mile region of Russia. In summer, the cold gives way to an overcast, balmy season and the air becomes filled with mosquitoes the size of your little finger.
A sense of Soviet-era poverty pervades every facet of life in the city: the mouldering grey housing blocks, the wake-up call of barking wild dogs, the 6 AM hotel breakfasts of Spam and hard-fried eggs speckled with dill.
But complaining about minor inconveniences here would be as self-entitled as a visitor to Syria complaining about the noise when the army shoots protestors in the streets. We weren’t here for fun. No one has much fun here.
We were filming a documentary about how and why the youth of Novokuznetsk were in the grip of a heroin epidemic, a story squarely at odds with Vladimir Putin’s rebranding of Russian youth as prosperous superhumans living in a shining world of money, success and freedom. In reality, Russia now consumes 21 percent of the world’s heroin.
Dope in Novokuznetsk is creamy white in colour, the purest you can buy anywhere. It comes from Afghanistan and, local legend has it, is guided through the border of Kazakhstan by the Taliban as revenge for the 1979 Russian invasion. But Russia’s newest drug problem is entirely self-inflicted.
Before we set off on our trip, we heard whispers of a new drug called krokodil—a homemade synthetic opiate stronger than heroin made from petrol and codeine—that gets its reptilian name because it turns addicts’ skin scaly, while eating them from the inside, rotting the brain and limbs before invariably killing
When we got there we found that the krokodil whispers were becoming louder and more insistent, verging on mild yelling, like the sound you make when bolting upright in your bed from a wide-awake nightmare.