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‘I don’t feel anything’ Photographer Sergey Stroitelev visits the Siberian town in mourning after Russia’s deadliest coal mine disaster in years

Source: Meduza
Sergey Stroitelev for Meduza

On November 25, Russia experienced its deadliest mine accident since 2010. A methane explosion at the Listvyazhnaya coal mine in Siberia’s Kemerovo region killed 51 people — 46 miners and five rescue workers. In the town where the Listvyazhnaya mine is located, it’s difficult to find a family that doesn’t have a connection to the industry. The people of Gramoteino have been mining coal for generations. Entire families work in the mines and some continue to dig for coal despite the fact that their loved ones have died underground. For Meduza, photographer Sergey Stroitelev traveled to Gramoteino to talk to surviving miners and local families about how they’re coping in the aftermath of the disaster.

Vitalya

57 years old, miner

“For us this is a personal tragedy, everyone knows each other here, after all. The miners are like one big family. It’s scary, of course. […] But you’ll be afraid for a day after it and then it’s back to your routine, [working] for pennies with chronic bronchitis. 

I’m going underground again tomorrow. You simply drive out all these thoughts, get yourself ready, and go. Because you have to for your family. In any case, you don’t know when and where [there will be an explosion], and you can’t influence or predict it. There have been ups and downs in my ten years of experience — once my hand was almost crushed by a roadheader, but thank God it missed — I’m still alive. It’s a high-risk profession.”

Vitalya
Alexey

Alexey 

54 years old, retired miner

“I retired in May. Before that I worked in the [Gramoteinskaya coal mine] for 18 years. After the explosion [at the Listvyazhnaya coal mine] in 2004, they recruited new personnel. That’s when I went [to work] at the Listvyazhnaya — I was there for another 17 years. 

I worked with Listvyazhnaya’s current director, who was taken into custody [after the accident in November]. I remember I broke my leg and he asked me to work a double shift with the injury. Somehow I managed. They promised me an examination — they deceived me. There was terrible corruption. Management decided how much to pay whom — if you don’t like it, work for nothing. After all of this rigmarole my spine is worn out, I have a slipped disc and now I have problems with my liver, too. [...] Many people [here] have all sorts of cancers and bronchitis.

On November 25, I heard ambulances and [mine rescue units] going back and forth. Lord, I drove my 24-year-old son to work, he’s a miner too, at the Listvyazhaya. Fortunately, he managed to get out.” 

Lyuba

58 years old, worked in the mine as a driver and has three miners in her family

“All the men in my family are miners — my husband, son, and son-in-law. I also worked at the mine, but I didn’t go underground. [...] We didn’t talk about work, we just went and did our jobs. My guys are still going around and keeping everything to themselves. Why complain? It’s not like we have much choice. All of this is difficult, of course. The consequences for your health are irreversible — I have arthritis, my husband has back problems. After the tragedy he cried, and this happens very rarely. We knew the families of the guys who [were trapped] underground. 

To be honest, I don’t think this will teach anyone anything, after all, the main thing for the management of all mines is to over fulfill the plan and get more coal, and nobody cares [about] how many lives it costs.” 

Lyuba
Katya and Ruslan

Katya and Ruslan

A miner’s wife and son

“My husband works at the mine, he doesn’t go underground, thank God. I would be sitting on pins and needles every day. We have a young son. I can’t imagine what that’s like — to live and think constantly that your child might be left without a father. This tragedy hit us very hard, we saw those guys many times. We bring flowers to the memorial everyday.” 

Viktor

63 years old. The son of a miner who died in an accident in 1988. 

“What happened at the Listvyazhnaya is familiar to me. I share this grief. My father was killed by a methane explosion at the Gramoteinskaya [coal mine] 33 years ago. He put the counter in his pocket and didn’t notice that the indicators were off the charts. I myself went down into the mine for the first time after his death and worked [there] for three years. It’s a paradox —in theory, it should have scared [me], but at the time I needed the money. I chose what everyone chooses. And I wanted to see where my father died. I often dream about this at night: how did he die? And now I think: how did those guys at the Listvyazhnaya die — right away or did they suffer? What were they thinking before their deaths?” 

Viktor
Anna

Anna

66 years old, the wife of a miner

“We’re all in shock from what happened. My husband is also a miner, he spent his entire life underground. One day, a splinter hit him in the head — he lost an eye, only then did he retire. Not because he decided to himself — he just wasn’t needed with a disability. He said that at first he thought he was blind and didn’t feel any pain, it just got dark and cold. Before that [trying to] dissuade him was useless, but I cried everyday when he left [for work]. But he’s a man, he had to feed us, his family, and how else can you earn money here?” 

Sergey

25 years old, a miner at the Listvyazhnaya coal mine

“On the day of the accident I was at the mine. I was already on my way up when I heard a bang, and then I smelled burning. People up above were waving their hands, to [get me] to hurry up. When I got [above ground] I found out what had happened, it was as if my heart stopped. I was one step away from death! I think that God took me out. I immediately remembered my wife. My phone is usually turned off during a shift, so I ran to call, [to tell her] I’m alive. 

I’m trying to move past this and forget, after all I need to continue to work — to hold out until [I have] 20 years of experience, then I can retire early. So from now on I’ll think about the good things, about the fact that I’ll go [home] to my family in the evening. If not for this attitude, there’d be no need to go down there.”

Sergey
Tanya and Vika

Tanya and Vika

The ex-wife and daughter of a miner

“I was married to a miner for seven years. We worked together [at the mine], only he was underground and I was an accountant. We divorced and he left [...] Now I earn money in various ways, but I want to find something worthwhile. I have an education, but there’s trouble with jobs [here].

My husband had a difficult personality, I think that the profession was to blame for this. He hardly ever spoke to our daughter. He’d come home, sleep it off and then work again. 

[…] The mine is killing people. Nobody needs those guys down there. Now everyone will struggle for a month, a couple of people will be punished. And then they’ll open the Listvyazhnaya back up and everything will repeat itself again.” 

Andrey

23 years old, miner at the Gramoteinskaya coal mine

“I have no higher education. I worked as a security guard for a couple years and then I went to the Gramoteinskaya mine — there’s nowhere else to go. My father was working at the Listvyazhnaya that day. He was saved. He was one of the first who managed to get out.

I’m on sick leave now, awaiting my first descent after this tragedy. To be honest, it’s a bit scary, but this will pass. I won’t quit — there’s nothing else for me to do, and I won’t go back to being a security guard. In our region this is sometimes more dangerous than the methane in the mine. I’ll improve my qualifications and plow through until my retirement, so long as nothing happens to me.”

Andrey
Sasha

Sasha

42 years old, miner at the Sibirskaya mine

“I try not to think about my job: on weekends I do work on my property or I relax with my family — I just unplug for a while. And in the morning I get up and go to my shift. Nobody wants or plans to die, the guys and I never talk about it, even though the work is super risky. We do our jobs, like an accountant or a lawyer. After all, they don’t think about screwing up an account or losing a case. Of course, the stakes for us are higher.” 

Nikolai

86 years old, retired miner

“I remember how things worked under the Soviet Union. There was money, so there was an incentive to go to your shift. Now I don’t even understand what they’re fishing [for] in those mines. The salaries are disproportionate to the risks for miners and their families, especially in our times when everyone couldn’t care less about [human] life. Bad things happened to people before, too, my friend fell under a roadheader — he was ground up before my eyes. It’s that kind of profession. But it was still safer before, every old man who worked in the Soviet Union will confirm. I’m an old hand, I said sooner or later [it would] blow, but who’s going to listen to me?”

Nikolai
Sasha

Sasha

36 years old, miner 

“After the explosion at the Listvyazhnaya my wife stood in the doorway and said that she wouldn’t let me go to work. She threw a fit. We sat down at the table, the kids were screaming. We decided to discuss what to do next. At the end of the day, I’ll still work. There’s no other way. You can do a lot [based] on emotions, I understand everything and I’m mourning, but work is work.

My upstairs neighbor died in the mine — Vitaly Borovikov, we left for our shifts together in the mornings. Sometimes I heard him watching television or turning on music, now it’s quiet.”

The building where the family of the late miner Vitaly Borovikov lives

Valentina

68 years old. Her son Vitaly Borovikov was killed in the mine accident.

“I can’t believe what happened. The day before, my son started putting up wallpaper, he had dinner with me, I made him borsch and stewed fish. He went to bed. Then he went home and got ready for work. I saw him on the stairs for the last time, he threw me the keys and said: ‘Mum, catch, see you later!’ And I said to him: ‘Godspeed!’. This was our ritual, it has been for many years. These were our last words. 

My granddaughter called, [she said] ‘Grandma, there [was] an explosion at the mine, dad is there.’ My legs gave way. Vitaly was 48 years old, an experienced miner, he worked at the Listvyazhkaya for more than 20 years. [He had] so many plans — he bought an apartment right next to me, number 8. He did beautiful renovations there, he put his soul into it, he was getting ready to put down linoleum. He wanted to be closer to his mother. [He] left behind a daughter and a three-year-old son. 

I don’t feel anything, I have a black hole inside. I’m just waiting for him and that’s it. I can’t eat or sleep, my blood pressure is 210. My daughter-in-law and two of Vitaly’s brothers go to the mine every day, they ask if perhaps he’s been found alive. But I can’t, I’m afraid that I’d lose consciousness there. I’m just hoping for a miracle. Five days have already gone by, and he’s still not here.

He thought about changing his job, but never had the chance, or perhaps he just didn’t plan it seriously; it’s in his blood, after all. My husband also worked in the mine all his life. They’ve taken our whole heart from us, pulled out every living thing.”

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Story by Sergey Stroitelev

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart