Russia’s Baltic gold Mining for amber in Kaliningrad. A photo series
Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea, located between Poland and Lithuania. It is the site of the Kaliningrad amber plant, the only remaining enterprise for industrial amber extraction and processing in the world. 90 percent of the world’s amber comes from this region, but the jewelers have their complaints. Apparently, the plant does not sell them enough raw amber, and prefers to sell most of the amber to China instead. Photographer Denis Sinyakov and journalist Mansur Mirovalev went to the Kaliningrad plant, met with illegal amber diggers, and took a look at how the gemstone is traded.
Kaliningrad has 90 percent of the world’s amber reserves and is home to the only remaining industrial amber plant in the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, amber became Russia’s “blood diamond,” bringing fortune, bankruptcy or death to countless craftsmen, jewelers, retailers, and middlemen.
Illegal amber miners are known as “black diggers.” They use a large vacuum pipe to find the valuable gemstone at the bottom of a ditch filled with muddy water. There are dozens of similar ditches across the entire field. Standing knee-deep in the water, one digger struggles to lift the long aluminum pipe, attached to the vacuum with a fabric hose. The pressure causes water to spill out from the neighboring ditch, washing out from beneath the ground a layer of “blue soil,” an earth layer about 50 million years old containing amber. A large piece of amber costs the same as a piece of gold of equivalent weight. Amber prices depend on the color and transparency of the stone, as well as on cracks and “inclusions” of air bubbles, fossilized foliage and even fossilized insects and small lizards.
The field, known as “Klondike” among local black diggers, is located a few kilometers away from the Kaliningrad airport Khrabrovo. There are also a secret services (FSB) base and a military unit in the area. This is not the only place where black diggers mine for amber. The layer of blue soil, which can vary in depth from a few centimeters to a few meters, lies underground along the coastline and around Kaliningrad at various depths. It attracts many people by virtue of its accessibility. “Every third person digs around here,” said a digger named Alexander, who holds a teaching degree. Many diggers suffer from ailments typical for the profession, mostly caused by hours of standing in cold water: backaches, kidney problems. The ditches near the sea are especially dangerous; people working in them “broke completely,” said one of the diggers. According to him, “many people died, dozens.”
“It’s easy money, you won’t be able to get money so fast anywhere else,” says Ilya Shumanov, the director of the Kaliningrad branch of Transparency International. “It’s about 100 to 200 thousand [rubles] a month [about $2000 to $3800]. You can’t arrest them all, they would make up a small village.” The diggers tell us the story of a young man who found a 300-kilogram piece of amber on his first day digging, and sold it for 1.7 million rubles ($32,800). Those who have been in the trade for a long time say that it’s impossible to carry on for long without some kind of informal protection scheme. Some tell us that one night of digging near the amber plant quarry costs $1,000, and one month at a “good ditch” costs up to 50 thousand Euros.
The leniency of the law made it easy for illegal amber mining to quickly spread. Until recently, a black digger who was caught simply had to pay a small fine. The most daring people would simply jump in the amber plant quarry right in front of security guards: “If they got away they could grab a piece for about $4,000 and run for it. If they were caught, they’d have to pay the 300 ruble ($5.80) fine,” recalls a former digger. Many of the illegal diggers used to work for the plant, but lost their jobs when the plant downsized.
Amber was valued already in Ancient Greece and in Ancient Rome. It was considered a gemstone during the Middle Ages in Europe as well. It was used to make beads, chess pieces, jewelry boxes, and figurines. Mosaics and magnifying glasses were also made from amber. Amber magnifying glasses set fire to gunpowder faster than those made from glass. Amber lacquer was also used as varnish for musical instruments. Amber powder was put on wounds and syphilis sores; amber necklaces were worn to prevent tonsillitis and thyroid gland problems. As demand grew, Germans opened an industrial amber mining facility in present-day Kaliningrad. They started with underground mines, and later opened a quarry near the village of Palminken, known today as Yantarny, the Russian word for “amber.” The amber was processed in nearby Danzig, known today as the Polish city of Gdansk. The technology of the trade was simple and resembled what the black diggers continue to do today: after crushing up pieces of “blue soil,” they were washed with salt water from large hoses and delivered to the plant. The pieces would then be sent through pipes, and the remaining water and sand would be dumped into the sea.
Amber is slightly heavier than water, is easy to cut and burns well, which is why the Germans call it Bernstein, from the old German for “ignitable stone.” Russians who ended up in eastern Prussia after World War II also burned amber; in 1945, eastern Prussia became part of the USSR and was renamed Kaliningrad region. Kaliningrad became home to an amber plant which dominated all extraction and processing of amber in the Soviet Union. For decades the plant produced standardized jewelry, figurines and cigar-holders. The quality was not particularly high, and nonetheless income at the plant made up 20 percent of the entire region’s income. In the Soviet Union, the plant successfully sold its production due to lack to competition on the market. Designer work was rare and expensive; it followed the traditions of German and Baltic artisans and incorporated Russian gemstone processing styles. Small compressed amber was used for technical equipment like isolation, resin boxes, or blood transfusion containers.
Green and blue amber are found in the Dominican Republic, ruby-red and purple amber re found in Burma, Sicily, Lebanon, as well as in Ukraine and the Baltic region. In Kaliningrad, you can find over 250 shades of amber, from icy-transparent to milky white, to honey-brown and even black. After the collapse of the USSR the situation in the village Yantarny deteriorated, just like in other Soviet one-industry cities. The plant was privatized, but the former deputy CEO Nikolai Petukhov succeeded in retroactively cancelling the privatization, and the plant was transferred to the Finance Ministry. Corruption and pilfering dominated the industry. Amber was carted away from the plant by the trunkful, though officially the plant was deep in debt. “There were bandits, and thieves, and robbers,” recalls Galina Spivak, an attendant at the plant museum. “They really knocked the bottom out of the plant.”
In 2004, Viktor Bogdan became the head of the amber plant. Bogdan had formerly served as a police sergeant. He monopolized the sale of raw amber both in Russia and abroad, in Lithuania and Poland, where most of the workshops for amber processing are located. Under Bogdan local production went up, and that period is recalled with nostalgia. “People like him, remember him and are waiting for him to come back,” says one local businessman. “We grew like weeds under Bogdan.” After a while, “the Amber King” Bogdan made enemies. His adversaries say that he headed an organized criminal group, bought land with blue soil, produced imitation amber jewelry, and stole tons of amber. Bogdan is currently awaiting extradition from Poland, after being accused of getting illegal tax returns amounting to 250 million rubles ($6.7 million). He says that criminal proceedings have been launched against him as retaliation for his refusal to share his profits with the Kaliningrad police.
The plant belongs to the state agency Rostekhnologii, which works on industrial development and modernization in Russia. The plant does not sell production abroad, which is distressing for Baltic workshops. “The goal is to keep most of the production here,” says the CEO of the plant Mikhail Zatsepin. “From September 2013, the plant does not sell outside the Russian Federation. We don’t really worry about how the Lithuanians and Poles feel about it.”
Nonetheless, raw amber makes it to foreign markets, but not to the Baltic states. Rather, amber is sold to China, where it is valued for its decorative and healing properties. Experts from the industry claim that the plant has stopped selling raw amber to most of Kaliningrad’s workshops and sells most of its production to Moscow firms, which resell it to China. “They take away our income, our work,” says one amber chiseler in Kaliningrad. “Our production is honestly quite a bit worse than theirs – they can really polish a turd. Here, people really disregard amber, while over there they have started to re-process our production.”
“It has never been this bad in the industry,” says Vasiliy Simonov, the head of the Amber Union, which unites nearly 150 companies working in the amber industry. “They give enough [amber] to keep us from dying of starvation,” he says. The Amber Union wrote to President Vladimir Putin about the problems of the industry, and in June 2014, a few hundred amber industry workers came out to protest against lack f transparency in the plant’s amber distribution policies. Representatives of the plant maintain that raw amber distribution takes place only after the equipment and the workers are thoroughly checked in every factory, in order to avoid the sale of amber to third parties or abroad.
In a situation where there is a raw amber deficit, illegal extraction of amber becomes popular despite the increased punishments against it. Police now confiscate the black diggers’ equipment and launch criminal proceedings against them (there are dozens of cases now). Diggers complain that police officers beat them up, make them do pushups in the cold seawater and chew amber, breaking their teeth.
The abundance of amber and the relative easiness of extracting it make it almost impossible to prevent illegal amber mining, say the black diggers. But instead of giving out licenses for legal amber extraction, as it is done in Poland and in Lithuania, Moscow prefers to keep the monopoly on amber mining in one big amber plant.
About a dozen Chinese tourists thoroughly study amber jewelry made from “royal” white amber at a store in Moscow. A young Chinese woman tells the tired store clerk in Russian, “390 thousand for this necklace, not more.” The clerk sighs and says “have you all gone crazy? We won’t sell it for that little.”