Mansur Mirovalev and Denis Sinyakov’s Al Jazeera article takes a look at illegal amber mining in Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. Faced with economic collapse locally, the mass export of Kaliningrad’s amber–legal or otherwise–is a tempting alternative even for professionals. The Russian state is involved in this.
Amber has become post-Soviet Russia’s “blood diamond” that has killed dozens of black diggers and enriched or impoverished thousands of craftsmen, smugglers and middlemen – amid an amber boom in China that sent prices up and redrew the world map of the “solar stone” trade.
Digger Alexander says his illegal job is his only chance to earn a decent living in the Montenegro-sized region of one million, where competition with European farmers made agriculture unprofitable, Soviet-era plants have been shut down, and rampant corruption stifles business.
“I have no other choice,” says the former schoolteacher who refused to provide his last name citing safety reasons. During a cigarette break, he climbs a hillock that overlooks a wasteland of dead grass, other man-made pools, and upturned soil that soak in the drizzle falling from the grey October sky. “Every third guy my age around here does the same,” Alexander adds.
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After the 1991 Soviet Union collapse, amber mining – like almost any other industry in Russia – was rife with corruption and crime. Corrupt mine guards turned a blind eye to black diggers – who could get away with a fine of 500 rubles ($13) if caught, and who drove around in SUVs equipped with powerful pumps – or took part in the theft themselves. Hundreds of tonnes of amber were smuggled to Poland and Lithuania.
“There were bandits, crooks and thieves,” says Galina Spivak, a guide at Combine’s museum. Most of Combine’s 3,000 workers were fired and “resorted to what desperate Russian men do – drinking vodka and hanging themselves”, she adds bitterly.
In 2004, after a contract-style killing of a businessman who tried to wrestle control of the amber trade, a star was born. Viktor Bogdan, a former police sergeant nicknamed “Ballet”, monopolised the sale of Combine’s entire output to domestic and foreign buyers, and started calling himself “The Amber King”.
After the Kremlin’s intervention in 2012, Bogdan was charged with fraud and now awaits extradition from Poland. A new team headed by a former KGB officer was appointed to manage Combine and boost domestic production of amber.