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Siberian woe beyond describing

Cindy Patterson has one of those sparkling voices with nary a harmonic of melodrama. It's a stark counterpoint to the tales she relates of the misery in Russia.

She's not trying to make things sound bad. They just are. And Americans have no way of comprehending what is happening in Russia, she says. It goes beyond worries about the economy or concerns with politics.

They're beyond fear, she says. They left hope about four years ago. They've left fear. There's nothing more to fear. It's empty, uncertain, unstable chaos.

Her ties with the Siberian city of Rubtsovsk started with a Project RAFT (Russians and Americans For Teamwork) in 1988, when Patterson was a recreational outfitter. And she helped formalize the sister-city linkage between Rubtsovsk and Grants Pass in 1990.

Patterson has sold her interest in Sundance Expeditions and moved to Ashland, but she remains in touch with friends in Siberia. She returned from a visit to Siberia last month.

Rubtsovsk is a city of 170,000 set on the wind-scoured steppes of Siberia.

It's flat as a pancake, she said. They grow sunflowers for as far as you can see. The city is several hours from the mountains.

It was a village until World War II, when Josef Stalin started moving industry into Siberia. Rubtsovsk got a tractor factory that once employed 24,000 people and a cluster of high-rise apartments for the residents.

During the war, all the men were sent to the front and the women and children made the tractors, she said. The factory has sagged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only 2,500 people still work there and it's plagued by a shortage of parts.

Project RAFT participants have taken Rubtsovsk residents seeds and sewing machines, and several Grants Pass residents have invested thousands of dollars in Siberian start-up businesses.

They just need everything, said Barbara Paulson, co-chairwoman of the Grants Pass Sister City Commission. We can assist by sending like $5,000 and it makes a huge difference. They have multitudes of small restaurants. One member of the committee invested in a modern grocery store.

She's often visited Russia during the past 17 years and has watched the changes in the country.

They were serfs, she said. Then they went to communism. They just don't know how to handle the new system.

Patterson says about 25,000 people have started businesses in Rubtsovsk, but the system has ways of working againat free enterprise.

In the last couple of years, people have been taxed up to 80 percent for producing things, she said. But there's no tax on sales. So stuff has value, but producing doesn't.

During more promising times, she invested in a tourism-related business in Siberia that diversified into selling household products.

She's written it off, just as the Russians have written off democracy: Democracy is a dirty word for them, she adds.

Everyone has a garden and spends hours a day, in season, tending crops to sell or sustain themselves.

She told of a family that went out to harvest their potatoes and found that somebody had come in at night and cleaned out their patch.

I asked them if they were mad, she said. They told me, `We can't be angry. The people who stole our food needed it more than we did.'.

Times are getting worse with the country's economic collapse. Teachers haven't been paid for two years.

People aren't running in the streets, she said. But people panicked and hoarded everything they could get. Now there's nothing on the shelves.

I talked to two friends in the last couple of days, she said. One of them was saying a bag of sugar was 5 rubles yesterday and 10 rubles today. He said things change day by day. Then he said, `no, they change hour to hour. No, it's more like minute by minute.'

Patterson says she has no idea what will happen.

There is just no way of knowing, she said. You could expect a civil war, but who would fight who?

But there's more that Americans can't understand about the misery in Russia.

The Russians are very clever people and they are tough, she said. They're used to suffering. This isn't really that much different to them.

(Call reporter Paul Macomber at 776-4463 or e-mail him at )