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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

One Man's Airport On Lake Baikal

Published 14 January 2016

Through the summer days of the Soviet era, Vladimir Prokopyev was a busy man. On a pristine island in Lake Baikal, the airport manager watched over the arrival of three or sometimes four flights every day. Then it all stopped. While Vladimir carried on with his tasks, the U.S.S.R. collapsed. In the hard new realities of the free market, support for the air service disappeared and the planes stopped coming. But Vladimir, now 86, is a man of duty. He had an airport to maintain and, for the past 20 years, ever hopeful that scheduled flights would return, that’s exactly what he’s done. (Photos by RFE/RL's Petr Shelomovskiy)


The main building of Khuzhir Airport, on Olkhon Island. The left half is the passenger waiting area, the right is reserved for Prokopyev's living quarters.


Prokopyev unlocking the “official” half of the airport building. The former pilot was tasked with managing the airport after he retired from flying. When the airport ended its operations back in the mid-'90s, his job was downgraded to night watchman.


The airport’s radio, preserved in perfect working order. Photographer Petr Shelomovskiy says Prokopyev's dedication to his work is typical for a man who came of age in the Soviet era. “He was proud to do his job, and be a part of something. His biggest dream is that this airport will one day work again.”


Vladimir (center front) with airfield staff in his piloting days. In the background is one of the Soviet AN-2 biplanes that serviced Prokopyev's airport. He finished his career flying the Tupolev TU-104, one of the world's first passenger jets.


A headland on Olkhon Island. This picture was taken in 1979, when scheduled flights carried tourists and workers to the island. Photo by Edgar Bryukhanenko/TASS


Tourists sunbathing in front of abandoned fishing vessels. The island was once home to a fish processing plant, with labor provided by prisoners of the gulag system. Now former fishing vessels are mainly used to transport summer visitors.


Prokopyev inside what was the airport's waiting hall. The hall seated 12 people, the maximum load of the AN-2 aircraft that flew in and out of the airport.


The dirt track leading out to the runway. Every winter Prokopyev brings in the airstrip markers and any other equipment that could be stolen.


After 20 years of waiting, Prokopyev admits his airport may never reopen, but he'll continue to maintain it as best he can.


Prokopyev's wife Herolda with one of the pieces of driftwood she has made into characters around the property. In Soviet days, she worked as a cashier and radio operator at the airport.


The airfield is not being officially open, but Vladimir and Herolda occasionally receive winged visitors. This plane belongs to a pilot friend who brought his family to the island for a visit.


Vladimir and Herolda have tea in front of their house.


As the airport's caretaker, Prokopyev still receives a monthly salary of about $80. "I'm still paid but I don't think it's going to last much longer," he said. "What will I do then? Where would I go?" He told Shelomovskiy that one way or another, he'll stay right where he is. "Besides," he said, "it's time for me to depart soon."