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KALININGRAD, Russia — Alexander Kolesnichenko fished pieces of so-called "Baltic gold" resembling molten plastic out of the mud.
It was an illegal and potentially deadly business. But it was also a risk worth taking for the 35-year-old who'd set out for a new life in Russia’s westernmost toehold in Europe in search of raw amber.
Equipped with pumps and shovels and clad in swamp boots and shabby clothes, thousands of men like Kolesnichenko are putting their lives on the line as they hunt for 50-million-year-old remnants of pine forests.
Known here as "solar stone" or "blue earth," flawless chunks of amber are worth more than their weight in gold. An insect or lizard trapped inside the fossilized tree resin sees the price rise to five or six-digit sums. Smaller pieces and dust are used in jewelry, cosmetic and health products, and even liquor.
The clusters of pits resemble extraterrestrial landscapes — dozens of hillocks next to round holes, where pressurized water is used so the brittle amber can float up without being damaged.
The makeshift pits have been known to collapse, maiming or killing the people working several yards below beach sand, forest soil or farmland in this Massachusetts-sized region of around one million people.
Until quitting last year, the pieces Kolesnichenko and his colleagues retrieved in landing nets made their way to the global amber market with an annual turnover exceeding $1 billion.
More than 90 percent of the world’s “solar stone” is found in Kaliningrad, a patch of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania and the beginning of the "Amber Road" trade route that supplied ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and China.
But unlike the amber that turns translucent and seems to blaze with sunshine after being cut and polished, much of the market for the precious material is black.
"Illegal amber mining has been around since modern Russia's existence after the 1991 Soviet collapse," Igor Rudnikov, an opposition lawmaker in Kaliningrad’s regional parliament and a publisher whose newspaper covers corruption, told NBC News.
“Most of the mining is illegal, up to 350 to 400 tons a year, ten times more than the official figure,” added Rudnikov, who sports scars left by the knives and metal rods of unidentified men who assaulted him in 1998 and this March. He believes they were assassination attempts due to his publications.
China has recently become the world’s largest consumer of amber, and its insatiable demand has reshaped the global market.
“They beat us, break us and leave”
It has also changed the already murky ways the “Baltic gold” is mined, sold and sometimes smuggled out of Kaliningrad.
Jobs are scarce and mostly low-paid here in the region. Factory salaries rarely exceed $1,000 a month, and fishing means months on the open sea. Kolesnichenko, who left his family in war-torn eastern Ukraine to pursue amber, said he earned several thousand dollars a month working with five other diggers.
"Half of the men in the region dig amber," Kaliningrad governor Nikolai Tsukanov was quoted by the Kgd.ru news portal as saying in May. "There are entire organized criminal groups. Perhaps, law enforcement officers are also connected to them."
Kolesnichenko and several other diggers interviewed by NBC News couldn’t agree more with Tsukanov.
They allege that illegal pits are never operated without a shady “protector” with links to police. However, even such handlers cannot prevent raids by riot police dispatched from other regions.
“They beat us, break us and leave,” Kolesnichenko told NBC News, describing police raids he experienced while working in illegal amber pits.
However, official punishment for illegal digging remains light — a fine of 5,000 rubles ($77) and confiscation of shovels and pumps. Many diggers return to their pits directly after leaving the police station.
"Amber diggers earn so much illegally that they can pay fines easily without any damage to their income,” said Oleg Ivanov of the Kaliningrad branch of the Green Front, an environmental NGO.
The state-run Amber Combine has exclusive rights to extract amber in Kaliningrad. The monopoly operates two gigantic, crater-like mines ignoring smaller and nearly ubiquitous deposits. Its is the only legal supplier of raw amber to thousands of jewelers in Russia and neighboring Poland and Lithuania.
In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed a former officer with FSB — the main successor to the KGB — to head the combine.
Under that new management, the combine started selling most of its product to China, according to Transparency International, industry insiders and Rudnikov’s newspaper.
The combine’s press office was not available for comment.
Deprived of a legal source of amber, some local jewelers turn to diggers such as Kolesnichenko.
“We have no other choice, because what we get from the combine is tiny bits and dust," said Yelena, who owns a small jewelry store in Kaliningrad but would not provide her last name because she does not want to lose her license.
Kolesnichenko said he stopped digging last year because corrupt police officers wanted too large a cut of his profits.
"Cops began to get a bit too greedy,” he said standing outside a construction site where he now works. “They used tractors to fill all of our pits, and if you want to work, you have to pay them 30 percent of what you get, what you find.”
Yet, he is ready to return to the pit any time — if his digging team’s “protector” negotiates a better deal.