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The new arrivals at the drug rehab center in Chichevo, a tiny village that is a two hours' drive east of Moscow, are usually given two weeks without chores to recover from the nausea, pain and sleeplessness of withdrawal. After that, between Bible study and prayer (the center is run by Pentecostals), they have to start chopping firewood, hauling water from the village well or otherwise helping around the old wooden house. But a lot more leeway was allowed in the case of Irina Pavlova, the only resident at the center who is addicted to krokodil, or crocodile, Russia's deadliest new designer drug.
There is no good medical explanation for why Pavlova survived her addiction. The average user of krokodil, a dirty cousin of morphine that is spreading like a virus among Russian youth, does not live longer than two or three years, and the few who manage to quit usually come away disfigured. But Pavlova says she injected the drug nearly every day for six years, having learned to cook it in her brother's kitchen. "God must have protected me," she says.
As typically happens in Russia, Pavlova began her drug use as a teenager shooting a substance called khanka, a tarlike opiate cooked from poppy bulbs, then graduated to heroin and finally, at the age of 27, switched to krokodil, because it has roughly the same effect as heroin but is at least three times cheaper and extremely easy to make. The active component is codeine, a widely sold over-the-counter painkiller that is not toxic on its own. But to produce krokodil, whose medical name is desomorphine, addicts mix it with ingredients including gasoline, paint thinner, hydrochloric acid, iodine and red phosphorous, which they scrape from the striking pads on matchboxes.
Predictably, it has spread the fastest in the poorest and most remote parts of the country, like Vorkuta, Pavlova's hometown, a former Gulag prison camp about 100 miles (161 km) north of the Arctic Circle. The winters there last eight months of the year, and as Pavlova recalls, the young people are in a constant state of boredom. Most of them drink and few of them work, the same as in hundreds of towns and villages across Russia's frozen north. Besides her, Pavlova says there were about a dozen krokodil addicts she hung around with, including her brother. "Practically all of them are dead now," she says. "For some it led to pneumonia, some got blood poisoning, some had an artery burst in their heart, some got meningitis, others simply rot."
The "rotting" explains the drug's nickname. At the injection site, which can be anywhere from the feet to the forehead, the addict's skin becomes greenish and scaly, like a crocodile's, as blood vessels burst and the surrounding tissue dies. Gangrene and amputations are a common result, while porous bone tissue, especially in the lower jaw, often starts to dissipate, eaten up by the drug's acidity. For Pavlova, the breaking point came in 2008, when she holed herself up in her brother's apartment for two weeks and did almost nothing but cook the drug and inject it into the femoral artery in her groin. "The high lasts about an hour and a half, and it takes about an hour to cook it. So I was basically cooking and shooting 24 hours a day," she says. By the end of the binge, gangrene had begun to develop around her groin and blood poisoning was setting in. She was rushed to the emergency room, then transferred to the detox ward, where a pair of Pentecostals were inviting addicts to rehab. Pavlova agreed.