Russia: One Big Detroit

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The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, Oct. 21, 2013 in Baikalsk, Russia. Brendan Hoffman/Prime/Pulitzer

In the former Russian timber town of Vydrino on the shore of Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia, life is so slow residents joke that carrying plastic bags filled with trash to the garbage truck is a highlight of their evening.

The roof of the head office of the timber mill, the town's major employer, that closed in the late 1990s, is now open to the sky, a ruined monument to the remnants of Soviet-era industrialization in the center of town.

The mill is a shell - its glass broken and its contents looted. The dusk light is reflected in the empty, cavernous apartment buildings for a population long gone.

Yet Vydrino has not been completely abandoned. About 5,000 people are stuck in the dying town. Unlike Americans, who are always on the move in search of new opportunities, Russians find it hard to relocate.

The years of prosperity under President Vladimir Putin have not trickled down to this end of Siberia. There are no shopping malls and no movie theaters for hundreds of miles. In the past decade, more than 2,500 Vydrino citizens packed up and left their homes for good, running away from the bankrupt mill that left them jobless. They left this godforsaken town in Buryatia, one of Russia's poorest republics - where health services dried up and even hot water and electricity were scarce - to make new lives in bigger cities with more hopes and dreams and more jobs.

For those left behind, despair is a daily experience, and every new setback is met with apathy. Even when money for the train ran out earlier this month, cutting off villages from schools, doctors, and shops, nobody went into the street to protest.

"Clench your teeth and learn to grin and bear it, otherwise you might end up like one of the Moscow opposition activists, behind bars, facing years in prison," said an unemployed woman in woolen socks and rubber boots outside her half-ruined house. Fear is the real legacy of Putin's Russia, particularly in Russia's 342 single-industry towns, or "monotowns," where local political leaders invariably combine with the major employer leaving little option for its residents except sullen, obedient compliance.

While Putin is trying to remake himself as an important figure on the world stage, challenges to his popularity at home are fast piling up. Last month, Baikalsk, with a population more than 12,000, joined neighboring Vydrino as a town under notice of death when its single industry went bust overnight.

Until recently, the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, which bleached wood pulp with chloride, adding to the pollution in Lake Baikal, employed about 2,000 workers. All except 700, left behind to continue running the part of the plant that provides heat to the town, were fired. By the end of the year, even those remaining workers will have to find jobs elsewhere. "The authorities lied to us as they promised they would first create new jobs for us and then close the mill," said trade union leader Yuri Nabokov. "We feel cheated, but there is no use in protesting. The town will slowly die without jobs."

11-29-2013_DL0543_Russia_01 A man stands on the shore of Lake Baikal, Oct. 20, 2013 in Baikalsk, Russia. Brendan Hoffman/Prime/Pulitzer

Sometimes it seems that backwoods Russia is one big Detroit. A dark cloud hangs over the country's dying towns and cities and the more than 16 million people who live in them. After investing billions of rubles in local plants, and patching holes in roofs and roads, the government decided earlier this month to offer between $9,000 and $25,000 to families prepared to move out of the monotowns. The Soviet experiment of planned industries in the middle of nowhere is over.

Yuri Krupnov, who works for a pro-government think tank tasked with developing Russia's Far East region, said the main mistake by the Kremlin was to expect regions to solve their own problems. "It was as if Obama asked the mayor of Detroit to come up with an investment plan after years of crises," he said.

Krupnov could not hide his frustration. "In Soviet times we may have had crises of production, but in today's Russia we are suffering a deep crisis from the lack of ideas and initiatives," he said.

Moscow has few ideas about how to regenerate the monotowns, but it offers plenty of information about how it will respond to political protest. Commenting on a year-long trial of 12 opposition activists last week, Putin confirmed that authorities would not allow the country to slide into chaos, otherwise "Russia would experience the same problems as during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917," he said.

Most monotowns were created during Stalin's brutal era of forced industrialization between the 1930s and the 1950s, without regard to human life, profitability, or business logic. That experiment in socialist economic planning was abandoned when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Communist Party lost its monopoly. The result was widespread bankruptcies, unemployment, ruin, and despair.

Where does that leave the millions of jobless Russians who have been washed up by the tide of history? What alternative can the government offer them? One option advertised in newspapers in Baikalsk and other monotowns this month was to move more than 3,000 miles away to Tikhvin, to work at a new plant there.

"But to move I would need to live somewhere, and nobody wants to buy my house on Lake Baikal, even for $5,000," said Vladimir Shikhanov, 53, who after more than two decades of working on the bleaching line of Baikalsk pulp mill, wearing a respirator to escape the noxious air, now has to choose between moving to Tikhvin with nothing or surviving by making money picking wild berries in the Taiga.

Unemployment is not the only issue making people unhappy. Local politicians join with factory managers to suppress freedom of speech. In Asbest, a city in the eastern part of the Ural Mountains named after its principal product, asbestos, officials from Uralasbest, the world's largest producer of chrysotile asbestos, warn residents that all press reporters are agents of the global anti-asbestos campaign and that talking to them will damage the town's future.

Nonetheless, local residents speak out. "Ecology suffers from asbestos production. We wish our town's major employer, Uralasbest, had more transparency about the real numbers of people suffering from asbestosis," said Natalya Krylova, the local leader of the Green Party.

Punishment for those who dare step out of line is swift. For the residents of Asbest, it is as if the democratic reforms that followed communism had never taken place.

When this reporter met Nina Solodayeva, a former Uralasbest security guard and her husband, Ivan Solodayev, who had stage-four lung cancer, a car with the company's security detailed pulled up to stop the conversation taking place. Solodayeva lost her job that day.

A local advisor for the ministry of interior affairs, Yury Druzhinin, believes that many in Asbest would happily take the Kremlin's money to escape the town. "Civil society is not active in Asbest," he said. "As in many other monotowns, people here are afraid of their own shadow."

It is the same story in every monotown I visited. Only freedom of speech and action can provide the sort of jobs needed to replace the old smokestack industries built in Soviet times. But instead of encouraging openness and innovation, the government stands by as dissent is punished and optimism snuffed out.

Reporting for this story was made the possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crises Reporting.

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