Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s New ‘Ghost Towns’ Between Apathy and Explosion

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 26 – Last week, the residents of Pikalevo, a small city near St. Petersburg, stormed the city administration there, an action that has had the effect of calling attention to a far larger and more serious problem – the 400 company towns in the Russian Federation now anguishing between apathy and explosion because of the closure of their main employers.
Vyacheslav Glazychev, a specialist on economic geography, says that saving these cities “at the local level” has become impossible and that nationalization of the firms will only create “the illusion of work” in which people will, according to the old Soviet formula, “pretend to work and the government will pretend to pay them.”
“We know how all that ends,” the geographer told two “Komsomolskaya Pravda” journalists in an article published today, and consequently, he said the only “way out” for places like Pikalevo is to create jobs in nearby major cities and move the population out of places which have no future (kp.ru/daily/24299/493445/).
The journalists, Aleksandr Kots and Dmitry Steshin, featured Glazychev’s comment in an article on their visit to Pikalevo, a place few Russians outside of the construction trades – the 20,000-resident city used to be a cement production center – until the population took over the city administration building to protest their lot.
When the city turned off the hot water supplies on May 15, that action proved to be the last straw for residents who had already seen their livelihoods disappear. They assembled in front of the city building to protest, and when officials ignored them, they burst into the offices, an action some journalists elsewhere described as “a revolt.”
According to public records, 11,600 of the 20,000 residents of Pikalevo are of working age. Many have already formally lost their positions, but the “Komsomolskaya Pravda” journalists report, some 5,000 neither have real jobs nor have been formally terminated and thus qualify for any assistance.
Svetlana Antropova, the head of the local union, told the journalists that her city had suffered because “we did not have masters, but there were owners,” who took as much as they could out of the three factors and then departed. The owners, she said, “never considered the people or the entire town in their business plans. But we are still alive!”
Antropova said that all the talk about “nationalization” and “de-privatization” was just that – empty talk – and she suggested that “only two people in the country [presumably President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin] have the power to solve our problem [and] to teach business social responsibility.”
But the union official held out little hope that anything would happen. If the Moscow leaders were to intervene, that could “save hundreds of little cities like ours.” Unfortunately, she continued, “under current conditions [in Russia], we are not the first and will not be the last of the bankrupt cities.”
Local militia officers call Antropova an agitator and a provocateur because of her role in the occupation of the city building, but that ignores the larger problem, the journalists say: “In order for people to complain ... they need to believe at least a little that they will achieve justice.” But “in the eyes of the people” of Pikalevo, they continued, “we saw only apathy.”
The city’s residents have long ago ceased to eat meat, and they are trying to raise enough food for their families, although many fear thieves will steal the crops before they can harvest them. But the Russian bureaucracy continues to operate, in ways that are truly frightening, at least to the people of Pikalevo.
According to the local people, officialdom is going to take away their children because they lack the ability to provide their offspring with the necessary amount of food and thus are “violating their rights.”
Because of near universal unemployment, the people in Pikalevo are fleeing when they can, transforming it into a “ghost town” in much the same way the nuclear accident at Chernobyl caused several nearby towns to empty but this time “without radiation. Simply as a result of the inaction of the powers that be.”
And both local and regional officials insist that they are not in a position to do anything because “the masters of the factories are not here but mostly in Moscow [and] they are not interested” in the operations of the companies or in the lives of the people who had been working for them.
A waitress at the only café still open in Pikalevo told the journalists that they were her first customers in three days. “We will close soon,” she said. “There are no people and no money.” She warned them not to come at night because “they’ve begun to steal” on the streets, something that had never been true there before.”
“The people are turning into beasts,” she said, “and there is no way out. Or do you think,” the waitress asked, that perhaps “there is some kind of hope?”

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