One aspect of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula that especially troubles outside observers is the needlessness of the act itself. Russia is not only the largest country in the world by far in terms of territory. It also has many serious domestic problems of its own. Surely the absorption of yet more territory and mouths to feed has very disturbing implications. Yet, somehow, Russia’s leader and masses behave triumphally, as if the additional costs to the nation involved in this blatant act of aggression are genuinely worth celebrating. A look around the rest of Russia makes the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine positively mystifying.
In the following article, some anonymous journalists have covered seven of the most ailing Russian municipalities for the Russian Big Picture website. The style of writing is customarily sarcastic, cynical and derisory, but the underlying theme is far from funny: Russia is internally very sick. This is not merely a case of urban crime and run-of-the-mill social ailments: all Western countries have these, and none can afford to pontificate too much. But those of us who have traveled widely in Russia know that the ghastliness on display there appears to exceed anything visible in the West in terms of desolation, decrepitude, degradation and disease. Perhaps most importantly, much (if not most) of Russia is an ecological nightmare posing tremendous health risks for ordinary people.
The following article, entitled ‘Seven Russian cities that are dying,’ gives an idea of what things look like, and a sense of why Ukrainians are keen to establish their independence from the Russian Federation once and for all.
What’s happening in Russian cities outside Moscow and St. Petersburg? How hard is life there? What are the challenges of crime and the environment? In the first part of our urban investigation, we identified the most unsafe places to live – seven Russian cities, which – if you happen to be there – you would best leave immediately.
As a cultural and economic center of Siberia, Novokuznetsk couldn’t be a city of dreams even within its own region, not to mention on a Russia-wide scale.
It’s difficult to combine the title of ‘powerful Russian metallurgical and coal mining center’ with ‘ecological paradise.’ Lawbreakers aren’t asleep either: in the last year, 11,971 crimes have been committed (for comparison: in Grozny, which is ranked 1st overall in living safety, there were only 1,117). It’s mostly small robbery and theft, but even for a medium-sized city, this is still a situation.
Novokuznetsk can’t boast of natural rates of growth either: the number of emigrants from Novokuznetsk approximately equals the number of people who come here and nourish hopes of building a bright future in the city.
Oddly enough, the townspeople themselves are very satisfied with the actions of the executive authorities and consider them most effective. Maybe the golden rule of Pushkin applies here? The smaller the number of residents we love, the more they like us. Either that or this is some kind of city of masochists.
The ones who leave are those who think about health, not those who are afraid of work. There’s a full boat with ecology in ‘Kuzne.’ Schoolchildren already have scoliosis because there’s this composition of chemical elements in the air that leaches calcium from the body. I think the authorities should strictly control the situation so that treatment facilities work the way they’re supposed to and not according to the whims of the administration of hazardous industries. We’re one of the top three most polluted cities in the country. Shame!
They did the right thing, those who left: I fully support them, and I myself would like to leave in the near future. Novokuznetsk is dirty, hopeless, and oriented only toward metallurgy and coal. High crime rate, deteriorating higher education, bribery. Conclusion: more problems for another ten years.
Why Lipetsk, it would seem? The city, founded by Peter the Great with a favorable climate and considerable cultural base, was doomed to become a haven for all those who weren’t in a hurry and appreciated the tranquility. But no. The NLMK [Novolipetskii Metallurgicheskii Kombinat, or Novolipetsk Steel – Ed.] Open Joint Stock Company is complicating the environmental situation. Emission of harmful substances into the atmosphere can often be observed, and if the wind changes direction, the inhabitants of bedroom communities can enjoy the scent of hydrogen sulfide. According to Rosstat, the level of crime in Lipetsk occupies 46th place in Russia. The natural growth rate is not the city’s strong point, and in general giving birth here is not trendy. Apparently, the first task is self-actualization. Nevertheless, in its region Lipetsk is a city of opportunities: nearly 2,000 more people arrive here to take up permanent residence than leave.
I came here a month ago, for the first time in 2 years, and NOTHING has changed: crowds of gopniks, people dressed identically in leather jackets with ‘gandonku’ on their shaved heads, queues in shops for ‘Priyatel’ (‘Buddy’) beer in plastic stein glasses, almost universal poverty, smoke-belching NLMK, dirty air (much harder to breathe than in the center of Moscow). The authorities, which do not change, are the same ‘elected figures’: Korolev, Gulevsky, Sinyuts. Mass propaganda for ‘United Russia’ on the Lipetsk TV channels, the local government’s affirmation that Lipetsk is almost Eden – a garden city – and everything along those lines. Nightlife? Shit. The clubs suck compared to the capital. Really, like the club ‘Fairy Tale,’ which is going to open soon, can compete with the clubs in the capital. Education? I don’t want to remember the infernal vypendrezhnuyu 44th school. The quality of teaching is really mediocre, but there are a lot of braggarts: ‘It’s a lyceum! Where are the replacements for the stolen goods? We don’t put them out on the street! Why aren’t they up to scratch? Ah, but we have lyceum TV!’ But this is the best school in Lipetsk!”
In Lipetsk you fear getting killed for nothing or a purse with 2 rubles in it)))) I thought it was supposed to be better now that the 1990s had passed, but all the same I arrived recently, and in Lipetsk they’ve just dawned… Apart from that, of course Lipetsk is a great city, I really love it, and don’t pay attention to what I just wrote. It’s a fly in the ointment so they don’t relax )))
To understand what is available in Magnitogorsk, it is at once enough just to look at its minimalistic flag. The black triangle could become an ornament of the Tretyakov Gallery, but it’s only a symbol of ferrous metallurgy.
The fact that Magnitogorsk is always on the priority list of Russian Federation cities with the highest level of air pollution eliminates any further questions about the environment. Magnitogorsk has suffered the same tragic fate of all cities where an industrial giant has become the main enterprise. The crime situation leaves much to be desired: 9,678 crimes a year. Despite having a low birth rate and taking 28th place in the number of abortions, an increase in the city is – by some miracle – still observable. People are not hurrying to leave the capital of ferrous metallurgy, possibly having already resigned themselves to the blows of fate.
Those who call Chelyabinsk a ‘harsh’ city have probably never been to Magnitogorsk. I don’t like this city, even though I’ve lived here for about 30 years. And in truth, I’ve never met people who really love Magnitogorsk. At best, they tolerate it, get used to it. The ‘monocity’ is a legacy of socialism. The population is barely growing, so whoever can leave here does. Development is barely noticeable, and more likely to the contrary, there are signs of decline. These are evident even in the little things. You almost never see municipal buses, only marshrutki [private minibuses used as taxis – Ed.]. Before, even in the 1990s, there were normal city buses. They canceled the Magnitogorsk-Chelyabinsk train – for me, that’s uncivilized. However, while the plant is alive, there’s work in the city. But it’s mainly specialized work.
I quite like Magnitogorsk. It’s not true that the city is grey. It was, but now it’s transformed. There’s well-developed culture here. It has its own distinct theaters. The administration [of the metallurgy plant – Ed.] holds various events. About the environment… MMK [Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine – Ed.] is constantly upgrading its production so that emissions are reduced. Generally, there’s a sense that talk about the terrible ecology is a kind of myth. There are, of course, places where it’s impossible to live. But this isn’t the whole city. They’re building the city up a lot, with the cost of local production making houses much cheaper than in other cities with a similar average salary. In general, if there’s nothing to fear from the combine – you can move safely. The city is quite comfortable and interesting. There’s somewhere to relax and spend time.
This was once a city of miners, but now it’s practically a bedroom community of Vladivostok. Among the iconic companies here, the ‘Vladivostok’ International Airport and the Artemovskii Thermal Power Plant achieve distinction. In 2000, Artyom closed the last mine, and this had a positive impact on the ecology of the city but shattered the economy. And I must say that the air, according to research, has become slightly cleaner.
Artyom is in fifth place in Russia in the number of thefts committed per year (1,279). Crimes in connection with drug trafficking are popular. People seek to escape from the harsh reality. The gloomy prospects are obvious to everyone, and the residents are not happy that the authorities have forgotten about their existence to some extent. So they’re slowly migrating to Vladivostok – only 50 km away.
As far as logic, knowledge and description help me – Artyom still sits on coal-fired boilers. This is not a fountain. The climate is really bad. Also, I know how the boys in the army have suffered.
There is both a station and an airport nearby… just no money to travel very far or fly. We drink water that comes through a filter – we did not drink that way before – and none of my friends drink from the tap. But now they want to build all sorts of harmful enterprises here in Primorye [the name of the southern Pacific Coast region of Russia – Ed.], even nuclear power plants are somewhere not far from here. We also have nuclear submarines here, and the background radiation isn’t very nice…
Norilsk is a city of miners and metalworkers, the site of activity of the disreputable Russian reality movie The Hope Factory. The harsh, sub-arctic climate is one of the curses of Norilsk, but the harsh climatic conditions are exacerbated by environmental ones. According to the Blacksmith Institute, Norilsk remains one of the most polluted cities in the world, and in 2010 Rosstat recognized it as the most polluted city in Russia. The air is saturated with harmful substances, and residents regularly complain of breathing difficulties. It is a paradox, but nevertheless everyone comes to the region to live, hoping that a high salary will block out Norilsk’s gloom. Everyone seems to be happy.
Creepy climate… in some cities they complain about the wind, in some about the frost. In Norilsk, it’s a ‘two in one,’ and snow in July is the bonus… In fairness, I should note that if you want to tan your body, in Norilsk, your May tan isn’t washed off by any peeling and holds at least until August. The almost complete absence of the ozone layer has its ‘pros.’ Norilsk is a city where work is done in shifts: it isn’t designed for human life, only existence. Do not come here in any case. Up to retirement you’ll remain like most people, but after retirement you’ll live on the land for 5 years at best. Wages compared to other cities may be higher, except that the prices of everything are also at least 4 times higher. And what remains of the big salaries? Not a sausage.
The ‘Cultural Capital of Eastern Siberia’ was a favorite place for exiles, since life in Irkutsk was considered intolerable and thus suitable punishment for citizens who were inconvenient to the regime. The proximity of the famous Lake Baikal endowed the city with not only a periodic influx of tourists, but also the threat of seismic activity. The bad ecology is a sore subject here too, but the citizens aren’t used to complaining, convincing themselves that Baikal is still the cleanest place on the planet and that the city isn’t threatened by any kind of environmental disaster. But what is really a matter of debate is security. In a year, 19,727 illegal acts were committed. The high levels of crime can be explained by the fact that there are many prisons around. Fortune favors the brave, so quite a lot of people are moving to Irkutsk. Perhaps these new residents come from not-so-remote places, and they probably won’t give up their ‘hobbies.’ But the fact is, people are going to Irkutsk.
The city is plainly criminal. This is partly because we have a lot ‘zones’ [penal colonies – Ed.] around. A freed criminal often comes here as a point of transfer before deciding where to go next. He will often stay here. For those who want a quiet peaceful life, who aren’t accustomed to all sorts of clashes, this city will probably seem very sad. I was born here and have lived here more than 30 years. I know whereof I speak. Enough people are living on concepts, a lot of Mongolian people in other words )))
Irkutsk is a beautiful and lovely city, but… no one ever develops it! The local officials are deeply ineffectual! The quality of the roads is terrible, and it’s a dirty city, with garbage everywhere. There’s no single development plan – it’s an awful wreck interspersed with modern skyscrapers. Burned homes have long been able to remain standing for a couple of years before demolition, and that’s in the center of Irkutsk! Many firms pay wages illegally, and you can only get into good companies like ‘Irkutskenergo’ by bribery. I don’t want to insult or offend anyone. I wrote my vision of a person who has lived here 30 years. I would like to stay and live here, but there are no attractive prospects here. And almost 90% of my friends have gone to other cities and countries. I am grateful to the city for my education, and we definitely have a good standard! And for the good people in my life!
Known in the criminal lexicon of the 1990s as ‘Chitago,’ the city, despite an abundance of natural resources, according to the residents, ‘does not live, but survives.’ Yet the main thing is that local creativity on the city’s coat of arms – the bull, very much like the logo of the Chicago Bulls – hasn’t died. Chita is situated in a valley at the foot of the hills, resulting in high levels of dust in the air in summer. In winter, people suffer from harmful chemicals. The sharply continental climate also does its job, complicating the already unsweet life of the Chitans. ‘Criminal’ and ‘Chita’ are almost synonymous. Per 1,000 people, there are 39 crimes, almost the highest rate in Russia. Chita is first in Russia in terms of accepting bribes, and second in the number of rapes. Nothing fun about it.
After Chita, any city seems like a surprisingly great place. Is life bad in Chita? No! We can say that everyone finds themselves here. There’s a special flavor to Chita. It’s in everything – in conversation, in life outside the law, in street-hardened kids in leather caps with rosaries in their hands. Who are you in life? What do you breathe? The Chitan needs to know the answers to these ‘basic’ questions before learning to speak. And you know what a khimka [artificial narcotic made in the kitchen – Ed.] is and how to cook it – they’ll teach you that in school, and in college you’ll also know what a bulbuliator [a slang Russian term for a homemade device constructed out of a plastic bottle for smoking marijuana. Ed.] is and how to extort frightened people for cash. This knowledge is very useful because without it, they’ll extort you.
Chita is a SINK, which you still have to search for!!!! Not only that, the standard of living is extremely low, the climate is simply awful – continental with a huge drop in day and night temperatures!!! In the summer, the heat gets up to 50 degrees [Celsius – Ed.], and in the winter the insane cold gets as low as minus 40!!!! In Chita there aren’t just low temperatures, but very low atmospheric pressure – an average of 690 mmHg – and recently it’s been getting abnormally even lower, because of which in the morning headaches are stable, among both the elderly and the young!! The city is located on the slopes of a pit, and because of this geographical position, in summer Chitans breathe dust and the stench of garbage dumps. The rest of the year they inhale a ghastly smog of pesticides!!!! The town’s very dirty, there’s little snow in winter and it’s black, and the roads are like after a bombing!!! There’s no work, the 1990s rule in remote areas, and crime is flourishing!!! People are angry and sullen, apparently from Chita life!!