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Like 'Lepers': Big Plans In Russia's Far East Leave Locals On Wrong Side Of The Tracks

"Svobodny -- City of the Future," reads the sign. "What has changed since we gained 'special status' three years ago? Absolutely nothing," one longtime resident says.
"Svobodny -- City of the Future," reads the sign. "What has changed since we gained 'special status' three years ago? Absolutely nothing," one longtime resident says.

SVOBODNY, Russia -- In the center of this Far Eastern city sits the neat new brick office building that houses the local headquarters of Gazprom. It is surrounded by decades-old buildings in various states of disuse and disrepair.

"They came to our city as guests," local resident Dmitry Bush tells RFE/RL. "But now they run the place like they own it. They built big, beautiful buildings from lovely brick. They laid down sidewalks around them and hung their flags outside. And they blocked us out with fences as if we were lepers."

"And at the same time," Bush adds, "their bulldozers destroyed our last half-decent roads."

Svobodny -- originally called Alekseyevsk -- was founded in 1912 as a company town of the Trans-Siberian railway. Renamed after the Bolshevik coup in 1917, it became a major gulag camp under dictator Josef Stalin and home to 190,000 repressed people by 1935, many of whose descendants still populate the region. Its population has contracted by more than one-third since the collapse of the Soviet Union to some 54,000.

Svobodny's Gazprom headquarters
Svobodny's Gazprom headquarters

In recent years, though, the story of this Amur regional administrative center has truly been a tale of two cities.

On one hand, it's home to two massive development projects and economic incentives earmarked for turning around acutely depressed regions. On the other, it's become a symbol of failing infrastructure and despair for a dwindling local population that is increasingly frustrated at official corruption and a perceived failure to seize a "window of opportunity" to make the city livable again for its beleaguered residents.

Its two big projects should arguably provide some relief. They are the Vostochny civilian space center being built at a cost of at least 900 billion rubles ($28 billion) in hopes of domesticating Russian space launches currently mostly farmed out to a Soviet-era cosmodrome in Kazakhstan; and Gazprom's enormous Amur Gas-Processing Plant, which is projected to be the second-largest facility of its type in the world when it is completed in 2027.

In June 2017, Svobodny was granted the status of a "territory of retarded socioeconomic development," opening it up to a raft of possible tax and business incentives aimed at "developing small and medium-sized business, attracting investment, [and] creating jobs."

In October, the Far East Development Ministry announced that the development plan for the Svobodny economic zone -- one of 18 such zones in the Far East Federal District -- had been completed and submitted for approval.

The Other Half

But the city also attracted national attention that same month when a road bridge over the Trans-Siberia railway collapsed under the weight of a loaded truck.

"Now we have to walk to and from work," says Svetlana Yarovaya, who works in a local bakery. "The buses used to charge 25 rubles, but now they charge 50 and only take you to a place where you can walk across the rails at your own risk. At one such place, they have posted a woman, but what good does she do? The trains aren't going to stop to let me through."

"I work in a bakery from 4:30 a.m. until the evening," she added. "Now I barely even go to bed before I have to get up again. And you should try crossing those tracks during the night. I'm planning to quit -- it isn't worth risking my life every day."

In November, a 20-year-old man was killed trying to cross the rails.

Svobodny's new bridge to nowhere
Svobodny's new bridge to nowhere

Local authorities have not announced plans to replace the bridge, the absence of which has virtually cut off 20 percent of the city's population.

"Of course, we are in shock," says Mikhail, a local who asked to be identified by his first name and who works at the gas-processing-plant construction site. "Luckily we have a car. Our kids go to school in the city and my wife and I work there. I used to get up at 7 a.m. and now I get up at 5:30. The alternative road is pretty bad and steep...and now there are always traffic jams. I can't imagine how people are going to manage it in the winter when it is slippery.... There is one other road, but it is even worse."

Even before the bridge collapse, Svobodny's image took a blow in July when Mayor Yury Romanov resigned after less than a year in office and was subsequently arrested and charged with accepting kickbacks during the privatization of city property.

'There Is Nothing Here'

Residents of Svobodny had high hopes when the Gazprom project was announced, but now many are disappointed. At the time, the company and local officials promised new construction and renovation throughout the city, which would become home to the estimated 3,000 workers expected to be employed at the Amur Gas-Processing Plant.

But now the company has announced plans to build a company-owned residential district near the plant for its future workers. That move repeats the city's experience with the Vostochny cosmodrome, which constructed the artificial town of Tsiolkovsky for its employees.

"What has changed since we gained 'special status' three years ago? Absolutely nothing," says longtime resident Aleksandr Potapenko. "We walk along the same pitted sidewalks and drive on the same practically unpaved roads. There isn't one decent supermarket or shopping center in town. We travel to the regional center [Blagoveshchensk] to do our shopping just like we always have. Except for some swings that were set up by a local businessman, there is nothing here for the children."

"That's a city with 'the president's attention' for you," one local says.
"That's a city with 'the president's attention' for you," one local says.

He added that the city suffers from chronic water and electricity shutoffs.

"That's a city with 'the president's attention' for you," Potapenko says.

The governor of the Primorsky region, Vasily Orlov, seems to agree with this assessment. "Today Svobodny is the target of particular attention," he told a business forum in November. "Business here has an absolutely unique window of opportunity over the entire region. We have been talking about this now for three years."

"But unfortunately, entrepreneurs have not been able to take full advantage of this window," he added. "Despite enormous demand for the services of small and medium-sized businesses, particularly in the services sector, entrepreneurs have been unable to satisfy that demand. You cannot even understand, most likely, how badly the city of Svobodny needs you."

Lyudmila Liskaya, who owns a small business on the newly isolated side of the railroad tracks, says the new projects have actually drained the town of much of the minimal economic life it had before.

"People are running away from local enterprises," she tells RFE/RL. "Gazprom is promising wages like we have never seen before. We don't have enough profit to pay people like that. That's the way it has turned out...and now it is even worse without the bridge. I'm going to shut down. Maybe I'll try to open something in the city. But [the isolated district of] Zalineiny is dying."

Aleksandr Turkin, a human-resources specialist in Svobodny, tells RFE/RL that many of the people who take jobs at the Gazprom construction site use the opportunity to work there for a few months, living on-site and saving their salaries, to bankroll a move away from the Far East for good.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by correspondent Maryana Rimskaya of the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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