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Spruced Up: Host City For World Student Games Becomes A Potemkin Village

Students from dozens of nations will be competing in this year's Winter Universiade in Krasnoyarsk. (file photo)
Students from dozens of nations will be competing in this year's Winter Universiade in Krasnoyarsk. (file photo)

As Krasnoyarsk prepares to host the winter version of the World Student Games from March 2, local officials have come under fire for their efforts to beautify the Siberian city.

The international event, also known as the Winter Universiade, will feature 3,000 competitors from 50 nations and attract tens of thousands of tourists to Krasnoyarsk.

The games, which feature winter sports such as alpine skiing, figure skating, and biathalon, are set to be opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s used to having all the stops pulled out during his tours around the country.

But even Russia's long-time leader has probably never been treated to the sight of several dozen Christmas trees stuck in metal pipes on a snow-covered field adjoining an intersection. That was the view Krasnoyarsk resident Natalya Podolyak came across on the morning of February 15, according to photos that she posted to Facebook.

In an accompanying video, workers could be seen dragging rootless spruces across the ground towards a set of steel pipes protruding from the snow.

"Mayor Yeremin and Governor Uss," Podolyak wrote in the widely shared post, addressing the heads of the city and the region. "Tell me again: who is this bacchanalia for?" Across town, several dozen trees had just been cut down, according to photos posted to social media on the same day and published by Newslab, a Krasnoyarsk-based news site.

"Let's wait until they start painting the snow green," one user wrote in response to Podolyak's post, echoing other comments mocking city officials.

The idea was never taken up, it seems. But over the weekend, new photos emerged of sacks filled with fresh white snow placed throughout the city center. Online, people immediately speculated that the snow would be laid over the dirty sidewalks in an effort to obscure them.

The two initiatives appear to be part of a broader effort to cover up unsightly parts of the city ahead of the arrival of international guests.
Fake Facades

In January, Newslab reported that the city had ordered 10,000 square meters of fake facades to cover more than 60 buildings across Krasnoyarsk. A local company called Maksimal allegedly received 10 million rubles (around $150,000) for the project, which involved draping lengths of canvas over the fronts of buildings in an effort to mask their dilapidated appearance.

Maksim Kurayev, a spokesman for the Krasnoyarsk mayor's office, told Newslab on February 15 that the spruces thrust into metal pipes had been supplied by the local office of IDGC, a regional energy grid operator.

"They are obligated to cut down such trees under federal regulations. If they don't cut them down they can be fined," Kurayev said of IDGC, according to Newslab. "Usually they utilize those trees for other purposes but this time they offered them for the temporary beautification of the city." He added that the trees will be removed once they wilt.

IDGC was quick to deny the city's statement. "Why they issued such information, I don't understand," a spokesman told Newslab. "We'll be talking to them about this. We didn't cut down any spruces over the past few days, so we couldn't have supplied such trees."

And the snow? In an Instagram post, the mayor's task force for urban maintenance explained that employees of an unspecified "private organization" had laid fresh snow over sidewalks after the city had already cleared them of the white stuff.

"Our workers must now once again send equipment to clear the road: that means additional trips and additional work," the post read. "The perpetrator will be found."

But with the slogan of the upcoming games being "Real Winter," perhaps officials in Krasnoyarsk are simply trying to live up to expectations.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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