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Suburban Wasteland: New Russian Homeowners Feel Trapped In Infrastructure-Poor 'Ghettos'


Several apartment complexes have sprung up around St. Petersburg in recent years, but many still lack even basic amenities.

UST-SLAVYANKA, Russia -- Sofia was eager to move into her new apartment complex in a suburb of St. Petersburg. Besides the new buildings, a kindergarten, a school, and a medical clinic were just some of the other infrastructure add-ons the construction firm was promising to put up. It was all to be close at hand and reachable on foot, thanks to sidewalks and pedestrian bridges that were also projected.

Fast forward a few years and much of Sofia's hope and enthusiasm has vanished, replaced by despair and frustration.

Sofia and her family are living in the new apartment at the tidy housing block in Ust-Slavyanka, in one of several complexes that have sprung up around St. Petersburg in recent years.

But the promised schools, clinics, sidewalks -- even roads, in some cases -- remain largely just drawings on blueprints.

"The builder told us that there would be pedestrian bridges so that we could walk through the courtyards to the subway; that there would be sidewalks, but we walked along dirty paths then and we still do now," Sofia, who declined to give her last name, recently told the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

High-Rise Nightmares

Sofia's is not an isolated case. Many people who have moved into new high-rise housing clusters on the periphery of the city, where vacant lots lured builders, have the same complaint: social and other infrastructure is sorely lacking. Many of them liken their plight to living in a "ghetto."

And the problem is not isolated to St. Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin's hometown and a symbol of Russia since Tsar Peter the Great built it at a major human cost more than 300 years ago. Across the country, people who have bought apartments in relatively affordable high-rise housing complexes, are facing similar predicaments.

Such is the scale of the problem that it was a frequent topic during Putin's last annual televised phone-in with the nation in June.

Callers from Vologda, the Moscow Oblast, Rostov-on-Don, Voronezh, Krasnoyarsk, and other cities addressed Putin with permutations of the same question: Where is all the infrastructure they were promised when they bought apartments, and how can they cope now without it?

Ust-Slavyanka resident Vadim-Kovaleni says the lack of schools in the area means children have to go on long commutes to get an education.
Ust-Slavyanka resident Vadim-Kovaleni says the lack of schools in the area means children have to go on long commutes to get an education.

Putin deflected responsibility for the problem, blaming local and regional officials for the "clear omission" of social infrastructure at new housing complexes across the country.

In Russia, builders are often granted plots of land for the construction of apartment blocks on condition they also build some infrastructure that will later be handed over to local authorities at cost. But once the apartments are built, experts say, builders have little incentive to hang around and fulfill those obligations.

"Yes, some people get some of the social services, but it's clear the buildings are being sold quickly and the…builder is the last to fulfill its social obligations, if it does so at all. They want to sell the apartments and get their money, and there is no benefit [to them] whatsoever from the social infrastructure," explained Andrei Zaostrovtsev, an economist and researcher at the European University in St. Petersburg.

Bribes For Schools

Without the social services, these communities of high-rise apartment complexes on St. Petersburg's outskirts are struggling to deal with the population boom. For example, Kudrovo is home to some 70-80,000 people, according to unofficial counts, but is still classified as a village. Local activists have launched a petition to have it designated as a town. That status would entitle it under law to a post office, fire stations, and other social services.

"When the land was being parceled out for building no one thought [about whether] we'd need our own ambulance service, everything was left to chance. They built 25-story apartment blocks -- and everyone is stuck in traffic jams. Even an ambulance can't get here in time," complained Stanislav Krasotkin, a local resident and activist.

Once apartments are built, many builders have little incentive to hang around and fulfill their infrastructure obligations.
Once apartments are built, many builders have little incentive to hang around and fulfill their infrastructure obligations.

Krasotkin said schools in Kudrovo are unable to cope with the rising numbers.

"In Kudrovo, there are three schools, but all of them are already overcrowded," he said, explaining that two of them "operate in shifts," with morning and afternoon sessions.

"If they don't hold classes outdoors at the third, what else can they do?" he said, adding that some parents have resorted to bribing school officials to get a spot.

The only medical facilities in Kudrova are private, and more expensive than state-run clinics. The post office is so stretched that lines routinely spill out onto the street, and a much-needed fire station is still under construction. Many complain that the closest fire brigade takes at least 40 minutes to reach Kudrova.

Garbage Piles

In Ust-Slavyanka, Sophia is one of many anxious residents with children still waiting for long-promised schools and kindergartens.

Where one school should have been built long ago, an illegal landfill is metastasizing, its mounds of trash expanding all the time.

"At first it wasn't visible, it was left over from the 1980s, and now all the waste from the construction site has been taken there. The landfill is illegal, we ourselves blocked the road with concrete slabs, we even dug a ditch so they couldn't drive there," explained local resident Natalya.

This patch of waste ground was supposed to be a school by now.
This patch of waste ground was supposed to be a school by now.

"Time is wasting and the lot opposite us is filled with more trash and weeds, while nearby apartment blocks in the 'Live In Rybatsky' residential complex are being erected. And there's still not a single school," said Vadim Kovaleni, another resident, who added that promised schools are nowhere to be seen but that another block of flats is being built as local authorities and the builder point fingers at one another.

"In general, it's like this: the city administration says it is the builder who should construct the schools and the kindergartens, but the builder doesn't want to do that. So, they sling mud at each other," Kovaleni explained, adding children are paying a high price, forced to commute to school in nearby Rybatsk.

"If children go to school in Rybatsk, they can't even walk there. We have a two-lane road, but in the morning, there are always traffic jams. There is no barrier, no sidewalks, the children walk like they do in the villages in the countryside, among the cars, along a dirty curbside. It's horrible!"

"We've ended up in a ghetto here...cut off from everything," says Sofia.
"We've ended up in a ghetto here...cut off from everything," says Sofia.

Sofia, who has a young child, is skeptical any of the schools or preschools will ever be constructed.

"They promised to build kindergartens during the second phase of construction, but it's almost finished, and instead of kindergartens there are heaps of dirt piled up. And now they just told us that the city should buy the schools and the nursery schools. In other words, they don't want to be responsible for it," she lamented, adding residents feel cutoff and isolated.

"We've ended up in a ghetto here, living in three buildings, cut off from everything. To get anywhere, I walk on the roadside in the dust and dirt, and when it rains you pretty much don't go anywhere."

Government Throws Up Hands

The building boom in St. Petersburg is not unique. Across Russia, high-rise towers are going up, in large part spurred on by the high demand for cheap housing, the relative availability of mortgages, and a desire by younger Russians to strike out on their own, explained Zaostrovtsev.

And many Russians, Zaostrovtsev added, have few affordable housing options.

"But people only have enough money for these nightmarish 20-story "homes with walls" -- with just enough room for your clothes and to stretch your legs," he explained, adding builders are unlikely to feel any pressure from authorities to uphold their part of the bargain to build any social infrastructure.

"There are levers, but the authorities prefer not to use them. Although the rising social discontent is not a welcome sign, I haven't heard of any serious measures to pressure developers."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Tatyana Voltskaya from the the RFE/RL Russian Service's North Desk
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