Thursday, January 9, 2014

Window on Eurasia: A Russian City Where Life Expectancy has Declined to 38 Years

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 9 – Karabash, a copper-smelting company town in Chelyabinsk Oblast, has seen the life expectancy of its residents fall to 38 years, the result of massive environmental pollution by a highly profitable company that has turned this city of 13,000 into a kind of hell, “one of the dirtiest in the world.”

            Just how bad things are in this corner of the Russian Federation has recently been documented by Italian photographer Pier-Paolo Mittica ( and was discussed in detail yesterday on Pavel Pryanikov’s blog (

            As Pryanikov makes clear, the story of Karabash is not only the tragedy of one city and its people but a measure of the indifference of Moscow to anything but profit and the willingness of those at the center to sacrifice the well-being of the country by pleading a lack of funds even as the Kremlin gives enormous assistance to other countries like Ukraine.

                Karabash, Pryanikov says, has long been recognized as one of the most polluted places on earth, with a “Mars-like” environment in which people cannot live nearly as long as they can elsewhere.  But as he suggests, it is useful to view it as a “typical” Russian company town, one “without a future” because the plant must be closed and the people evacuated.

            The Chelyabinsk city, whose name in Tatar means “black head,” has an interesting history. It first appeared in the early 19th century as a gold mining center. Then copper was discovered, an industry that was developed and made profitable by an English businessman Leslie Urqhart just before World War I and the Russian Revolution.

            Not surprisingly, many workers in Urqhart’s plants joined the Bolsheviks and fought Admiral Kolchak, “but the new world” they helped to bring into existence “did not,” Pryanikov says, “liberate the workers of Karabash.” The plant was nationalized and grew until the early 1970s. Then in 1989, it was closed and 3,000 workers were left without work.

            In 1996, Petr Sumin was elected Chelyabinsk governor with the help of copper magnate Aleksandr Volkhin, and the plant reopened after being freed from the taxes that had made it unprofitable.  But without those taxes, “the city budget could not support local health care and the city’s infrastructure.”

            Volkhin’s operation was taken over at the end of the 1990s by Uralmash which destroyed the plant’s labor union and the environmental protection movement in the city. Then, when Putin came to power and built his “power vertical,” Uralmash was dismantled, and control of the Karabash copper plant passed ultimately to Ruslan Baysarov, a Chechen famous for being the husband of the daughter of singer Alla Pugacheva.

            Having made money with a Moscow casino, Baysarov decided to get involved in the profitable copper industry.  Consequently, he bought the Karabash plant but then registered the Russian Copper Company in the Virgin Islands so as to be able to export his earnings offshore and thus avoid taxation.

            Baysarov also diversified production at the plant, but that, Pryanikov says, only made the environmental situation worse.  Between 2005 and 2008, the plant spewed out nine tons of poisonous gases per capita per year, with annual totals of environmental contamination in this one Russian city several times than all such contamination from all plants in Canada during the same period.

            According to local experts, average life expectancy in Karabakh declined to 38 years, although city officials insist that the fall has “not reached 50.”  There are now 2.5 times as many deaths as births. Many people have moved away to escape the environmental contamination, but 1200 are still employed at the plant, almost all of them ethnic Russians.

            The plant as a processor and exporter of copper remain profitable to its owners, but just how profitable is unclear because of the company’s offshore arrangements. But it has certainly benefited from not having to spend money on the environment or paying the taxes it owes so that officials can.

            Those officials, Pryanikov says, are so corrupt that they may not care about doing anything either given their willingness to accept the company’s assurances that it is not contaminating the environment, a denial of what is obvious to the unaided eye.

            Unfortunately, things have gotten to the point that no one can hope to reverse the environmental degradation in Karabash, and the only options are to close the plant and relocate the population.  But the owners don’t want to do that, and Moscow says it has no money for such an effort.

            Taking that step would be expensive, Pryanikov says, with most estimates centering around 20 billion rubles (650 million US dollars). That is a lot, but it is small compared to the 15 billion US dollars Russian President Vladimir Putin has just given to Ukraine. For what he is spending for political loyalty there, he could have helped the people of 25 Karabashes.

            Obviously, that isn’t part of calculation of those in Moscow. What the people of Karabash have been offered is more of the same – and the erection of one of the largest outdoor crosses in the Russian Federation. If nothing changes, that may come to serve as the tombstone of the city.

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