Saturday, January 14, 2017

Another Fatal Flaw in Russia’s Company Towns: Business More Powerful than the State

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 14 – Russia’s 300-plus urban centers known as “monogorods” or “company towns” where the vast majority of the population have been the subject of episodic discussions typically triggered when the chief firm closes down, the population is impoverished, and protests arise.

            Then, these places where more than ten percent of the population of the Russian Federation live are generally ignored, a situation which means that instead of their problems being addressed, the difficulties they have been facing continue to fester and intensify, pointing to more problems ahead.

            Now that oligarch Vladimir Potanin has raised the possibility that he will close his Norilsk Nickel factory, the “city-forming enterprise” of Norilsk in northern Russia, that city is attracting more interest and that interest in turn is sparking discussions about the broader problems of the remaining company towns.

            In the current and first Internet-only issue of “Kommersant-Vlast,” Yuliya Paskevich and Olga Gakhokidze paint a chilling portrait of Norilsk as a company town now at risk and extend their comments to the state of play in the other “monogorods” of the Russian Federation (

            The two journalists begin their article by pointing out that the Yabloko Party has not had a representative office in Norilsk since 2012 because plane travel, the only way to get to the city all but a few months of the year when the rivers unfreeze and navigation becomes possible, is simply too expensive for the opposition party to afford.
            But the absence of an office in Norilsk doesn’t appear to have hurt Yabloko that much: in the last elections, it garnered almost exactly the same percentage of the vote – less than one – that it did nationally; and it failed to elect anyone to the city council which is overwhelmingly dominated by United Russia.

            Paskevich and Gakhokidze suggest that the party divisions on which outsiders place so much importance don’t mean much in Norilsk where deputies from opposition parties routinely cooperate with the party of power and vice versa without much regard to who is in what organization.

            Norilsk’s population has been politically inert for most of the post-Soviet period with participation rates in elections “extremely low, local political scientist Aleksandr Kynyev says. When they did vote, Norilsk residents tended to vote “against all” as a way of protesting how difficult their lives had become and how little Moscow had done for them.

             “For all of its history,” the two journalists say, “Norilsk was a monogorod,” first as a camp – of its 77,000 residents in 1953, 68,000 were GULAG prisoners or special settlers – and then as a city organized around the Norilsk nickel combinat. And it was that conglomerate that made things happen, something that hasn’t changed entirely after 1991.

            The company now subsidizes many things, including food; but it is limited in what it can do. Food prices are extremely high, there is little competition among consumer businesses, and despite promises, Norilsk still does not have a fiber-optic line to provide it with high-speed Internet connectivity.

            Many residents seek to leave. During the last year, 1400 did so. One of the unique aspects of the city’s demography is that business programs which support the relocation back to Russian cities mean that many of the city’s oldest residents are the first to go. As a result, the city has a very low death rate and an average age of 33.

            But young people also seek to leave: jobs at Norilsk Nickel are uncertain, there is no high-quality university there, and the city is one of the most environmentally awful places in Russia. It now ranks sixth in terms of atmospheric contamination, something that is unlikely to change unless Norilsk Nickel closes.

            “Many view Norilsk as a place for work but not for living,” the two journalists say, who report that residents told them that people there “try to save money while they are in the city and then spend it when they go on vacation.” And many try to buy apartments in Russian cities to the south, on what they call “the continent” of Russia.

            Norilsk is very different than many Russian cities, however. No one can forget or forgive what Stalin did because signs of that are all around there. As a result, no one is talking about putting up a bust of Stalin. And in other ways too, the journalists continue, Norilsk residents are at odds and maybe behind trends elsewhere.

            There is now a biker club of the kind Vladimir Putin favors, but it is small – there are no roads out of town – and far less active than those in other Russian cities. It does get grants from Norilsk Nickel and is currently using one of them to try to prevent interethnic tensions from exploding into violence.

            Norilsk has always been cut off from the rest of the country, but six months from now, it will be even more so, Paskevich and Gakhokidze say.  That is because current plans call for cutting the number of seats on flights between Norilsk and anywhere else by 50 percent. When that happens, the two observe, there will be yet another reason for residents think of themselves as being on an island quite separate from “the continent” of Russia.

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