Democracy Lab

On the Edge of Siberia's Dark Blue Heart

Time has finally run out for the town of Baikalsk.

BAIKALSK, Russia — During my journey I woke up twice.  Once I looked out the window to see a group of men examining two crashed cars next to a gigantic bump on the road. The next time I awoke to see the huge blue eye of Lake Baikal, the world's biggest lake, staring at me through thin, naked tree branches; a range of snow-topped mountains hugged the lake's banks. The breathtaking scenery kept me awake for the rest of the trip even after the sleepless night I'd spent on the plane from Moscow. In a recent survey, a majority of Russians said that Lake Baikal should be the symbol of Russia. Not Red Square, not even the Kremlin, but the deep, dark blue heart of Siberia.

My destination was Baikalsk. It's a sleepy town with a population of about 15,000 people. Until recently it was a place that found itself squarely at the center of not always welcome attention from the world's environmentalists. Baikalsk is one of about 400 Soviet "monotowns," communities whose existence depended on a single industry or factory. Baikalsk was originally founded in 1961 to support the town's single industry, Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill. For decades, the mill dumped tons of pollutants into the air and soil and the water of the lake and its environment. Indeed, its assault on the unique Baikal environment so inflamed local people that they began one of the first ecological protest campaigns in the history of the Soviet Union. Over the past decade the Kremlin has struggled to resolve the issue: President Vladimir Putin, Vice Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have all, at various times, flown over to decide the fate of the tiny town. The officials said powerful words about Baikalsk's future and gave the mill's employees big promises of alternative livelihoods. But when the mill finally shut down last month, no alternatives were apparent. The city sank into depression.

We drove a few more miles along the shore of the world's clearest, deepest, and oldest lake. Gradually the bumpy road smoothed out. I recognized the two- and three-story gray brick buildings on Gagarin Street, the fading facade of the town's main store, my sad-looking hotel, and a concrete Soviet restaurant on the main square. Our bus came to a stop. A woman pushed a carriage with a little boy towards a kiosk selling cell phones across the square. A group of men smoked cigarettes in the freezing air without saying much, just spitting on the stained asphalt.

At the first glance, Baikalsk looked more dead than when I had visited during the town's first big crises in 2008. That year, the mill fired about 1,300 workers, both men and women. Some of them threatened to lie down on Tran-Siberian railroad in order to draw Moscow's attention to their plight; others went on a hunger strike, setting up camp in tents on the town's central square and demanding compensation for their ruined lives. Dozens wrote letters to Putin about their personal bitterness and the collapsing infrastructure. After all, the entire life of Baikalsk -- the kindergartens, the schools, central heating and electricity -- depended on the pulp mill.

The mill stayed closed for two years, then reopened in 2010, to the horror of environmentalists, and went right back to dumping industrial waste into the fields and forests around the town. The smell of rotten cabbage returned as the mill's smokestacks went back to belching methanethiol into the atmosphere. The workers, though, were happy: once again they had jobs. Until this summer, at least. That's Prime Minister Medvedvev drew a line during a visit to the region: "There is no way back," he said. "It's time to muster up the courage and make responsible decisions."

Medvedev promised to boost tourism and make a paradise in Baikalsk by investing $1 billion in projects to benefit the environment and the further development of the town, starting by the end of the summer. Summer passed, and the mill closed its doors to hundreds of workers. But Baikalsk has yet to see the envisioned swarms of tourists rushing in to the rescue.

The drama evolved right behind the curtain. In a little café on the main square, local women told me their family stories: their unemployed men had set off to look for jobs in the far North, at oil and gas fields, or at construction sites. They left their families behind for weeks at a time; some of them never came back. "Our families fall apart," Irina Maksimova, a waitress, told me. "What were they thinking when they decided to end the era of industrialization in our town, where three generations have had stable jobs at the mill?" Maksimova made about $200 a month; as we spoke her husband had already been away from her and their two children for over 28 days.

"Ah, come on," Vasiliy Temgenevsky, the mayor of Baikalsk, told me. "It's a woman's own fault if her husband leaves her. It doesn't depend on long-term shifts or employment. Men leave women if they're unhappy." The mayor told me that he was currently negotiating with a Chinese company to build a factory for the production of low-energy lamps. "We're going to employ about 800 people," Temgenevsky said. "But the Chinese investors want 60 percent of them to be women." At least someone in Baikalks may get jobs soon.

So what will happen to the hundreds of other people that have been fired? I decided to ask Alexander Ivanov, the manager assigned to shut down the old mill by a Moscow-based company entrusted with the task by the Kremlin. "It was probably wrong to shut down the mill before creating new jobs for people, " Ivanov admitted. "But we're paying the required compensations of five months' salary to all of the fired workers." So far Ivanov has fired 330 of them. 470 more employees will lose their jobs by Christmas.

In the mornings, local people come for a walk on the beach to see Lake Baikal "boiling" in the first rays of the sun, when clouds of steam rise from round stones that have become covered with thin layer of ice during the night. There's only one monument in the town: a statue of a strawberry. Picking and selling strawberries in early summer has been the only stable income for many local people over the years. "We've heard so many lies from officials that we don't believe in anything any more except for own hands," Yuri Nabokov, the head of the mill's professional union, told me. "Not a single letter we wrote to Putin about the situation here has ever received a response."

On my last day, when I went down to the shore to say goodbye to the lake, I saw a woman staring at the water. "Put your hand into the water and make your wish," she told me. "Baikal remembers and keeps its promises." At least the lake does.

Brendan Hoffman/Prime Collective /for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Democracy Lab

Not Exactly the Land of Smiles

As they gear up for the 2014 Winter Olympics, young Russians find themselves exercising some little-used facial muscles.

SOCHI, Russia — The quiet classroom slowly filled with young but gloomy faces. These young Russians had traveled from all across their country to attend a training course in Sochi, the resort city on the Black Sea that's set to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. They had all volunteered to work as greeters, guides, and helpers for the visitors attending the games.

Girls critically examined each other's outfits, while the boys exchanged a few remarks in low voices. Some seemed spaced out, others a bit shy. Nobody smiled. As they walked into the classroom, some of the girls showed interest in the big video camera on my colleague's shoulder. Their sidelong glances at us seemed to suggest that they regarded us, the reporters, as aliens.

We were received by Sergei Cheremshanov, a serious man in a gray suit and a tie who's in charge of preparing 2,000 Olympic volunteers at the training center at Sochi State University, one of 26 centers opened in seven Russian cities by the organizers of the games. Sergei made sure that every newcomer got registered at the front desk. The volunteers' agenda on the first day, he told me, was to learn about the various jobs they might be doing during the two weeks of winter games. (There are, as yet, no firm assignments for any of the helpers.) The course instructors aimed to teach their young charges how to offer help to their guests, which included rehearsing some polite phrases in English. "And, by the way, try to smile," Cheremshanov urged the students. But that, it turned out, was easier said than done.

Tall, handsome, and naturally friendly, my colleagues from Australian television felt lost as soon as they arrived in the country. (One of them, a TV sports reporter from Melbourne named Brad McEwan, worked as a commentator during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.) When the Australians and I met in the Moscow airport before heading off to Sochi, the first question they asked me was, "Why doesn't anybody smile in Russia?" It had clearly dawned on them that they were now half a world away from sunny Australia. It's true: most Russians don't smile randomly, and they tend to avoid eye contact with strangers. Why? Struggling to answer the Australians' question, I found myself referring back to one of those old Russian proverbs: "Laughter without a reason is a sign of foolishness."

I asked some of the Sochi volunteers what they have to be happy about. Lo and behold, the biggest celebrity in the crowd, a dark-haired beauty named Vlada Krupkina, produced a lovely smile. She told me how happy she felt earlier this month when she was among a small group of volunteers selected to accompany Russian president Vladimir Putin during the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony on Red Square. "Clearly it was Vlada's beautiful smile that helped her to meet with Putin," McEwan told me. "Without showing your personality, without smiling to people, you're not going to get far in 2014."

McEwan didn't only do a story about the volunteers; he also made a presentation to them in which he described the key elements that made the Olympics in Sydney such an unforgettable success: "There were thousands of happy volunteers everywhere with big smiles on their faces," he told the young Russians. To warm up the crowd, he gave them a little lesson on Australian English pronunciation: "Repeat after me: ‘G'day, mate!'" McEwan's sally immediately broke the ice: the entire audience burst out laughing.

Today's Sochi is far removed from the paradise it used to be before the Olympic construction boom. Bulldozers, cranes and excavators raise clouds of dust all over down town. Traffic jams choke the city day and night. Not everyone has shared in the bounty. Olga Samarina, an intelligent-looking volunteer with thick golden hair, told me about the challenges young people face when they come to study or work in Olympic Sochi: "Sochi is an aggressive city, spoilt with big money," she said. "It's a real struggle for anyone who comes from other cities to study and work here."

The athletes and guests who will be arriving in Sochi in a little over 100 days from now expect to feel comfortable, and to many, "comfort" also means a welcoming atmosphere. It took almost two years for the organizers of the Sochi Games to select 25,000 volunteers from 200,000 applicants. Apparently, though, there wasn't enough time to train all of them how to smile. "The idea of constantly smiling isn't really a part of our traditional mentality," Viktor Teplyakov, a leading official from the ruling United Russia Party, told me. "We have a lot of troubles and burdens weighing us down all the time." Teplyakov is responsible for coordinating the army of volunteers during the Olympics; so one can presume that he knows what he's talking about. "Don't expect the Sydney scenario in Russia," he said. "Our volunteers will look more like  Chinese. Even I can't relax at home if I need to rest and feel happy. I prefer to travel in Europe."

Let's face it: Russian history has more than its share of depressing topics. Many young people haven't seen their parents smile a lot. Sadness is ingrained in their DNA. But I suspect that the Olympics could prove an exception. The volunteers will meet people from all over the world, and they'll spend the rest of their lives carrying photos of themselves with the foreign friends they'll make during the two weeks in February.

Back at the training center, volunteers were making wishes. Some of them walked over to the brightly lit plastic heart mounted on a stand in the training center and touched it for good luck. The pedestal bore an inscription: "Sochi.ru 2014 Volunteer Heart." Olga Samarina told me that she wants to travel to Ireland one day, while Vlada Krupkina wished that the Sochi games will be the best in Olympic history. But that's just her latest big dream. The earlier one had already come true: She had seen Putin.

Mikhail Mordasov