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Will Russia’s Rust Belt rise up?

December 4, 2018   5 mins

“Moscow,” as any Russian will tell you, “is not Russia.”

It’s a phrase you’ll hear from Muscovites and unreconstructed provincials alike. It echoes from the Baltic to the Pacific, and in every grey town and concreted city in between. The world knows the story: a vastly richer capital knows nothing, and cares still less, for the hinterland. The provinces fear and resent what they do know of the big city’s excesses.

The story’s a familiar one – but in the world’s largest country, things tend to happen on a larger scale. Russia’s Rust Belt, with its dozens upon dozens of forgotten, crumbling industrial outposts, is no exception. The cultural and economic chasms between the metropolis and the hinterland are only getting bigger and more glaring. Russia hasn’t yet seen the sort of Rust Belt rebellion that has hit Europe and North America. But it can surely only be a matter of time.

Ask your typical Muscovite what they know of the almost seven million square miles of territory that makes up the rest of their mind-bogglingly massive country, and you’ll get a few predictable answers. St Petersburg is lovely. The Tsars’ old capital can be a wonderful break from the stress of Moscow life. Sochi too, with its subtropical climate and post-Winter Olympics boom, is a firm favourite.

After that, it gets harder. Our archetypical Muscovite will know little more of the motherland. Mention Siberia, and they’ll respond like anyone else: a freezing expanse of Gulags and bears that’s equal parts mysterious and scary. Beyond those old haunts, their knowledge of the Russian Federation is a route that extends for 30 kilometres north-west of Red Square and ends at the departures lounge of Sheremetyevo International Airport.

But drive those 30 kilometres in any other direction and you will find the real Russia. This a country of mouldering low-rise concrete, of 200-dollar-a-month pensions, of the never-ending brain drain.

This is a Russia that definitely did not make the World Cup cut. Out here, our Muscovite might sometimes glimpse it, though strictly at 35,000 feet as Aeroflot carries them off to Rome, Dubai or Bangkok. This isn’t so much flyover country as flyaway country.

Not, of course, that the real Russia is the provincial hellhole of Muscovite nightmares. Plenty of cities, variously leveraging savvy marketing, rich histories and natural resources, have managed to convert themselves into the sort of places that might attract investors and tourists. But for all that Kazan, Russia’s oil capital, the Pacific port of Vladivostok, or the Urals hub of Yekaterinburg have fashioned themselves into mini-Moscows, the original version mostly hasn’t noticed.

More to the point, surviving as a provincial Russian city can be a cutthroat business. For every city that has carved out a niche of its own, there’s usually one just down the road that hasn’t, bled dry of funding, citizens, and attention. These loser cities, the poor relations of contemporary Russia, are where discontent is rumbling.

Omsk is one such place. Squatting on a muddy riverside in endlessly flat and featureless western Siberia, Omsk is somewhere our internet-savvy Muscovite will know. It has been made famous by an internet meme about the locals’ alleged proclivities for heroin abuse.

Once a major Soviet industrial hub, Omsk is the sort of place that never really recovered from the decade-long succession of economic and social disasters of Russia’s 1990s. Crueller still is how Novosibirsk, Omsk’s neighbour eight hours to the east, Russia’s third city and Siberia’s de facto capital, has grown into a confident and successful metropolis.

By contrast, Omsk’s history has been of decline. This year, news that their home stadium had structural flaws so serious as to pose a danger to fans and athletes forced Omsk’s Avangard ice hockey team to relocate to a new home, three timezones and well over 1,000 miles away, causing uproar among fans and locals. Predictably the team’s new home is located just outside Moscow.

Most symbolic of Omsk’s decline, however, is the story of the city Metro. Work began in 1992, and was suspended and resumed several times, before being definitively halted this year after Moscow informed the city that no more funds would be forthcoming. The city’s final reminder of what might have been is a single pedestrian tunnel, passing under a busy, anonymous junction, marked with a large red sign, bleakly proclaiming ‘Metro’.

Though Omsk’s population is officially around 1.1 million, or so it boasted just prior to the Soviet collapse, locals often doubt that. As the young try their luck elsewhere, often by heading off to become newly minted Muscovites themselves, the real figure, they claim, has dipped below a million.

This particular preoccupation may seem obscure, but in Russia, it’s an important milestone of decline: cities of one million or more can expect extra investment. For those that slip below, funding will rapidly dry up.

As the government withdrew, business has stepped in. Gazprom  – which has a refinery outside Omsk – recently refurbished the city centre, littering the place with quaint, mock 19th-century cobblestones and mansions. Crowning the urban renewal was a grand new art gallery that served as Omsk’s cultural heart. Until, that is, the curators resigned en masse and moved to Novosibirsk, having been offered higher salaries in Omsk’s booming neighbour, only eight hours away by train.

Far away from Omsk’s decay, its rust belt cousins in Europe and America, culturally and economically estranged from their own capitals, are making headlines, delivering political shocks to their own Moscows. Omsk could well be next.

So far, the Russian Rust Belt’s suffering has been mostly silent. In places like Omsk, not having been the principal beneficiaries of Russia’s mid 2000s oil boom, locals’ economic expectations have been more that life should not actively get worse, rather than that it should actually get better. They do, however, appreciate Russian muscle-flexing overseas and stability at home. Add in a parochial dislike of Moscow’s westernised cosmopolitanism, and you’ve got a thoroughly loyalist population. Omsk, and cities like it, have been places where the briefest presidential appearance on television screens can provoke a round of public applause.

But the government’s deal with the provinces, that life should at least be prevented from getting any worse, in exchange for which cities like Omsk would throw their weigh behind the authorities, is breaking down. Oil booms are a thing of the past, and with sanctions taking their steady toll, there are shortfalls to be made up.

It is cities like Omsk that will have to make them up. With government investment long since dried up, Moscow is finally collecting the taxes that so many Russians, opting for the shadow economy of brown envelopes and cash-in-hand, have not bothered paying.

Even more radically, the government has just pushed through the first increase to Russia’s pension age since Stalin. Having traditionally channelled public spending away from healthcare and education towards buying the loyalty of Russia’s pensioners, this was not a move to be taken lightly. Disproportionately affecting the provinces, with their older populations, the law elicited the sort of public rage that had almost vanished in an increasingly politically docile country. It was lost on few Russians that the male retirement age is now equal to male life expectancy.

Sure enough, earlier this year, the Russian provinces delivered their verdict in regional elections, with various far-flung regions, from Khakassia in Siberia, to Vladimir in the rural west, to Khabarovsk in the Far East, electing opposition governors. Omsk, too, re-elected a rare governor not drawn from the ranks of the ruling party.

These figures are not, of course, the anti-corruption liberals whose Moscow rallies sometimes make the international press. The provincial opposition, for years a tame irrelevance, domesticated by the government, is much less appealing to, and interested in, the international media.

They range from ranting nationalists, who complain, among other things, that Russia has not yet fully annexed Ukraine, to communist throwbacks, stolid men whose beetroot complexions and plodding, wooden Marxist-Leninism could have been lifted straight out of Brezhnev’s Russia. Men like this, distinctively Russian takes on a worldwide populist backlash, now govern major swathes of the country.

It’s easy to over-interpret in a country as vast and opaque as Russia. That said, Russia has many, many Omsks. And one more indignity could cause that simmering resentment could boil over.

And then Moscow will have no choice but to take notice of places like Omsk.

Felix Light writes on Russia and the Caucasus


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