Strelka Mag / 6 December 2017

A look at a remote single-industry Russian city on the brink of a radical transformation

Founded as a gold mining town, the city of Svobodny in the Russian Far East has been decaying since the ‘90s. But it is now set to become one of the fastest-growing industrial hubs in the country, as it prepares to host a major Gazprom gas processing plant. Head of the Center for Urban Anthropology at Strelka KB Mikhail Alekseevsky and photographer Max Avdeev visited Svobodny on the eve of these great changes.

While Russia’s largest cities continue to attract more and more economic and human resources, the small and medium-sized cities that rely on a single industry – the so-called ‘monotowns’ – have faced an outflow of population and are falling into desolation. Until recently, Svobodny, in the Far Eastern Amur region, was a typical example of a small industrial city in decline: when most of the manufacturing plants began closing shop in the early 1990s, the population fell by a third (from 80,000 in 1989 to 54,000 in 2016).

However, in the coming years, Svobodny is slated to become one of the fastest growing cities in Russia. Fifteen kilometers outside of the city, gas giant Gazprom has begun construction of the Amur Gas Processing Plant, which will process gas from Eastern Siberia via the Power of Siberia gas pipeline. The new plant will become Russia's largest gas processing plant, with a total cost estimated at 790 billion rubles (~$13.5 billion). In October 2017, the construction of key industrial facilities was already underway at the site.

Svobodny is waiting for radical change. It is expected that up to 20,000 people will work on-site during the peak of construction, and the population of the city may almost double after the plant has reached full capacity in 2025. In July 2017, the Russian government approved a comprehensive plan for the social and economic development of Svobodny, and has budgeted 48.8 billion rubles ($835 million) for its implementation over the next eight years.

The transformation of the city will be based on a master plan developed by Russian housing development institution DOM.RF along with Strelka KB.

The development of the master plan will begin with a complex analysis. Strelka KB has already conducted an anthropological investigation. A crowdsourcing platform, ‘What does Svobodny want,’ has been launched to gather thoughts and ideas from the locals.



The city began as the village of Surazhevka, which was built at the end of the 19th century the on the high bank of the Zeya River, a tributary of the Amur River. Initially, there were only a few dozen inhabitants, who worked in agriculture, hunting, and fishing. However, once rich deposits of gold were discovered on the Zeya River and its tributaries, residents of Surazhevka began to engage in trade by providing gold prospectors with food and equipment to work in the mines and transporting goods through the rivers. Now, Surazhevka has become a district of Svobodny, where there are private residences, several small industrial enterprises, and warehouses that have sprung up around the Svobodny river port.



The rapid development of the settlement was facilitated by the construction of the Amur Railway – part of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Construction started in 1908 in the immediate vicinity of Surazhevka. By this time, Surazhevka had a population of more than 2,000 people, with 48 shops and several factories in operation. The crossing of the Zeya River and the new railway line made this settlement an ideal site for the construction of a city with the potential to become the capital of the Amur region. On July 30, 1912, the city was founded and named Alekseevsk in honor of the heir to the throne, Prince Alexei, son of Nicholas II. Today, the Trans-Siberian Railway divides the city into two parts.



In April 1917, the city government renamed Alekseevsk to Svobodny. Ironically, in 1932, the town of Svobodny, which means ‘free’ in Russian, became the home of one of the largest divisions of the Gulag – the Bamlag was centered here and administered the labor camp, and prisoners built the Baikal-Amur railway line and a second route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. In 1935 alone, more than 200,000 prisoners passed through the Bamlag system. The camps remained in the city until 1953.



In the postwar years, Svobodny developed into one of the main industrial centers of the Amur region and became the second most-populous city after Blagoveshchensk. In the late 1980s, 4,500 people worked in the city’s largest factory, the Avtodetal plant, which produced automotive parts and military equipment. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the country was undergoing major restructuring, many plants could not adapt to the new economic conditions and closed down. Where there were once many industrial zones, now there are only the ruins of old factories.



One of the main attractions of the city is the longest children's railway in Russia, with a total length of 11.6 kilometers. The idea to ​​build a narrow-gauge railway from the city to the Young Pioneer summer camps near Lake Bardagon was proposed by Svobodny’s school students in January 1939. Construction began in the autumn of the same year, but by the time war broke out, only half of the route had been built; the rest of the railway was not completed until the summer of 1951. After its launch, nearly all the railway jobs (cashiers, conductors, station attendants) were performed by schoolchildren, with professional locomotive operators engaged only in the management of the locomotive. According to statistics, about 40 percent of children working in Svobodny’s Children's Railway went on to enroll in railway educational institutions. While the train is operating during the summer season, it runs four times a day. It is not only a family attraction, but also a popular form of public transportation: many townspeople use the train when traveling to their dachas or to have a picnic near Lake Bardagon.



In the heat of the summer, the citizens of Svobodny like to spend time near the water. Even though the city doesn’t have embankments along the river, a picturesque urban beach sits on the banks of the Zeya River; instead of beach umbrellas, beach-goers find relief from the sun under massive wooden mushrooms, giving the beach the appearance of a children’s sandbox.



For many years, the city suffered from poor street lighting, which discouraged residents from going out at night. Even now that the situation has improved and the city center is well-lit, the habit has remained – in the evenings, the streets are not very crowded.



Despite the fact that Svobodny is considered one of the youngest cities in the Amur region, it has several architectural monuments. Most of all, residents appreciate the two-story Art-Nouveau house built in 1916, located on Lenin Street across from the stadium. The local historians proudly note that the building has 27 windows, each with a unique shape. For a long time, it was believed that this building was designed by architect, engineer, and prominent local revolutionary Mikhail Chesnokov, who has a street, a railway station, and even a entire district in the city (called Chesnoki) named after him. However, in 2000, Svetlana Levoshko, an art historian from Moscow, discovered that a nearly identical building was built in Harbin in 1900, while Chesnokov came to the Far East much later. Apparently, it was a standard project, which was reproduced in Svobodny on behalf of the Amur Railway.



Just next door is another architectural monument – the former "Amur" restaurant. In 1939, the building was built as a canteen for the administration of the Amur Railway. The construction of a two-story building with a semi-circular central space – which somewhat resembles a giant cake – was designed by the young architect Leonid Stukachev, who, as a third-year student at the Moscow Architectural Institute several years before, was accused of counter-revolutionary propaganda and sent to Bamlag. After the design and construction of the dining room were completed in record time, Stukachev received an early release. In Soviet times, residents called the building the "hockey puck" or "round timber." Recently, an art-cafe opened on the first floor of the former restaurant, quickly becoming a local landmark. Rather than Russian pop, jazz music now plays in the background, with several types of high-quality coffee available, and the works of local photographers hanging on the walls. The art-cafe even has plans to hold a poetry night.



Sadly, not all objects of architectural heritage can be preserved. One of the city’s sights were the ‘Finnish Houses’ – two-story wooden buildings in the Finnish style, with three offset residences connected by passageways. The first such house was designed in 1938 by the aforementioned convicted architect Leonid Stukachev, and the second house was built 10 years later. In 2006, both dilapidated houses were condemned as uninhabitable and residents were resettled into emergency housing. However, after this, art experts wanted the buildings to be recognized as architectural monuments in order to preserve them. In one of them, there was a plan to open a museum of actor and director Valery Priemykhov, famous for his starring role in the film "The Cold Summer of 1953," who had lived in one of the apartments during his childhood. Unfortunately, these plans failed to materialize and now the "Finnish Houses" are gradually falling into disrepair.



Local residents are also very worried about the sad fate of the House of Officers, which is located on Lenin Street in the heart of the city. The building was built in 1940 and for many years was one of the main cultural centers of the city: there was a popular cinema hall, festive concerts, and social clubs. The Great Hall of the House of Officers was used for performances by visiting celebrities, with the residents especially nostalgic for when pop star Philipp Kirkorov sang here. However, in recent years, the Ministry of Defense, which owned and maintained the building, ceased its services, but did not transfer responsibility to the city. During this time, the boarded-up building fell into critical condition and barely survived two fires. Recently, the House of Officers has finally been transferred to the city as a municipal property, although, according to experts, the building cannot be restored.



In contrast, another similar story recently had a happy ending. Built in the "Chesnoky” district in 1962, the Palace of Culture of Railway Workers was operated by the state-owned Russian Railways, but in 2016, all of its employees were notified of their dismissal due to staffing cuts. But the residents of the city launched a successful campaign to save the Palace of Culture, resulting in Russian Railways donating the building to the city. It is now being prepared for a large-scale reconstruction and modernization as part of the city's comprehensive social and economic development plan.

While the reconstruction of the Palace of Culture has not yet begun, it is possible to view some of its unusual interiors - namely, one of the halls in the Palace of Culture, which was renovated into a disco-space in the 1980s. The massive pedestal housed the DJ equipment from the late Soviet era, and the pictures on the walls were stylized to look like stained glass.



Svobodny has a tradition of theatrical art. The first theater was opened in 1916 by director Nikolay Bochkarev-Tomsky, when the city was still called Alekseevsk. Several theatrical studios operated during the Soviet era, and since 2000, the ‘Reverence’ People's Theater has been operated by Valentin Azarenka in the Palace of Culture of Railway Workers. Everyone can take part in the rehearsals and productions of the theater, and in one performance there are roles for both schoolchildren and pensioners. The theater is beloved by the townspeople, with sold-out performances at almost every show, and several local entrepreneurs sponsoring it together.



The most famous Svobodny native is the film director Leonid Gaidai, who authored some of the most legendary Soviet comedies, including "The Diamond Arm," "Kidnapping, Caucasian Style," and "Ivan Vasilyevich Changes His Profession." Gaidai’s father worked in Svobodny on the railway, but a few months after Leonid was born in January 1923, the family moved to Chita and then to Irkutsk, where the future filmmaker spent his childhood and youth. For a long time, it was not widely-known that the most famous Soviet comedy director had been born in Svobodny, but when a local historian wrote about it, word spread quickly. In 2006, the city’s “Youth” cinema was renamed the “Leonid Gaidai Cinema,” and a monument to the director was erected next to it, decorated with bas-reliefs that depict the heroes of his films. Every year, the participants of the Amur Autumn film festival come from Blagoveshchensk to place flowers by the statue. Residents of Svobodny are very proud of the fact that that the first monument to Leonid Gaidai in Russia appeared in their city. In Irkutsk, another such monument was not erected until 2012.



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At the beginning of the 20th century, Alekseevsk – destined to become Svobodny in a few years – was designed to be a garden city, with a continuous system of parks and squares. Even though the project was not fully realized due to the First World War, the city was still considered to be green and cozy during the Soviet era. However, from 1990 to 2000, the quality of the urban environment steadily deteriorated because of chronic underfunding. In this situation, when city authorities were unable to improve the streets and courtyards, the most active citizens started to do it themselves, installing goalposts and flowerbeds made from old car tires.



One of the more unusual characteristics associated with Svobodny’s urban environment is that mailboxes are not installed in the entrance of houses, but rather in the courtyard. Despite the fact that this may not be the best way to protect the mail from the elements, new mailboxes are still being installed there – such is the local custom.



The city’s outward appearance is largely spoiled by numerous signs and advertisements. Some old buildings in the center are literally covered from top to bottom.



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One of the most serious problems in Svobodny is the imminent uninhabitability of many houses. In general, these are two-story wooden houses built from the 1930s to the 1950s. According to the number of houses listed as imminently uninhabitable, Svobodny is ahead of all other cities in the region, including Blagoveshchensk. However, the city also leads in terms of the number of residents resettled from these dilapidated houses: several times each year, there are celebratory ceremonies throughout the city for the completion of new apartment buildings for the resettled residents.

Half an hour after the commissioning of the next three-story house, these women received the keys to their new apartment directly from the governor's hands. Not long from now, they will be able to move in.

New apartment buildings for resettled residents are located in various parts of the city and are not integrated into new districts. The newly resettled seem satisfied with the new housing, but the problem of the poor surrounding urban environment remains: deserted yards and gloomy playgrounds.



In spite of the current environment, residents are confident that their city will soon change for the better. The first symbol of change was the long-awaited opening of the “Ocean” sports complex, equipped with two swimming pools. The idea of constructing it arose in 2007, but construction didn’t commence until 2013, as the project regularly faced difficulties in securing the necessary funds. In its final stage of construction, the sports complex obtained financing through the Fund for Support of Social Initiatives of Gazprom, and in 2017 both pools started accepting their first visitors. Svobodny has the lasting reputation of being one of the most athletic cities in the Amur region. In addition to the sports complex, the city boasts the reconstructed Lokomotiv stadium, with an astroturf field where teenagers can play football, and retirees can keep their health through Nordic walking. And in 2012, the city opened the first ice rink in the region.

Photos: Max Avdeev

Text: Mikhail Alekseevsky, Head of the Center for Urban Anthropology at Strelka KB

Translation: Maxwell Koopsen