Chemfest in Russia’s ‘chemical capital’

Map of Russia

( – Ola Cichowlas – November 28, 2013)

Ola Cichowlas is a British-Polish freelance journalist. She covers Russian regional politics and the arts in provincial Russia.

Russia’s industrial cities are more than a blot on the landscape. They are the source of appalling chemical pollution, a problem that neither the authorities nor the oligarch owners seem to have any interest in addressing. But people still have to live there.

Far away from Moscow, in the heart of Russia, there is a city that is sinking into the ground. This is not one of those metaphors used by Western journalists to depict a disintegrating, dying Russia. It is literally sinking into the ground.

Welcome to Beryozniki, Russia’s ‘Chemical Capital’ in the Northern Urals. The city made the headlines in 2007 when a giant sinkhole appeared within its borders. Today, the hole is 390 metres long, 310 metres wide and 237 metres in depth. What’s more, it is spreading. Every month, more people are evacuated from their apartment blocks, which are sealed off with dramatic ‘DANGER’ red tape. Entire districts of the city look like war zones.

Maria and her Persian cat used to stand by the window, peeping through her velvet curtains. Outside, workers were building Beryozniki’s first Cathedral. The old woman watched their progress daily, as if at some point she might run out and tell them exactly what they were doing wrong: ‘They hold services on the building site. The priests ask God to stop the hole from spreading.’

It was not part of God’s plan that Beryozniki should sink into the ground. There is a rational explanation to this extraordinary scene. Beryozniki, like so many other small Russian industrial cities, began its existence as a Gulag. Soviet policy required camps to be placed within marching distance of where prisoners worked. The city was thus built directly over a potash mine, some 300 metres below ground level. Today, the soluble salt in the mine is being dissolved by water flooding into it. Mikhail Permyakov, a local official, described this process as being ‘like a sugar cube in a cup of tea.’

This former Gulag is currently the world’s largest potash producer. It operates under the name of Uralkali, employs 12,000 people and is financing the cathedral that Maria watches being built from her window. A one-time Gulag turned multi-billion dollar corporation is constructing a place of worship not far from where the sinkhole it caused is spreading.

On the move

‘What’s the point in renovating the flat if we might get moved next week?’ asks Maria who has lived on Freedom Street since the 1950s. Once home to Beryozniki ‘s Soviet elite, the buildings here are a breath of fresh air after the Khrushchevki apartment blocks I am used to in Russia. She tells me what she would have done with her kitchen, had she known she could stay there forever. Instead, she is eyeing up houses on the opposite side of the Kama River, where there are plans to relocate the city.

The village of Usolye directly faces Beryozniki’s ‘riviera’ of industrial giants. People here call it the ‘Permian Venice,’ telling rose-tinted tales of pineapples once growing in greenhouses, surrounded by canals. Amongst the overgrown, dilapidated Stroganov family palaces, lies the re-opened Usolye monastery, built in honour of Russia’s victory over Napoleon. The goats that roam this village should be prepared for big changes in their lives: a sinking city is being moved to their doorstep.

The Russian Dead Sea

Sinking like Atlantis is not the only ecological disaster Beryozniki has known. The children of the city play by the Dead Sea; admittedly, it is far from the Biblical shores of Jordan where King David took refuge, and far from the sandy caves of Israel and turbulent Palestinian lands, but it is as turquoise as Tahitian waters and never freezes over, even at -50°; and its brightness is a point of reference for finding Beryozniki on satellite pictures and Google maps.

Uralkali’s potash mines are only some of the riches that earned Beryozniki the modest title of Russia’s Chemical Capital. This Russian Dead Sea is not lined with expensive hotels, however, but with five kilometres of industrial complexes. These belong to Uralchem, the empire of Minsk-born oligarch Dmitry Mazepin. Known locally as the ‘Azotka,’ it is the largest fertiliser producer in Europe and Russia. The turbines to the left of the Azotka belong to Avisma, the world’s largest titanium producer. Europeans and Americans flying on Boeings and Airbuses have no idea that the wings of the planes are likely to have been made on the shores of Russia’s Dead Sea.

An oligarch’s playground

‘We all work for Moscow,’ complains Nikolay, a mechanic at the Azotka, as we watch national television and catch a rare mention of Beryozniki by Dmitry Medvedev. The city’s industrial treasures turned into an oligarch’s playground following the revolutions that swept Russia in the 1990s. The Russian Forbes list of billionaires is full of shadowy figures whose ‘source of wealth’ is stated as ‘chemicals,’ ‘metals’ and ‘self-made.’

Beryozniki is not often mentioned in high-profile scandals and stock exchange figures; and oligarch disputes are certainly not news here. The arrest in Belarus of Uralkali director Vladislav Baumgertner was not widely discussed, neither was the subsequent downfall of Dagestani millionaire Suleyman Kerimov. The most popular oligarch is former Uralkali owner Dmitry Rybolevev, predominantly because of his Perm roots. ‘He’s one of us, from the Urals,’ Nikolay explained.

Cleaning up

I met Artyom behind a meat-processing factory. He has parked his car on a patch of grass behind the building, leaving his door open and turning up the volume of his radio. He has come here to clean what he called the ‘little park’ with some friends. These idealistic youths had extensive plans for this rare green space in the city: ‘The factories give out an acidic smell every time I open my window, so these places are important to us,’ says Artyom as he led me through the frozen rubbish: ‘There will be a tiny bridge here,’ he says as we stepped over a little stream, but these small hopes have been overshadowed by the carcasses we are stepping over. The meat factory throws out its waste in this area, and the youths pick up bones half their own size whilst whistling to punk music. The animal bones make the park look like the Savanna during a deadly drought, covered with snow. Artyom wrote to Beryozniki’s mayoral office, and even staged a small protest outside the factory. This action earned him the tag of ‘crazy drug addict.’

The Kremlin has consistently shown it has no time for cleaning up Russia. Its violent crackdown on activists protecting the Khimki Forest outside Moscow in 2010 was telling. It staunchly defended the mining company that heavily pollutes an entire national park outside the central Russian city of Voronezh; and the world discovered how much Moscow values the environment when it arrested foreign Greenpeace activists over a protest against drilling in the Arctic.


Urakali and the Azotka are major players in the Perm Region, but they do not just go around plundering Russia, no, they like to share their profits by organising fun and games. Every year, Beryozniki hosts a festival called ‘Chemfest’ (Chemical Festival). It’s a bit like Glastonbury, only instead of being held in a green field, you are in a forgotten industrial city; and instead of celebrating freedom of expression you are drinking to the glory of state-owned corporations.

On stage is Swedish pop group ‘Ace of Base’ singing their 1993 hit ‘All That She Wants.’ Behind them, a giant screen projects images of Beryozniki’s factories, with romantic close-ups of clouds of smoke coming out of giant chimneys. On the balcony of the local administration’s headquarters, facing the stage on the opposite side of Five Year Plan Square, the elite of Beryozniki look down on the festivities: Uralkali’s directors, the personnel of the mayoral office and other important guests are also partying, looking out over the crowd below them.

That evening, I celebrated Beryozniki’s toxic treasures. We repeatedly refilled our bottles of beer in the shop around the corner, where shy young girls were serving drunken workers with Beryozniki’s finest local lagers. We danced to tunes of the 1990s, the music which helped these people drink their early sorrows away when their fellow townsman Boris Yeltsin shelled his own Parliament in a distant capital a decade ago. My hangover the next morning was a memorable one: partying in this chemical wasteland was surprisingly fun; perhaps there was something in the water.

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