Here what’s in the store for you this week:
- We talk to the locals living near Putin’s infamous palace;
- We bring an epic dispatch from Vorkuta, once a thriving city of the Russian Arctic, now it stands as a symbol of all the dysfunctionalities of post-Soviet Russia;
- Plus, we interviewed a high-profile Russian journalist who was thrown in jail for a tweet.
**Want to get the full story? Click the links below for full-length articles in Russian. **
Living Next to Putin’s Opulence
Putin’s opulent palace is almost certainly the most talked-about piece of real estate in 2021. The interior is well-known thanks to an investigation published by now-imprisoned Alexei Navalny. But what remains less reported is how the estate has dramatically altered the life of a neighboring community, the once quiet village of Praskoveevka on the Black Sea coast. This week our special correspondent Ilya Azar traveled there to talk to locals. He was trailed by the state security services, the FSB, the whole time.
BEFORE PUTIN’S DACHA. Until the early 2000s, Praskoveevka was a quiet farming village. Residents engaged primarily in agricultural activities. They raised cattle, hunted, fished, made wine, and relaxed near the sea. Several hundred people live on the farmland that is now the site of Putin’s sprawling palace. According to the 2010 census, just 315 inhabitants are officially registered here. Most of the local social life concentrates on Morskaya Street in the village’s center and on a small square near the Baptist Church.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE PALACE? Our reporter asked the villagers.
“What can I think? It’s a madhouse! The coast has been blocked off. There was once a beach for the locals. It was very environmentally friendly. We swam there, drank vodka, put a table right in the water, relaxed, and hummed. The best fishing was on the Molokanova Cape. I ate such crabs there,” one resident told our reporter.
“The best hunting place was in Dark Slit. You could chase the beast, and he has nowhere to go. We have always hunted. That was our food. But now, we cannot go out into the forest at all. When we do, a huntsman immediately appears and says that this is private property,” another resident of Praskoveevka says with annoyance.
**SOME OF THE LOCALS MANAGED TO GET EMPLOYED AT THE PALACE. ** There are an estimated 1,500 people working inside it. An average salary is reportedly around $500 a month — just within the region’s average salary rates. But it is still a handsome compensation for the country with rising poverty and stagnating incomes. Yet, it comes with a caveat.
“What a security system they have there! You pass the security check and work for a month for free. You only get paid on your second month, but many lose their nerve first, they start complaining, and they get kicked out before the first paycheck. And some just can't stand it. You have to work from 7 am to 7 pm six days a week,” one employee said to us.
FEW PERKS LIVING NEXT TO IT. Many of the residents we spoke with mentioned a few advantages to having Putin’s palace nearby. Gas and electricity have suddenly arrived in the area where there wasn’t any before.
FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT IS NOT ONE OF THEM. The seashore surrounding the massive mansion is still open to the public. In the summers, there’s a shashlik house with faded inscriptions reading "hookah room" and "set meals.” But it’s no longer possible to walk along the beach freely. A tall fence blocks that passage along the beach, and more security is currently under construction. Near the beach’s exit, our reporter was already greeted by three security guards wearing camouflage and another in civilian clothing. They demanded to see Azar’s ID and questioned him.
RUSSIAN INDEPENDENT JOURNALISTS, INCLUDING NOVAYA, BEGAN REPORTING ON THE PALACE AROUND A DECADE AGO. At the time, Russia’s presidential administration said it had nothing to do with its construction. But we discovered proof in a 2014 money laundering case opened in Switzerland against three Russian citizens: Sergei Kolesnikov, Dmitry Gorelov, and Nikolai Shamalov. The money used to build the palace was part of an elaborate money-laundering scheme involving medical equipment. Ultimately, however, the Swiss agreed to allow Russia to take over the case within its jurisdiction. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened after that.
Trapped in the Russian post-Gulag Arctic City
This week we bring you an epic multimedia dispatch from Russian Arctic. In Vorkuta, the temperature is -36. Winter lasts eight months a year. It snows even in the summer. Your hands and feet tingle. The frosty air cuts your nose. It's hard to breathe. In general, it’s just a tough place to live. The weather is harsh, there are few jobs, and it’s cut off from the mainland. Our correspondents Elizaveta Kirpanova and Viktoria Odissonova have just got back with a special report from the city that once was a thriving Arctic megapolic, but have turned into Russia’s most endangered city. The city’s history mimics that of the country’s itself.
FROM GULAG TO CITY. In 1931, the first batch of 43 political prisoners arrived at what is now Vorkuta — to build a coal mine. A year and a half later, in the dead of winter, 3,700 more came. Of these, only 54 people survived until the spring. In just 25 years of the Soviet terror after that, more than 2 million people went through local Gulag camps, about 200,000 people died. The prisoners built the mining town, where people from all over the Soviet Union came to work. It quickly became a thriving industrial hotspot. Now, 90 years later, Vorkuta is the city with Russia’s fastest collapsing population rate.
FROM INDUSTRIAL HOTSPOT TO A DEATH TRAP. Years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, many local coal mines ended up bankrupt. Those that remain are plagued by deadly incidents, and the lack of care for the safety of miners becomes endemic. In 1998, a methane explosion killed 27 people. The bodies of at least 17 miners remain 900 meters down. In 2016, another powerful methane explosion, accompanied by fire, killed 36 people, and 26 of those miners will remain forever under the rubble.
FROM THRIVING TO SURVIVING. ‘Vorkuta is a piece of Europe, sticking out in the tundra, in which socialism is frozen,’ one of the last remaining residents explains to us. "There are two options here: either get drunk or work.’ Life in Vorkuta is hard - not so much because of extreme weather, but because living here is extremely expensive and jobs are scarce.
“The average salary in Vorkuta is 26,000 rubles ($350). Miners receive 70-100,000 ($950 - $1,350). But now it is not enough. Bread costs 80 rubles in the stores. The weather does not allow people to spend their free time outside. Therefore, any entertainment - cafes or movies - costs a pretty penny. Moscow prices, " a resident tells our correspondents.
A GHOST OF THE PAST. We travel to the village of Komsomolsky, around 13 miles from Vorkuta — a part of the former metro area. We arrive at a district with multiple frozen five-story buildings. The windows on the ground floor are broken, and the wind is blowing inside. From a nearby window, a man surprised by the sudden visitors looks out and goes downstairs. Yuri is a former miner. His family lives elsewhere, in Tatarstan. He himself would like to move in with a friend in the Arkhangelsk region, but he ‘needs to save for the moving first’. The doors of the empty apartments at his building are wide open. It's messy inside. On the floor of one of the apartments, there are dishes, sprouted potatoes, vinyl records, a mattress, a suitcase, books were thrown about. In some places, there is still furniture and chandeliers hanging. In Soviet times, about 20 thousand people lived in the village. Now there are just over two hundred left. Previously, there were schools, kindergartens, a music school, and a house of culture. Now there is only one store left.
ABANDONED AND ISOLATED. Valentina, a local, describes life in the village:
“My grandparents arrived here as political prisoners. My parents were born here, and so was I. We have lived in the village all our lives. The salary is small, about 20 thousand rubles, sometimes less. It's cold in our apartments. We are always warmly dressed, in socks and slippers. Lighting in the village is irregular. Often, the light goes out and we walk along the street with flashlights,” she tells us.
HOSTAGES OF THE NORTH. Volodymyr Zharuk heads the local movement “Hostages of the Far North." “In this case, hostages are people who, according to Russian law, have the right to relocate to areas with a milder climate, but, in practice, cannot leave Vorkuta. We are talking mostly about pensioners or sick folks," Zharuk explains. "Under Soviet rule, if a person worked in the North for 10 years, they had the right to receive housing in any city." In post-Soviet Russia, this 10-year period was extended to 15 years, and instead of an actual apartment, people are now offered ‘certificates for an apartment.’ In practice, it means decades of waiting in line for a new home. Zharuk has been waiting in one since 1997.
“I built mines. I constantly stood up to my neck in water. I've never smoked, but after going up a few floors, I need to catch my breath these days. My hands have also been affected. When you constantly work with a vibrating instrument, the capillaries die off. This is called vibrational disease. My right to receive an apartment did not fall from the sky. I earned it,” Zharuk says.
BACKSTORY. With rapid climate change warming the Arctic region, Russia’s government is rushing to solidify its control over new trading routes and natural resources in the North. Between 2015 and 2017, nearly 75 percent of Russia’s $1.9 billion military budget went to Arctic expansion. All of this development took place to the detriment of local communities, including the indidiginous nations.
**Read our full report from Vorkuta here. **
Arrested for a Tweet
The lift of an independent journalist in Russia has never been easy. But the recent wave of political persecution targets us and our colleagues on an unprecedented level. The arrest and imprisonment of Sergei Smirnov, editor-in-chief of the country’s leading court journalism outlet Mediazona, shocked the community. We spoke to him immediately after Smirnov left the jail following a 15-day detention.
AN UNPRECEDENTED ATTACK ON RUSSIAN MEDIA. This is the first time the Russian state arrests an editor-in-chief of a major Russian news outlet. Smirnov got charged for retweeting a joke about himself. The joke included the date of an unsanctioned rally in support of imprisoned opposition leader Navalny. Smirnov’s story is another stark illustration of recent expansion of Russian repressive laws that target journalists, civil society members and other dissenting voices.
ON UNBEARABLE JAIL CONDITIONS. In jail, Smirnov was subjected to bizarrely tight security — as if he was a dangerous criminal or murderer. He was transferred to a cell where the conditions were so harsh his blood pressure rose sharply. Only an intervention by media and human rights watchdogs helped Smirnov to secure more humane treatment.
“It's tough to get used to the lack of bedding. It was very uncomfortable to come to terms with the fact that there is no free boiling water. You realize that you cannot drink tea whenever you want. The lighting was terrible, and it was difficult for me personally to read. Moreover, during the day, the light is faded, and at night, on the contrary, such a medical lamp with white light turns on - this is very unpleasant,” Smirnov recollects.
ON ISOLATION OF POLITICAL PRISONERS. ‘The day before yesterday our deputy editor-in-chief came to visit me in prison, and he tried to hand over all of the latest issues of Novaya Gazeta. The guards stopped him. 'He can read that when he's free,' they said. This is just a mockery!’
ON HOW HIS PROFILE MIGHT HAVE SAVED HIM FROM ABUSE. “Everyone knew that I could always tell someone what was going on and it would gain traction. If I talked to someone and told them about something disturbing that was happening, everyone understood that in two or three hours people would be talking about it on the Echo of Moscow (the country’s leading news radio - ed.) It was a kind of insurance against unpleasant things happening to us.”
ON JAIL GUARDS NOT EVEN PRETENDING THEY ARE POLITICAL PRISONERS. ‘When they addressed us, they called us “the politicals.” “ Hey Political, getting ready for a walk!’
ON HOW RUSSIA IS NOT BELARUS, YET. ‘The Russian authorities wanted to show that they can crack down on us the Belarus style. We saw how people were beaten in Belarus and the conditions they were kept in. I don’t want to call the situation in [my -ed.] prison an “underbelly”. There was unprecedented pressure, an unprecedented number of arrests per day, but nothing more. No one was panicking. No one thought they were going to hell.’
ON HOW RUSSIA IS UNPREPARED TO FUTURE REPRESSIONS. “The authorities want to show strength. Now they are trying to ramp up the pressure. But I believe that Russian society is completely unprepared for this reaction and is not ready to support it. And this is quite important. That is, it may take people a while to react but the authorities are losing popularity. But of course, arrests and repression will continue.”
**BACKSTORY. ** In the aftermath of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s trial, Russia’s security forces locked up thousands of protesters who took to the streets across the country. We visited the Sakharovo detention center where Smirnov is held. The center in Moscow is usually reserved for migrants awaiting deportation, but now it keeps hundreds of political prisoners kidnapped from the Navalny protests. It’s already overcrowded. For a while, there was also a queue of police vans with detainees waiting for vacancies. Near the building, family members stayed in line to bring their loved ones food, water, bedding, and warm clothes.
**Read our full interview with Sergei Smirnov here. **
Other Top-Stories Russia Has Been Reading
- PHANTOM OIL PROFITS, EXPOSED:
One of this week’s most-read stories was a fact-check of a bold claim by Russia’s energy czar. 2020 was a wild ride for oil prices, too. And despite the fact they’ve managed to recover from their ultimate lows a year ago, petrostates like Russia face a year of ‘erased profits.’ But not according to the Russian state-owned oil monopoly Rosneft. The company’s CEO Igor Sechin claims that his company is the only oil company in the world that made a profit last year. We fact-checked the claim — turns out it is not entirely so. Rosneft did squeeze a profit, but not from oil. It was from the sale of a 10% stake in its Vostok Oil project. Without this deal, Rosneft showed a reasonably large loss in 2020.