​Destroy your house with your own hands

Meet the residents of Kuznetsk, Russia, who are defending their homes from the world's largest pipeline company. Русский

Vadim Skvortsov
25 April 2017

Kuznetsk, Penza. Image: Anastasiya Grinzovskaya. This week, we profile Mirror, a non-commercial platform dedicated to social injustice in Russia. As part of this profile, we publish this article by Vadim Skvortsov with images by Anastasia Grinzovskaya, and interview the magazine's editors here. Translation by Sean Guillory. 

On the outskirts of Kuznetsk, a small town in central Russia, roughly 100 families are facing threats to have their homes demolished. More than 100 houses located in the restricted area near the Druzhba-2 pipeline, which delivers oil to Central Europe, are facing possible demolition. Transneft-Druzhba, the corporation which operates the pipeline, has filed 26 lawsuits demanding the buildings’ demolition at the tenants’ cost.

These Kuznetsk residents, who live in a privately built area on the edge of the city, learned that their homes were “illegality” some 44 years after the pipeline’s construction. The first lawsuits were filed in October 2016.

There are ten streets, 117 houses and one mosque in the pipeline’s restricted area — and all of them can be ordered to be demolished “for citizens’ safety”. More than 500 people, including pensioners and families with young children, are afraid they’ll be thrown out onto the street. Some of the tenants purchased these houses with mortgage loans and maternity subsidies.

These people have become hostage to strange maps, rules and proceedings — an entire system that is ready to fire up the excavator and demolish buildings like houses of cards.

City at risk?

Kuznetsk is considered one of the most “dangerous” cities in the Penza region: it often ranks first in regional statistics for crime, HIV and drug addiction. Near the train station, as I was eating a pasty, a polite old man came up me and asked: “What kind of minerals are you eating?”

I washed it down with a yoghurt drink and laughed. On the train, a man had told me that he’d been saving up for seven years to buy a warm blanket, and before that he’d been sleeping in a cold and uncomfortable one. It seemed to me that I’d found myself in a place where people talk in their own kind of gentle way, and are satisfied by the little things.

​There was a wind blowing from a nearby field, but around 15 locals had gathered at the end of 2nd Sportivnaya Street for the sake of one windblown journalist. Someone from the crowd handed me mittens as I shivered from the cold, a dictaphone and a notepad in my reddened hands.

The restricted zone

In the 1970s, Druzhba, the Soviet Union’s largest oil pipeline network, was built throughout the country. In 1973, in Kuznetsk, the Druzhba-2 oil pipeline was put into operation at 321 km — a pipe with a diameter of 1220 mm, which is considered a hazardous production site.

According to the construction norms and rules (SNiP II-D.10-62) at that time, the pipe’s restricted area was 100 metres (or 150, the information varies). Building major construction was prohibited at such a distance from the pipe’s axis. Builders retreated to the determined distance and confidently went on to the bright future and fulfilling the Five-Year Plan.

​The pipe forms a thin line around the residential area. The first houses here were constructed in 1964 and continued to be built after the completion of Druzhba-2. Most of the homeowners received an official building permit from the Kuznetsk city administration or through court rulings.

Older residents simply can’t understand why, after so many years, they’re suddenly in someone’s way

In 1976, new regulations were adopted (SNiP II-47-75). These increased the restricted area to 200 metres, thereby encompassing already built buildings. But at the time, neither the mayor’s office (the city executive committee in the Soviet period), the prosecutor, nor the pipeline company took any action. In response to an official request, Sergei Lomakov, the acting head of public relations for Transneft-Druzhba, said: “Employees of the Kuibyshev district administration of MN Druzhba (today Transneft-Druzhba) have sent official letters to the local government since 1989.”

Image: Anastasiya Grinzovskaya. ​In this situation, it’s the elderly who are the most vulnerable, and they’re in the majority in this neighbourhood. Older residents simply can’t understand why, after so many years, they’re suddenly in someone’s way. A local resident, Marya Ivanovna, is afraid of a lawsuit, pulls out documents about her house from her cabinet, takes them to a lawyer, and cries. “But how, see here, that’s all I have. It’s written in the Constitution… I didn’t do anything wrong, I live honestly, why do they need to tear down my house?” The old woman shakes the paper in her hands, and large teardrops dissolve on its faded sheets.

We’ll see you in court

Transneft’s position is simultaneously both explicit and unclear.

The company’s representatives have made it clear that they will continue to file lawsuits in batches. Twenty-six suits have been submitted so far, and after landowners are identified, 20 more will be sent in.

“The only way to objectively determine who owns the property, on what grounds and who issued the land and construction permits dangerously close to the pipeline on the outskirts of Kuznetsk is an open and transparent trial,” Sergei Lomakov, acting head of public relations for Transneft-Druzhba, said in a letter.

A 1994 document from Kuznetsk city administration granting permission to the Ponomaryov family to continue living in their home on 2nd Sportivnaya Street. Image: Anastasiya Grinzovskaya. On 7 February, Transneft vice-president Mikhail Margelov came to Penza to meet with Ivan Belozertsev, the governor of Penza. The meeting occurred behind closed doors. Journalists crowded into the Governor’s house, sighed heavily in anticipation of at least some solution to the problem. After 30 minutes, someone threw up his hands and left, grabbing his camera. After an hour of waiting, Margelov and Belozertsev came out to talk to the press.

“It’s important for us that people live in safety around the pipeline. We are going to meet in the near future with residents who are living in dangerous areas and with the leadership of Kuznetsk. We want to find a peaceful, pragmatic solution to the problem,” said the vice-president of Transneft.

​The governor said they came to a single solution at the meeting, a technical one. But what that “technical” solution is remains unclear.

After representatives from Transneft talked with the Kuznetsk residents, they assured them that they weren’t going to demolish anyone’s house, but they also wouldn’t withdraw their lawsuits. Residents asked a direct question: “Why?” All they received was an unclear silence in response. 

“They go to court to defend their rights and interests. The Transneft representatives clearly stated that their rights were violated by the presence of houses in the stated territory and indicated a way of restoring that right: by their demolition. But if they say they won’t destroy the houses and subsequent court rulings won’t be implemented, then they have different goals, and the trial actually becomes a farce,” says Olga Alexandrova, a lawyer for the defendants.

For now, the houses of locals under suit have been seized — a formality to prevent the trial being artificially dragged out or the houses from being resold

The possibility of moving the pipeline is also not an option. According to preliminary estimates, its reconstruction would cost 1.5 billion rubles (£21m), a huge amount, especially considering it’s much easier to sue residents and get them to resettle at their own expense.

For now, the houses of locals under suit have been seized — a formality to prevent the trial being artificially dragged out or the houses from being resold.

According to one representative of the defendants, the court sessions themselves are painful. Lawyers of Transneft behave confidently and sarcastically. A young couple with two underage children were the defendants in one such session. They bought a house in 2014 with their maternity subsidy. During the recess, a representative of the defendants went up the lawyer and asked: “You could at least not laugh in people’s faces. Don’t you understand that you’re going to throw them and their children out on the street?” Then the pale mother stood up: “I hope to God you someday find yourself in our shoes.”

The lawyer just shrugged.

“I'll go the distance”

​There’s a stack of papers on lawyer Olga Alexandrova’s desk. Some are dry answers from various courts about “reviewing” the decision, about “taking the situation under control” and other useless paper. Others are petitions signed by Kuznetsk residents. There are more than two and a half thousand (which doesn’t count the signatures on a change.org petition). The lawyer moves them and slumps into a chair: “You know, guys, I can’t stay quiet any longer.”

Olga Aleksandrova's opinion:

What is a right? Ultimately as a social regulator, it should properly regulate the life of citizens, including from the point of view of justice, philanthropy. It’s clear that in the current situation it’s impossible to properly protect the rights of citizens. Accordingly, the law as it now exists is unable to fulfill its function. Therefore, it’s necessary to either change the law, or to take some special action that will at least find some temporary compromise.

But how is this supposed to happen? Let's say, Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov broke the law 40 years ago and started building a house in an area at the minimum permissible distance according to his permits. The offices responsible for the operation of this pipeline immediately came to the city executive committee, and said: “You illegally issued a building permit.” They then wrote to the prosecutor. They immediately went to the guy and administratively ordered to dismantle the construction. And they gave him land in another place – and done. No one was seriously harmed, no one will build there anymore.

If a similar situation happened today, then we would do the same things but with a slight difference. After the order, a person will assess the monetary damages caused by the actions of the local government, and will take them to court. Next, a settlement is determined to his satisfaction and he moves somewhere else.

In our case, thanks to everyone’s prolonged inaction, compensating for damages becomes the hardest part, and the legal system simply stops working. A small town’s budget can’t afford to pay for the damages for more than a hundred illegally constructed houses. And if the legal system doesn’t work, then we have to look at the government for another way out, and not lobby the oil transit companies. And not just for Kuznetsk’s sake. There are dozens of regions of Russia have similar problems.

Olga is clearly tired of the endless court proceedings — her voice trembles a little during our conversation. But at the same time, she’s completely confident. She sincerely hopes to help the “old folks”: “Sometimes it’s easier to just throw up your hands, but who is going to take care of them?”

She shows me articles about similar situations in other cities. In one clip from Moscow, where Kazan residents had organised a rally against the demolition of their houses, an older woman looks directly into a camera and cries. The lawyer covers her eyes and almost bursts into tears.

“There’s only one question: it’s about money, and who will pay for this ‘pleasure’ — the municipality, the region or the oil company”

 “I'll show you one more very interesting thing.” Olga flips through the tabs on her computer, and opens the page of the regional newspaper and reads a passage aloud:

​“You haven’t lost your lawsuits yet,” says the head of the city administration. “There’s only one question: it’s about money, and who will pay for this ‘pleasure’ — the municipality, the region or the oil company.”

“That is, the fate of people depends on agreements that will be made in an extrajudicial process?” asked Olga Alexandrova.

Image: Anastasiya Grinzovskaya. ​“Don’t act like we live in some kind of super-democratic country where the Dolphin Defense League can defeat the US navy,” Sergei Zlatogorsky replied.

The lawyer laughs at Zlatogorsky’s statement, sighs heavily, and adds: “But after all, he's right.”

Stumbling blocks

The Kuznetsk administration is trying to keep people calm and not draw too much attention to the conflict. At the same time, it totally understands the risks of the situation.

The head of the administration, Sergey Zlatogorsky, asserts that it’s a question of the city budget being liable for hundreds of millions of rubles in the event of a Transneft legal victory. The administration of a small city simply cannot afford such an amount. The mayor’s office has presently appealed to the governor of Penza and the government of the Russian Federation.

We see the following options to solve the problem. First: move the main oil pipeline outside the city of Kuznetsk. Second: develop and implement technical measures to reduce the restricted area to the axis of the pipeline. Third: the joint participation of every budgetary level and Transneft-Druzhba in the construction of comparable housing for citizens whose houses are to be demolished or the payment of adequate compensation,” said Sergey Zlatogorsky in an official response to my request.

Image: Anastasiya Grinzovskaya. By suggesting that the pipeline be moved, the Kuznetsk administration is guided by the fact that it lies within the city: “This production facility is a first class danger. The total length of the main oil pipeline within the city’s boundaries is more than four kilometres. The specified object is located in direct proximity to residential areas, industrial enterprises and other infrastructure.”

Article 66 of Russian Federal Law N 123-FZ “Technical Regulations on Fire Safety Requirements” from July 2008, states that oil and gas pipelines must be located outside the borders of settlements and urban districts. According to point five in this law, in the event that it’s impossible to eliminate the danger of fire and explosive facilities to people and residential buildings located within the residential area, then a reduction in capacity, the repurposing of facilities, the separation of production, or the relocation of the facilities outside the residential area should be provided.

No one can explain why the pipeline was built within Kuznetsk, why there are no technical inventory documents for the oil pipeline, or why the boundaries of the Druzhby-2 security area haven’t to this day been surveyed.

​Elena Rogova, Penza’s commissioner for human rights, said that she would turn to the government for help, and the prosecutor has begun an investigation into this effect. Someone promised something again and said something somewhere, but all these actions on behalf of citizens already seem useless. Every day they try to at least get someone’s attention, but only get the “runaround" and shrug of the shoulders: “And what we can do?”

The pipe is like a ticking timebomb

Kuznetsk is not an isolated case. Similar conflicts began three years ago across Russia. Transneft and Gazprom filed lawsuits for the demolition of houses against residents of various regions: the Moscow Region (in Ruza, Sergiev Posad, Podolsky, Serpukhov, Vidnovsky, Chekhov districts), the Perm Territory, Kazan, the Republic of Dagestan, Syktyvkar (Komi) and others.

So why is the issue of citizens’ “safety” now so urgent?

Almost 40% of Russia’s main pipelines were built during the Soviet Union. According to Anna Annenkova, an independent expert of the fuel and energy industry, a significant number of the pipelines are 20 to 35 years old. The maximum lifespan of such a pipeline is 50 years. In Kuznetsk, the pipe has been there for 44 years. It really does pose a danger to the city's residents and could result in a man-made catastrophe. In 2003, near Kuznetsk, one of the largest oil spills occurred in Russia: one person was killed and three were injured. In all, 10,000 tons of raw materials poured out of the pipeline. However, there’s almost no information on this accident in public sources.

The government often tries not to interfere in these kind of conflicts — oil and gas companies fill a significant part of the federal budget

Why are house demolitions done at the residents’ own expense and why it is impossible to reduce the delivery output of the oil?

Here, too, it’s all very simple. No one wants to spend extra money. Especially giants such as Transneft and Gazprom. Also, this kind of scheme appears as the most transparent for the oil industry: it doesn’t raise any suspicion and casts a shadow on the residents themselves. After all, they built houses on prohibited territory (although they didn’t know about the prohibition).

The government often tries not to interfere in these kind of conflicts — oil and gas companies fill a significant part of the federal budget.

“The industry is the driver of economic development, and many departments are hostage to this situation. They’re afraid to put pressure on oil industry executives, which bring in almost half of budget revenues,” the business weekly Kompania quotes Alexei Knizhnikov, the head of the program on environmental policy of the oil and gas industry for the Global Wildlife Fund (WWF) of Russia.

The courts already work by a certain logic: in most of these cases, the large company wins in court. This is why houses are demolished, holes on worn out pipes are fixed and the oil keeps on flowing.

Until death

Since Transneft’s notification about the demolition of their houses, three residents of the restricted area have died from heart disease, and a fourth has a pre-coronary condition.

The locals are completely confused and don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Most of those living in this residential area are pensioners. The dissatisfied chatter of those gathered is pierced by the expression: “It's inhumane to take away old people’s homes.”

Image: Anastasiya Grinzovskaya. Svetlana Alexandrovna takes my hand and says: “Come inside with me. You’re so cold.” Her house is number 43, the closest to the pipeline. A dog barks behind a high fence. Svetlana opens the door while hiding from the wind behind a gate. Her husband was one of the three that died. He had a heart attack in December.

At home, she pours me tea with a pastry. It’s called the “poor student” for its characteristic brownish gingerbread color and made from tea leaves, dough and jam. The hostess offers to dilute the hot tea with cold water: “My husband always diluted his tea” She serves butter and cheese “while it’s still possible”.

Svetlana lives alone. Her only son is now serving in the army. She carefully picks up a stack of papers, shows me documents about the house, and stands near the window: “They send me these documents every day. It makes no sense whatsoever. The only thing I feel is fear.”

As a farewell, she offers me a sweater, mittens or scarf left by her son. “They'll tear us down, and you'll get sick again.” I refuse.

On the way back in the taxi driver’s car, two black dolphin figurines swing from the rearview mirror. They hit the windshield when we go over a bump. They look like those unfortunate people trying to save their homes, but realise it’s impossible to destroy the navy.

Want to know more about the mission behind Mirror? Read this interview with the magazine's editors.

Translation by Sean Guillory

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