One thing you certainly can’t call a Chelyabinsk winter is banal. Despite global warming, the thermometers in the city often drop to minus thirty, and sometimes far lower. This winter turned out to be a particularly severe one, with the first frosts striking in December. My own apartment turned into something resembling the North Pole. Blowing ridicule on my efforts to insulate the apartment, frozen air would rush through through gaps in the window, like an air-conditioner on a hot summer day in a stuffy office. The kitchen was occasionally bearable, but the bedroom…
Mikhail Yurevich, governor of the Chelyabinsk Oblast. His appointment was a huge surprise for Chelyabinsk residents.
On reflection, I have no right to complain. Chelyabinsk is, after all, in sombre reflection following accounts of the much more terrible conditions that soldiers are enduring in army barracks. Shortly after the New Year holidays, for example, we learned that a young lad had died in a military unit in the region. He had been seriously ill for several days, with a temperature of forty degrees, yet no one saw fit to administer medical attention. When he was eventually taken to hospital, it was already too late. His young wife, whom the soldier left behind with a baby in her arms, brought his story to light by contacting journalists (she even wrote to the president). Before he fell ill, her husband had actually called her and sent text messages complaining that the barracks had virtually no heating, and the soldiers had to sleep in their coats. He also mentioned how they were fed nothing but porridge (no meat at all, if you discount the small ration of sausages they got on New Year’s Eve). There was no hot water. They washed in ice-cold water. Dozens fell ill, and one died.
Not so long after this tragedy, news broke of another death in the barracks. This time it was from swine flu, and because he was not given medical assistance in time. The story did not get much coverage nationally, being lost within an unending torrent of news stories about soldiers falling ill and dying from colds, flu, acute respiratory disease and pneumonia. Alas, there have also been several fatalities besides the ones in Chelyabinsk.
One thing you certainly can’t call a Chelyabinsk winter is banal. Despite global warming, the thermometers in the city often drop to minus thirty, and sometimes far lower.
The authorities are engaged in a campaign to shift blame onto anyone else apart from themselves. The focus of their defence is the army's new uniform, created by the fashionable Moscow designer Valentin Yudashkin. It lets draughts in, they say, does not warm the body properly, and isn't suitable for harsh winters at all. Who knows, perhaps there is a grain of truth in that. Though it can’t explain why the men were not given medical assistance in time, and what kind of barracks these are when soldiers are forced to sleep in their clothes.
This was not the first time in recent memory that the military were the hot topic of kitchen-table discussion in Chelyabinsk.
Rumbles from the Urals
Last autumn, Chelyabinsk became awash with rumours about strange tremors in the ground. One building was said to have shaken so much that the plaster cracked; in another the dishes on the shelves started dancing. Furious and frightened citizens made endless calls to the emergency services. It reached the point that some people gathered their valuables and documents into a bundle, so that in case of danger they could grab them and run on out to the street. Some actually feared an earthquake and ran out of their building.
The number of reports of unexplained underground tremors increased to a point that the authorities could no longer ignore them. Experts and a group of city residents took to study what exactly was afoot, and came up with identical conclusions: the city was being shaken by sound waves that were spreading from the military testing ground near the town of Chebarkul. The military was defiant, refusing to admit guilt either before or after the expert investigations. Only when the governor and mayor intervened and openly threatened to take the Ministry of Defence to court did the strength of the tremors drop (with a corresponding dozen-fold decrease in the number of complaints).
Chelyabinsk city centre. To call modern-day Chelyabinsk a city of contrasts would be to risk understatement
While the incident produced yet another stain on the reputation of the military, the affair improved the standing of local authorities, as it gave them a chance to demonstrate solidarity and readiness to defend public interests against forces as powerful as the army. And winning points in the eyes of the electorate is always a desirable thing for a new administration. Though it is perhaps something of an exaggeration to call residents of the Southern Urals an electorate….
The elders know best
After Putin took away the rights to elect governors in 2005, most Chelyabinsk residents have become reconciled to being unable to vote for their regional representative. What they were less prepared for, however, was a turn of events last spring that saw the then mayor of Chelyabinsk, Mikhail Yurevich, become governor of the region (Oblast), and then pull up the ladder of local mayoral elections behind him. After all, when people tried to guess which candidate would be chosen by Dmitry Medvedev, Yurevich was not even considered among the front runners. Yurevich was seen as rich, ambitious, not particularly diplomatic, and far from being the most popular among the people or the business elite.
In that respect, of course, little was different from the time he stood for mayor back in 2005. The favourite Vyacheslav Tarasov had been mayor of Chelyabinsk for many years. Everyone had become accustomed to him, and he had the advantage of the government machine behind him. His big undoing was that he also brought in heavy-handed spin doctors from Moscow, who ran a dirty and unsubtle campaign against Yurevich. The voting public, seeing these excesses, voted for Yurevich in protest. The accidental mayor's honeymoon did not last long, however. After about eighteen months, people began to complain that the authorities had become more cynical, bribes had increased by several times, and so on.
Around the same time, Yurevich's team entered into a confrontation with the team of then governor Pyotr Sumin. Yurevich had by this time used the profits from his Makfa macaroni business to create a very effective media holding of printed publications, radio stations and even a TV channel. He turned the full ammunition of his media business against the Oblast administration, accusing them of errors, corrupt practices and blunders. Sumin’s team at the Oblast level gave as good as it got, and there were plenty of things they could also find fault with.
Yurevich's call-up to replace Sumin took place barely half a year after his second election victory as mayor. The appointment was, as we have mentioned, a huge surprise for Chelyabinsk residents. But perhaps more shocking was the fact that Yurevich’s team were not actually intending to schedule any more mayoral elections. When he became governor, and with the support of United Russia, he immediately initiated changes to the city charter which abolished direct mayoral elections.
Yurevich's call-up to replace Sumin took place barely half a year after his second election victory as mayor. The appointment was, as we have mentioned, a huge surprise for Chelyabinsk residents. But perhaps more shocking was the fact that Yurevich’s team were not actually intending to schedule any more mayoral elections. When he became governor, and with the support of United Russia, he immediately initiated changes to the city charter which abolished direct mayoral elections. A previously obscure member of the city parliament became the formal head of Chelyabinsk and is now called the "city manager". Many were uneasy at the speed and extent of Yurevich's legal manipulations. Human rights activists and social activists tried to make a fuss, and bring in lawyers to prove the illegality of these actions, but to no avail.
Dreaming of cars
To call modern-day Chelyabinsk a city of contrasts would be to risk understatement. The other day, I was walking past a high-rise "elite" skyscraper that had recently taken root in the city centre. I took note of the cars parked under the windows: four-by-four BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Lexus. I looked closely: not a single brand below the deluxe range. Well, I thought, prosperity is coming to Chelyabinsk! Then I remembered that the average monthly income per capita in Chelyabinsk was last year just 16,500 roubles [£360]. Annually, this translates to 200,000 roubles [£4350] a year. Which might buy a second-hand Toyota imported from Asia. With nothing left over for food.
Komsomolskaya Square. Chelyabinsk was one of the former Soviet Union’s main military production centers
My thoughts automatically jumped to my own budget. My dream, you see, is to buy a decent Korean automatic car, for 400,000 roubles or so. I could trade-in my old Lada hatchback from the 1970s. The state has a programme for recycling old cars, and I could theoretically get a certificate for 50,000 roubles [£1090] to use against a new car. But as I have to pay the rent for my apartment, taking out a loan means would mean severe restrictions on spending. Another option, of course, is buying a used car: cheaper, but with poorer loan conditions. And I’d have to sell my Zhiguli for kopecks – no one is going to pay 50,000 roubles for that heap.
My dream nearly got me into big trouble six months ago. So impatient was I to bring my purchase forward, I was actually only one step away from becoming a shareholder in what turned out to be a fake “investment fund”. They advertised an interest rate three times higher than at a bank. All my friends joined it and advised me to do this same. I smelt something fishy and didn't join in the end. The fund turned out to be a financial pyramid, which quite naturally collapsed. People are trying to retrieve their money through lawsuits. Some may say that we never learn: greed, as usual, has been our own undoing. But can you really pass judgment on people who are trying to step out of the vicious circle of poverty? People who are trying to save up for something at last: for an apartment, a car, studies, travel? The sad reality is that these people work a great deal, sometimes take risks, and often lose out. But what they don't do is lose hope.