Located near the Chinese border, the Vostochnyi cosmodrome was meant to become one of the largest construction projects of the Putin administration, outstripping even the Winter Olympics in Sochi and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit complex in Vladivostok in 2012. Following President Putin's turn to the Far East in the early 2000s, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed the Vostochnyi project into action in 2007. Its aim? To acquire greater independence in space exploration. Currently, Russia relies on Kazakhstan for the use of Baikonur, built back in the 1950s.
While Vostochnyi is meant to kickstart Russia’s space industry, this project is also intended to develop the Far East more broadly — the ‘centre’ traditionally pays little attention to this part of the world. But though December 2015 is supposed to see the launch of this flagship project, unfortunately, since its inception, this cosmodrome has been racked by scandals over corruption and unpaid wages.
‘We’ll get the keys to our own space programme back from Kazakhstan’
Indeed, Baikonur – deep in the Central Asian steppe – is subject to Russian Federation law and its tax system, and more than half of its residents are ethnic Russians (often military personnel and their families).
However, regardless of the fact that Russia and Kazakhstan are members of the Customs Union, and President Nursultan Narzarbayev has always positioned himself as a ‘friend of Moscow’, Baikonur remains a contentious issue in relations between Moscow and Almaty.
Every emergency fuel dump by Russian personnel at Baikonur, with its environmental implications, prompts a discussion of a rise in the lease agreement fee — this makes Russian politicians, who feel themselves to be on uncertain ground here, increasingly anxious. After all, Russia spends six billion roubles (£68.4m) a year on Baikonur — half of this sum goes on the lease agreement.
A Soyuz rocket is put into position at Baikonur's Launch Pad 5. CC WikiMediaCommons / Badseed.Hence the plans to build a new cosmodrome on Russian soil. Vostochnyi, a flagship Kremin project, is currently being built in the thick taiga forest some 80km from the Amur river — close to the border with China. Yury Karash, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics, doesn’t think much of this location: ‘We love to talk about how when Vostochnyi is finished, we’ll get the keys to our own space programme back from Kazakhstan. But really we’ll just be giving them to someone else: China.’
The future cosmodrome is being constructed on a base, which used to house a now-defunct division of rocket troops. This base is only six degrees north of Baikonur, and the Chita – Khabarovsk highway and the Trans-Siberian railway are to be found nearby.
The new capital of Russia’s space industry is being built at Uglegorsk, a nearby closed town. To be named after Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the pioneering scientist behind the early Soviet space programme, this small town is supposed to become a research town, or naukograd, a hub for young specialists from the ‘centre’ and elsewhere. According to the project’s plan, in 15 years time, there should be 30,000 people living here.
But this flagship project is dogged by scandals. Started in 2010, construction is already behind. In 2013, deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is responsible for the space industry, stated that work is not being carried out to schedule, and that the project wasn’t employing enough people to get the work done.
As of today, 173 billion roubles (£1.9 billion) have been spent on construction, and the project itself is slated to cost 492 billion roubles (£5.6 billion).
According to Sergei Agaptsov, an auditor for the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation, estimated costs have risen by 45%, and the cost of infrastructure has increased by 13 billion roubles (£148m). And no one believes that Vostochnyi will open in 2015 as planned.
September 2014: Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Rogozin (left) visit Vostochny cosmodrome. Image via Kremlin.ru.Mass hunger strikes and pickets by Vostochnyi’s labourers, whom subcontractors have stopped paying, only add to the cosmodrome’s problems.
President Putin himself has now intervened directly. In mid-April, Vostochnyi’s striking workforce made an appeal to the Russian president by writing ‘SAVE THE WORKERS’ on the roofs of their dormitories. In response, public officials and the project’s management team pointed out the ‘real’ reason behind the wage arrears — the workers had spent their advances on drink.
The workers later received their wages, and heads rolled in the bureaucracy — one instance in a handful of occasions when workers successfully asserting their rights in Russia. Only the employees of foreign car factories in Kaluga and Leningrad region can boast of similar successes in recent years.
Cosmodrome workers have resorted to painting appeals such as 'SAVE THE WORKERS' on the roofs of their dormitories. Despite the management’s assertions, Vostochnyi’s workers say that far from everyone has actually received their wages, and are recommending their colleagues give the cosmodrome a wide berth. For instance, on an internet forum for evaluating Russian employers, only one out of 58 replies regarding Spetsstroi, a subcontractor on the Vostochnyi project, is positive.
‘The living conditions are terrible. There’s queues for the toilets and the canteen. There’s no hot water,’ writes Pyotr. ‘We’re not given warm working clothes. People use what they can to stay warm. There’s no clinic. We can’t get back the crazy money we pay for travel. People are sitting for weeks waiting for their wages.’
‘I worked from February to the end of May, and I’ve only heard promises that wages are coming, but in the end nothing has happened,’ says Aleksandr. ‘People come from Primorsky krai [a region in Russia’s Far East] to earn money, but in the end they leave with nothing. It’s a complete farce. Commissions come to inspect, but there’s no point, it’s just laughable.’
Another finds cause for irony in the situation: ‘If you like tiny wages. If you dream of working weekends for nothing, and no days off, then welcome to Russia’s Spetsstroi!
‘Mailo’ comes to a similar conclusion: ‘It’s by far not the best time at Spetsstroi. The management has changed and until they’ve had their fill of stealing, there’s nothing for ordinary workers to do here. All that’s left is to wait, or run! But where? They might pay us pennies here, but there’s the crisis and I personally won’t be going anywhere!'
But despite the stream of negative responses online, people, worried by the prospects of Russia’s economic crisis, continue to ask how to get work at the site. Since the start of 2015, the construction industry has taken a beating (particularly in housing), and so unskilled labourers have to find employment one way or another — even in the Far East.
‘Come to the All-Russian Student Construction Project!’
After the problems with wage arrears, the Russian authorities have since decided to call on students to push the Vostochnyi project forward. Social media pages belonging to Russian universities are full of slogans along the lines of ‘Come to the All-Russian Student Construction Project!’
The use of student labour was extremely popular in the Soviet Union. After finishing a semester, thousand of students would rush off to help build industrial plants in remote areas of the country.
Several generations of Soviet citizens were brought up with these traditions: your own uniform, singing songs of an evening, the romance of long-distance travel. Now Russia is trying to bring those ideas back to life.
Student work brigade, Vostochnyi cosmodrome. Image via VK group 'Studencheskie stroitelnye otryady Irkutskoi oblasti'‘Each newcomer has to show their devotion,’ states a student labour social media page. ‘Our Amurovtsy team is no exception! Our lads have tested their courage, even getting extra money for the brigade.’ These students remind us of their late Soviet counterparts working on the Baikal-Amur rail line during the 1970s, or the young men and women who tried growing grain in the endless steppe of Kazakhstan during the 1950s.
Over the summer holidays, the authorities plan to attract more then 1,500 students to Vostochnyi, and are trying to bring people from neighbouring regions and beyond: people are travelling thousands of kilometres to the cosmodrome from cities like Kazan and Kursk.
Nikolai Petrov, chairman of the Irkutsk branch of student builders, told me why students are coming: ‘Our guys — 50 people in total — set to work on 26 July. They’ve been put on general works, but there’s people with skills too — plasterers and people who can work with concrete. Wages [per month] at Sochi and Vostochnyi this year was 30,000 roubles [£340].
‘There won’t be any problems with paying people — I know those problems have been sorted, and those companies have lost their contracts. Students aren’t coming here for money, but for the romance, which every All-Russian construction project is famous for. After all, there are more than 10 regions represented here — you can feel the competitive spirit. There’s a lot of agitational work: the guys want to win competitions like “best room” or “best krasnyi ugol [lit. red corner; a space to hang a work brigade’s trophies and banner]. It’s a form of recognition, a sign of respect for any team.'
‘In the evening we have sports competitions or artistic events. We often organised “marches of readiness” to show management how prepared we are. Sometimes, when the guys manage to fulfill the norm twice over, they don’t have time to get new [construction] materials in, and we have to stop. I was raised as an optimist. I’m confident that the guys will get stuck into this All-Russian project, and so we’ll complete the cosmodrome quicker.’
In contrast to the students, Sergei Ivanov, a 44-year-old resident of Vladivostok, has been at Vostochnyi a while. Sergei is concerned about the fate of the unrecognised republics in south eastern Ukraine and, in his spare time, parades around in a Civil War-era White Guard uniform. He was a foreman in the initial build in 2014, but decided to leave for more stabile work.
‘Of course, I liked the work — it’s a federal project, new horizons for professional growth. But there were serious issues — there was no centralised kitchen, I had to spend my own money employing a local lady to cook for me, and then there were the terrible frosts of up to minus 60. And there was not a single doctor on site, just one paramedic. People say it’s the same still there now, only worse.
‘After all, I used to work on Vladivostok’s famous Golden Bridge as part of APEC — I’ve got something to compare it with. The cosmodrome’s main problem is that there are far too few professionals working here. This is a specialised build: you need high quality concrete, big dimensions, steel reinforcements.
Building work at Vostochnyi remains behind schedule. Image via Kremlin.ru.‘Meanwhile, they’re recruiting army pensioners as foremen and bosses. For example, the boss of one sector is an artillery mayor, and his foreman is a lieutenant captain in the navy. The head of general works is from the border patrol. How do these guys know anything about construction?
‘From my own experience, construction is divided into two periods: when there is money, and when there isn’t. The cosmodrome is currently in the second phase. They’re trying to distract from the problems on television — saying that everyone’s drunk. But after a 12-hour shift, the guys never had more than two shots of vodka, just to take the edge off before the next shift.'
‘The majority of people working there are from the village, it’s their first time on site. They’re from far-away regions, and happy that at least they’ve got some kind of work. But they get fired too — even during my time the turnover was up to 90%. We’re dealing with prison conditions there. At least then, they paid you on time, the delay would be a week tops. Now only people who are really desperate go.’
‘They’ve always done us over’
Problems at Vostochnyi are nothing new. In September 2014, it was revealed that there were only 6,000 people working at Vostochnyi instead of the required 15,000.
According to a report by Roskosmos, Russia’s space exploration agency, 71% of the cosmodrome’s primary sites are ready. And residents of the Transbaikal region confirm that, despite their expectations, working at Vostochnyi has not proven profitable. Indeed, out of a dozen people I managed to ask, half of them are yet to receive wages owed.
No wonder, then, that not everyone is so enthusiastic about the building brigades. Eduard Savinsky, welder, 26, views the idea with irony: ‘I mean, the work there is hellish, really tough — what can students do. And the work isn’t going to leave you swimming in cash. They promised me 60,000 roubles [£680], but I only received my money for January in March, and I’m getting paid in breakfasts for December. I ring in on Monday — they tell me to ring back on Friday, and then the whole thing goes round again.'
Budgets keep rising at this flagship Kremlin project. Image via Odnoklassniki group 'Kosmodrom vostochnyi'.‘Only the more decisive of us have seen any money, like those guys who wrote a message to Putin on the roof of their dormitory. Those guys were from my team by the way. They began to get their money when they slapped the cuffs on a few people. I’ve done three sessions on this site, nine months in all, and I still haven’t received payment in full — I left before the end of a session. There’s probably several thousand people like me, workers without wages.'
‘This is supposed to be the build of the century, a state enterprise, and everyone comes for the big money. People go to the villages — they look for people, and then do them over, the workers come back, and then they find new people.
‘They’ve always done us over: a friend of mine from Dagestan worked as a driver, in November 2014 he still hadn’t got his money for May [of that year] — but he was afraid to leave. How else would he see his money?’
Workers who wish to remain anonymous tell me that they could only receive their wages after contacting the FSB on several occasions. Their contracts turned out to be fakes, and as a result the subcontractors refused to pay.
‘I worked a few months loading at the cosmodrome for Stroimonolit-14, from June to December,’ Timur Kim tells me. Kim is 19, and from Ussuriysk, a town just north of Vladivostok. ‘They brought people in from everywhere: some people came after seeing an advert, others were brought by friends, and a few unlucky ones are hiding from their creditors. When Putin came to inspect the complex, they hid us in train carriages.
‘There’s always been this kind of attitude to wages, these delays, after all. For example, our brigade didn’t have contracts from the very start. They told us: “You’ll get your contracts, just wait!” And these conversations took place every day. An acquaintance of mine brought me here. There’s no work at home, and the average wage isn’t more than 15,000 roubles [per month; £170]. Here I got 40,000 roubles [£455] for half a years work. At the start, my friend and I hoped we might be able to at least cover our transport costs.
‘When I went to the accountants to find out what was happening with my wages, they told me: ‘I’m not involved in that, I just issue money. Any questions, ask your sector boss.” He also kept quiet, and in the end I got 2,000 roubles [£22] for the train. Other people were lucky. For example, another brigade got 40,000 roubles for two months work, although they’d been promised up to 80,000 roubles [£900] for one month. No one thought that this could happen at a state enterprise.’
Yury Karash from the Academy of Cosmonautics believes that the authorities will show that Vostochnyi is a ‘symbol of Russia’s consolidation in the global space industry, and will be launched at all costs — despite the colossal abuses of power, and despite the limitless corruption.’
During the 70th anniversary Victory Day parade in Moscow last May, Dmitry Rogozin announced that Vostochnyi would be completed by December 2015. That parade is remembered for other reasons, though: the break-down of Rogozin's other prestige project, the Armata tank, in the middle of Red Square. Let's hope they don't share the same fate.
Image two: via Odnoklassniki group 'Kosmodrom vostochnyi'.