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“It was like hell in miniature”: how Rostov-on-Don lost a whole neighbourhood in one day

A massive fire in the southern city of Rostov has left hundreds homeless, but brought out the best in both the public and the bureaucrats. RU

This slum area in Rostov-on-Don was razed to the ground in a matter of hours. Photo via public VK.com group “Rostov Glavny”. Some rights reserved.

On 21 August, the southern Russian city of Rostov suffered the worst fire in its history. In the space of a few hours an entire district in the city centre, which is known locally as Govnyarka, burned to the ground.

The fire broke out at about 1pm and spread at incredible speed. Ten buildings, mostly of one and two storeys, were destroyed in the first hour, and 25 in the following three hours. More than 600 people were evacuated. Two thousand fire fighters and 200 fire engines battled with the blaze on the ground, while seven helicopters and two planes sprayed water from above. The city authorities declared a state of emergency.

“It was like hell in miniature,” Roman Nevedrov, a journalist with the local Delovoi kvartal magazine told me. “I used to work at an insurance company in the area, so I know it well, and everything I remember there has just gone. The lower part of the district has been completely burned to the ground — it’s just a pile of ash, it’s awful. I’ve watched a lot of war films where troops arrive in a bombed city and everything’s been destroyed and there are fires everywhere — and it’s just like that now. Skeletons of cars, scorched earth; the only difference is that instead of soldiers with guns there are fire fighters with hydrants.”

“The lower part of the district has been completely burned to the ground — it’s just a pile of ash”

Six city blocks around the edge of the conflagration had their gas and electricity cut off as a preventive measure, and by 6pm there were 30 buildings on fire. The flames leaped across to a balcony of a 16-storey housing block, but they were rapidly doused. A high wind (up to 45mph) hampered attempts to put out the fire in the densely built up district: official sources put the size of the affected area at a hectare (2.5 acres). The police cordoned off eight blocks and several streets in the city centre.

“Fires were burning all over the place. You’d be walking down a street and bang! Here’s a fire, there’s another. The wind was unbelievable. And the people… I was so sorry for them,” Nevedrov tells me. “I saw one man nearly beating his wife because she was in hysterics —he was trying to calm her down in whatever way he could. A lot of people were at work, and got home to find their houses in flames and themselves left without ID papers, without anything.

“Pensioners were sitting on the street, with their TV, fridge, coffee table and medicine cabinet lying around them. In the panic, residents had just rescued whatever was closest to hand: a table or maybe just a toy. Or they just grabbed their documents and money, and whatever else was most precious to them. People whose homes were so far untouched by the fire were also carrying clothes and other belongings out onto the street, but many were too late — a lot of older people live in the area. And those who lived in the upper part of the district, near Theatre Square, and were unaffected by the fire, were also telling me, ‘We don’t want to sleep in our homes, we’re too scared.’”

It took seven helicopters and two aeroplanes to finally put out the fire. Photo: Henry_Boatman / Instagram. Some rights reserved.

By 7pm, the regional Ministry for Emergency Situations (MChS) reported the fire to be under control, but they still feared that it might engulf the Central Market. Fire fighters and emergency response groups worked all night; police patrolled the district to prevent looting. The fire was only completely extinguished the next day. There were only five houses left in Govnyarka, those closest to Theatre Square.

The fire was only completely extinguished the next day. There were only five houses left in Govnyarka, those closest to Theatre Square

One person died in the blaze — a 76-year-old pensioner couldn’t get out of his burning house quickly enough — and nine people were taken to hospital with various degree burns. Fifty eight people were also treated at local health centres. 120 buildings were destroyed, 100 of them residential, and 700 locals were left homeless.

A second fire broke out in Rostov the same night — a two storey non-residential building burned down at the junction of Ulyanovskaya Street and Soborny Lane, near the central market. The wind was still strong and there was a risk that the flames might spread to neighbouring buildings, but it was put out successfully.

The story of Govnyarka

The district devastated by the fire is in the very heart of Rostov, leading down from its central Theatre Square to the industrial area and port along the River Don below. It got its nickname of Govnyarka when there was a utility centre servicing dust carts and sewage trucks there (the name comes from the Russian slang for shit). It was rarely called Govnyarka back then — it was better known as Theatre Hill or “Shanghai”, a local word describing any old privately-constructed building. The “Govnyarka” label has only become popular since the fire, when the local media and social networks took it up.

The district comprised over 100 one- and two-storey houses and innumerable extensions in various stages of dilapidation. There were also more standard three- and four-storey blocks of flats, but these were in the minority. This slum area, behind today’s Theatre Square, appeared sometime in the 17th century: according to local historians, thieves and escaped serfs would go into hiding there. Until recently, the district’s population was a very diverse one, ranging from the educated classes — teachers and doctors — to alcoholics and homeless. Govnyarka lacked the usual city infrastructure, with no proper roads, gas supply or sewage system. Other residents saw it as a rough place and tended to avoid going there.

“That slum should’ve been cleared long ago anyway” and comments in a similar vein filled social networks during the fire. Here are three examples from vKontakte. Photo: VK.com. Some rights reserved.

You can get an idea of life in Govnyarkafrom the Alternative Guide to Rostov, written and published by local history specialist Maksim Shtakhanov. Here’s a taster: “We walk further down the hill and reach the western part of Govnyarka… We immediately find ourselves in an amazing, twilight world of narrow streets and low houses leading down to the river…Look through the ramshackle fences and you see unsightly structures of clay and rotting wood, their windows frequently covered with polythene or plywood, rather than glass. The roofs of these mud huts have usually lost their slates and are open to the sky... The houses, often constructed of mud bricks, without foundations, and constantly subjected to vibration from HGVs, are falling apart. Their walls are covered in enormous cracks, and the local residents are forced to resort to wooden props to hold them in a vertical position.”

Despite this, land in the district is expensive, because it’s in the city centre. The authorities attempted to clear the area twice — in the 1940s and again in the 1970s. In the 1970s, architects suggested creating a second square opposite Theatre Square, and Govnyarka would be replaced by a 140m wide avenue leading down to the embankment. The project migrated from one general plan to another and in its most recent incarnation, the plan for the next eight years, it is described as “the improvement of the hill from Theatre Square to the Don embankment” and “replacement of the existing blocks of individual housing units on the slope by a leisure zone”.

Govnyarka lacked the usual city infrastructure, with no proper roads, gas supply or sewage system. Other residents saw it as a rough place and tended to avoid going there

The city authorities, however, have not yet undertaken any improvement of Govnyarka. At the end of the last century, some high rise buildings appeared on part of the hill but Govnyarka itself was fenced off. At the start of the 2000s, the Moscow-based Megapolis investment company carried out a partial resettlement of the district, intending to rebuild it as a shopping and leisure centre. The company bought up the existing houses at their market value: the residents received 5-10m roubles (£60,000-£120,000) for their properties.

In the end, 70% of the houses were cleared, but in 2011 the company abandoned its plan. Russia’s economic problems were suggested as one possible reason; another was the shopping centre project’s failing to meet building standards. Four years later, Megapolis’ owners began selling their previously purchased plots to individual buyers, but no one knew who these might be. Questions from local media about who now owned the land remained answered by the city authorities: the officials were only prepared to say that the remaining houses were not included in the re-housing plan.

Govnyarka is (or was) a district almost entirely devoid of infrastructure, despite its location on very valuable land. Photo (c): Roman Nevedrov. All rights reserved.

According to Rostov estate agents, the city was always short of the municipal housing that would enable it to move people out of its old town. And wealthy investors rarely invest money in renovating even beautiful buildings with unique facades, given that the area around them is usually in a sorry state and needs additional funds for renovation.

Govnyarka’s local residents believe the fire was no accident

Another story also emerged: the Russian daily RBC reported, on the basis of its own sources, that Rostov’s Vertol-Development construction company was interested in the land. The company had plans to develop the district and was preparing its documentation — it even wanted to hold a public consultation and come to a joint decision with Govnyarka’s residents.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that, a few minutes’ walk from the current piles of ash, a special fan zone for 25,000 football fans is being planned on Theatre Square for the 2018 FIFA World Cup next year. This has to be ready by next summer: there will be a stage, an immense LED screen and two stands. Fans are expected to gather there from all over the world — it will be the second most important venue after the new stadium on the left bank of the Don, opposite the city centre.

Just an accident, or dodgy estate agents?

Govnyarka’s local residents believe the fire was no accident. At the start of August, Rostov’s press was already running stories about people from unidentified construction companies (so-called “black realtors”) turning up several times on doorsteps in the area and offering to sell their houses for much less than their market value, as well as threatening them with the courts and arson. One resident told the Donnews agency (link to Russian language site) that “some people came round to talk to the people in the lowest houses and offered them 100,000-166,000 roubles per 100 metres square [the average rate was one million - ed]. But when the residents said that they wouldn’t be able to buy anything for that money, they were told: ‘Then it’s easier to burn you out than pay you.’”

According to Donnews, one of these men, who “looked like a 1990s bandit”, told the residents that if they didn’t agree to the terms, they would take them to court a few times and they’d end up in a room in a hostel. And the residents also report that at about this time there were a number of minor fires in the area — as many as 10 over the summer — when rubbish or dry grass caught fire near people’s homes. But there were also two major fires. Four houses in Chuvashsky Lane burned down in August; the owners of one had refused an offer for their land three months before. And after the fire, they were given an official ruling by the Ministry of Emergency Services that this was a case of arson.

When the residents said that they wouldn’t be able to buy anything for the money these men offered them, they were told: ‘Then it’s easier to burn you out than pay you.’”

According to the locals, on the day of the fire, fires were burning in at least four places — in Chuvashsky and Krepostnoy Lanes and Nizhegorodsky and 7th February Streets — and the high wind blew the flames across to other houses in an instant. Many witnesses have also said that, in the first place, the fire fighters arrived late and in the second, that for the first hour there was no water to douse the flames.

“When I arrived, I couldn’t get through: there was a house on fire; smoke everywhere; the water pipes were bursting, sparks flying, the gas pipes burst as well —it was just terrifying,” Daniil Kalinin of the Don24 news agency told me. “Everyone was screaming about the fire fighters not arriving”.

“Everyone was trying to do something, to bring water. Even women would come with buckets of water. The only people sitting down were the elderly. I witnessed the fire-fighters asking 11-year-old boys to help them: ‘Lads, you see the hose? Grab it and get it over here. Faster, faster!’ Later they told me there was no water for the first hour.”

Firemen weren’t able to put out the blaze at the very start - there wasn’t enough water. Photo: Yury_Ch / VK.com. Some rights reserved.

The next day, Valery Sinkov, the regional head of the Ministry of Emergency Services, told journalists that the most likely hypothesis involved “the existence of an external source of ignition”. And the TASS news agency later reported that the fire broke out “as a result of deliberate actions in several places. This is still a provisional conclusion.” It added that the emergency services had been called out to a number of addresses.

On the same day, at a press briefing, the Rostov regional governor Vasily Golubev commented on the possible involvement of “black realtors”: “Yesterday evening, a lot of people told me that these ‘realtors’ had offered them low prices for their land. Many see this as a crime committed in the interests of the developers. I can tell you now that I am not going to investigate any suspicions of collusion between the authorities and the developers. But the idea of fires being started deliberately can’t be dismissed. I have already asked the law enforcement agencies to investigate it thoroughly.”

Two days after the fire, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal case of negligence. Its spokesperson stated that the case involved “a lack of due care in the performance of their duties on the part of officials and communal utilities chiefs, as well as senior officers of the services responsible for fire safety and resolving emergency situations.”

The Interfax news agency, quoting a statement by the Rostov regional head of police Oleg Agarkov, has revealed that at the end of last week, police had detained the realtors who had attempted to buy land in the Theatre Hill area. Agarkov said that they were being questioned and documents had been removed from their companies. He also mentioned that the site of the first fire had been provisionally identified — part of an area where there were various abandoned buildings.

The second most popular explanation for the fire, according to local media, is the “criminal negligence” of the team responsible for the improvement of the Proletarsky district. Locals reported that something was set on fire at this municipal office, and the flames spread to the corner house on Chuvashskaya Street. Some witnesses claim a defective cable as one possible cause — this is the unofficial opinion of the emergency services.

The people who lost their homes and the helpful locals

Many local people came to help at the site of the fire — they brought buckets of water, helped their elderly and disabled people, brought essential supplies, of bandages and water, for example. In the first hours of the disaster a mass aid operation was conjured up via social media —people in the Rostov-Glavny group on Vkontakte social network launched the hashtag #PomogiRostov (#HelpRostov), and victims of the fire could post a message on any social network with this hashtag and find people to help them.

“Everyone’s in a state of shock. You’re walking along a street and suddenly there’s nothing left of it”

“People had a powerful urge to show their support,” says Rostov-Glavny’s groupadministrator Andrey Boltushkin. “People from the city hall contacted us and asked us to post information about temporary accommodation and a phone number on our Facebook page. Our bureaucratic machine deigned to acknowledge us, if you like. They also asked us to post concrete information about where people could go, whom they should approach for help or phone. What really struck me was that in this modern city (it’s a contemporary city, not some ancient Moscow with its wooden houses), we could have a firestorm that would leave a load of people without a roof over their heads. Everyone’s in a state of shock. You’re walking along a street and suddenly there’s nothing left of it. In other words, we’re weak and defenceless, but we’re together and we’ll fight back.”

Rostov city council organised temporary accommodation in nearby schools, as well as humanitarian aid — food, clothing, medical supplies. In the end, most people were able to move in with relatives, so there were only 50 or so, who had literally nowhere to go, still camping out in the schools, and they were all moved to hotels last Sunday.

Nearly 700 people have been left homeless after the fire in Govnyarka. Photo: Yury_Ch / VK.com. Some rights reserved.

Three families have been given temporary accommodation in council flats on the outskirts of Rostov, with a contract for a year: they can live there until their old houses are rebuilt or they get a certificate entitling them to new housing. They are meanwhile living rent-free, just paying for utilities, and there are plans for another 20 families to be re-housed in the same way.

Council officers have set up a one-stop shop for people who have lost their homes and are sorting them out with new identity documents. Last weekend a legal aid centre also opened there, organised by members of the regional legislative assembly. They are running free advice sessions, looking at each family’s situation and providing individual guidance.

The city also has several drop-off points for humanitarian aid, most of them in the city centre, where members of the public and volunteers can bring essentials of all kinds, from toothbrushes to clothing and medical supplies. Local legislative assembly members, NGOs and churches have also got involved in collecting these goods. Other volunteers scour the ruined streets, searching for pets that survived the flames and posting photos of them on social networks so that they can be reunited with their owners.

“In good times we’re always arguing, but in a disaster we can really come together to help each other out”

“I’m completed amazed,” journalist Roman Nevedrov tells me. “People from Rostov have a reputation for being egotistic, pretentious, a bit full of ourselves, but now everyone is helping everyone else. People really want to help — they’re running aid centres in their offices, inviting homeless families to stay with them. Everyone is offering some kind of help. It’s very sad that it takes a tragedy to bring people together. In good times we’re always arguing, but in a disaster we can really come together to help each other out.”

A survivor speaks in the comments under an article on Meduza.io. “I’m standing among the ruins, my house has burnt. And while we were living like animals in the very centre of town with no proper support from you, you guys were wondering what fancy new coffee shop to open near the theatre.” Photo: VK.com. Some rights reserved.

The authorities are also providing financial aid to victims of the fire. The family of the pensioner who died in it will get 1.5m roubles (£19,900) compensation, and everyone who lost their home will get a one-off payment of 50,000 roubles (£660). Those who have lost part of their personal property will also receive 50,000 roubles in compensation; those who have lost everything, 100,000 (£160,000). Those who have suffered a moderate level of injury or effect on their health can claim 200,000 roubles (£2,600) in compensation, those with serious injuries, 400,000 (£5,300).

If a family hands over its plot of land to the city, it will receive a housing certificate for a new flat, with 35 square metres of floor space per person, probably in an outlying suburb of Rostov. Regional governor Vasily Golubev has asked the Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev for 605m roubles (£8m) for this rehousing programme (79 million has been allocated so far).

Plans for the future: a “Puchkov Quarter” or uncertainty

Last Wednesday Vladimir Puchkov, Russia’s Minister for Emergency Situations, demanded that the city and regional authorities rebuild the area of the conflagration, carrying out improvements to it at the same time. “I wouldn’t object to the renewed district being called the ‘Puchkov Quarter’,” he added at the press briefing where he had made his announcement: “The main thing is that it should be better than it was before. Let’s do everything as well as we can, especially since Rostov will be one of the host cities for 2018 World Cup.”

On the day after the fire, governor Golubev stated that the question of Govnyarka’s future “requires thorough and careful attention”. He said that he had advised the city council not to rebuild the area, but the next day he reversed his decision.

“We shall work with each family individually and ask them whether they wish to rebuild or are happy to move,” Golubev told journalists. “They will have the right to decide. Anyone who wants to rebuild their house will be able to do so, but if they think the area is unsafe, we’ll aim to find them other accommodation. We shall respect peoples’ wishes in this matter.”

The future of those whose lives have been destroyed in this blaze remains unclear. Photo: Yury_Ch / VK.com. Some rights reserved.

It was interesting, however, that Rostov’s mayor Vitaly Kushnarev held a press conference where he made a very different announcement, saying that houses that had been burned to the ground would not be rebuilt: householders would be offered either new homes or compensation. Kushnarev also promised that decisions would be taken “with the best outcomes for people in mind”.

“We’re now looking at the question of complete demolition of the burned down houses and the reclamation of the land in the district. We’ll be drawing up estimates for the costs of this project. And since these are mostly individual family houses, we need their owners’ agreement for the demolition of their property.”

All this suggests that the city and regional authorities are far from unanimous about the future of Govnyarka. Its ruins are gradually being cleared: electricity has been reinstated, the neighbouring streets have their gas back and some of the debris has been removed. Investigators are still investigating the cause of the disaster.  


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