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Making waves: the only way to improve Russia’s river fleet

The shock of the recent steamer tragedy on the Volga and the huge loss of life all too quickly moved off the front pages, but the condition of the Russian river fleets needs to be kept in the public eye so as to avoid another such disaster, explains Oleg Pavlov

Kazan and the Volga

A couple of years ago a friend from Moscow came to see me. It was summer and very hot, so I took him to my dacha for a few days. The house is only 2kms away from the Volga and we spent all our time on the riverbank with fishing lines. But he was longing to see the great river in all its beauty and to take a trip on a boat, so I sighed and took him to the river port.

Kazan is a city on water: the Volga and Kazanka rivers, the huge Kaban lake in the city, the little rivers, ponds and pools. But it stands with its back to all these delights– there are no embankments or recreation areas and the river port is the only way out to the water.  My friend found it very depressing. There were a few sad-looking boats standing in the port to take people to the other side, but the fences are lop-sided, the buildings tacky, the pavements filthy and the atmosphere anything but romantic. The two-hour steamer trip also failed to deliver the expected rapture: the banks of the river are beautiful and the Volga is magnificent, but the vessel pre-dated Noah’s Ark and was in a terrible state, so the roar of the engine made conversation or dreamy reflection impossible. In a word, my friend returned home totally disillusioned.

Volga_Bridge_Zelenodolsk

In Soviet times river travel was faster, cheaper and more
comfortable than the train. River traffic was heavy and
waterway inspectors had their hands full.

I haven't been on a boat since that trip on the steamer with my friend. It was several years ago, but I somehow haven't felt like it. Twenty years ago it was all quite different. Water transport was one of the most accessible, quick and cheap ways of travelling.  There were various kinds of express vessels on underwater wings, such as hydrofoils and hovercrafts, and they were almost as regular as buses. They went from Kazan to Samara, Togliatti, Ulyanovsk, Cheboksary and Naberezhnye Chelny and that form of travel was both cheaper and more pleasant than bus or train. But chiefly – quicker! There were so many boats plying their trade on the water that it was not at all unusual to see a river inspector acting like a transport policemen at a busy crossroads.

The most beautiful sight was in the evening, when the many-tiered ships steamed out of port – lights, music and the cheerful laughter of the holidaymakers. There were lights on the Volga all night long. As a student I loved travelling on ships like this. A 3rd-class ticket was very cheap and the accommodation was much more comfortable than a train compartment, though we spent most of our time on deck marvelling at the constantly changing view.

"Twenty years ago it was all quite different. Water transport was one of the most accessible, quick and cheap ways of travelling. There were various kinds of express vessels on underwater wings, such as hydrofoils and hovercrafts, and they were almost as regular as buses. They went from Kazan to Samara, Togliatti, Ulyanovsk, Cheboksary and Naberezhnye Chelny and that form of travel was both cheaper and more pleasant than bus or train." 

It's not only Kazan that has such an abundance of water – Tatarstan has the Volga, Kama, Vyatka and Belaya, all navigable rivers. There are villages which are only accessible by water too. Now these villages are served by very old passenger launches, built as long ago as the 50s. There aren't any others. With the exception of a few boats on Siberian rivers, not one new vessel has been put into service on Russian rivers since 1991, and the existing ships were mostly built before 1967. About the same time as the two-deck steamer 'Bulgaria' which went down on 10 July.

The 'Bulgaria'

The steamer disaster and the death of so many people, especially children, was a terrible shock, and this is no hackneyed phrase or exaggeration. Kazan is a big city with more than a million inhabitants, but it's such a close community that it is often described as a big village by those very inhabitants, so the 'Bulgaria' tragedy affected everyone. No matter who one talked to at that time, everyone knew someone, a friend, relation or friend of friends, who was in some way involved. One of my colleagues told me she had come home to find her neighbours' flat door wide open…the whole family had perished. People brought flowers and toys to place by the list of those who had drowned which had been posted on the grey wall of the river port station and the flowers are still arriving.  The site has been turned into a spontaneous memorial and the wall christened the Wailing Wall.

Bulgaria

The Bulgaria disaster was a tremendous shock for the
inhabitants of Kazan

There have been various explanations for the disaster, but it is most likely to have been a combination of several factors, as often happens in these large-scale catastrophes. The vessel had not been repaired and it set off on its final trip listing heavily to one side with only one of two engines working. There was no air conditioning or ventilation, so many of the portholes were open, which was another reason for it going down so quickly. Then there was the condition of the vessel, the absence of hermetically sealed partitions, the overloading and the elementary negligence and complacency of the badly-trained crew.  But, like many others, I think that the main reason is that the system of shipping on Russia's inland waterways has completely collapsed and none of the 30 regulatory bodies, which are supposed to keep order on the water, can do anything. As they couldn't for the 'Bulgaria'.

This particular steamer had been working for many years under the name 'Ukraina', but at some point other ports refused it access because of its debts and the unsatisfactory condition of the boat, so its owners gave it a new name. All the necessary papers were issued by the licensing authorities, though if this had not been the case, the owners would simply have carried on out without them, sailing up and down the river and, what is more terrible, transporting people.

The river fleet

Evgenii Menyakin was for some time captain of the 'Bulgaria'. He left the ship because he was fed up with the endless battles with the owners, who cut corners wherever possible – repairs, spare parts and wages for the crew. According to Menyakin, this situation obtains throughout the river fleet: “On that particular boat there were big problems with the engines and the generating facilities. I reported this to the management on more than one occasion, but to no avail. It's not only that company (Kama River Ships and the leasing company ArgoRechTur). I have worked as a deputy captain in charge of security and a captain-instructor and I can say that many firms aim to make colossal profits by cutting costs”.

"Serious members of the tourist industry have long said that modernising Russia's river fleet is essential."

He added that the owner of the 'Bulgaria', Perm oligarkh Mikhail Antonov has leased out his whole fleet and repairs none of his ships. He tells people that he has no objection if they want to carry out repairs, but they still have to pay the rent. So the ship will be in dock, but the rent has to be paid and money found for the repairs on top of that, which is of course unprofitable. Captains are forced to hold their tongue and keep working. Adel Zapparov is another instructor who agrees with Evgenii Menyakin. At the funeral of the captain of the 'Bulgaria' he accused the owners of avarice. “What they say is – you don't want to work? Push off, we'll find someone else.  There are plenty of people looking for a job.” The captains say that all their attempts to insist on repairs and their requests for funds for essential spare parts were taken by the lessees as unwillingness to make a profit for the company. So stroppy captains are the first to be got rid of.

Volga_Samara

In recent years the beauty of the Volga has once more
started attracting tourists and numbers are growing

Another reason for the sorry state of the Russian passenger fleet is the rules of the game, which are drawn up by the government. High customs duties on new ships mean that the owners cannot buy any of the new technology. In Russia's harsh climate the navigation period lasts from the end of April through October, but the cruise season is even shorter, just the three summer months. The working life of a river vessel is much longer than maritime boats, because the fresh water does less damage to the fabric, so they can work for decades without any loss of quality. But that's when they are properly looked after and maintained. Which is exactly what's missing in the Russian fleet. In these conditions the experts reckon that a new steamer will only start making a profit after 30 years, just when it's time to replace it.

On top of this, the cost of fuel is always increasing. Income from oil sales is, of course, important: it's the main component of the Russian government budget, but isn't it obvious that high fuel prices inside Russia and the insatiable appetites of the raw materials monopolies are strangling the rest of the country's economy year after year? Which leads to people dying. This is why the lessees and the corrupt bureaucrats should be punished for issuing a certificate of fitness to the 'Bulgaria' and all steamers in Russia should be completely overhauled. But that won't affect the main reason which is the unwillingness of the top brass to change anything in Russia.

Tourism in Russia

The talk in many cities up and down the Volga is of the rebirth of tourism. New hotels are being built and a kind of infrastructure developed, especially in Kazan. Travelling on the Volga was always an attractive idea and respectable tourist firms look after their ships. But these tours are very expensive and people who are not well-off would also like to take their holiday on the river. It's these people that the small firms like ArgoRechTur are targetting by offering relatively low-cost tours and not being too careful how many people they take on board.

Serious members of the tourist industry have long said that modernising Russia's river fleet is essential. One of them, Vyacheslav Samoilin, insists “the situation on the Volga must be improved, the fleet renewed and proper crew training introduced. And the engineering i.e. the repair facilities must be completely overhauled. Then we won't have disasters like the 'Bulgaria'.” The effect of the tragedy on the cruise trade was immediate, as people en masse turned away from river holidays. There was a 400% drop in demand, though tickets started selling better again after two weeks, when the fear had somewhat receded.

Russian boats for export

Boat_Zelenodolsk

The factory in Zelenovodsk produces modern river
boats but only a few of them are in use on Russian
rivers (in Siberia)

What is strange is that passenger boats are manufactured only 40 kms from Kazan in a town called Zelenodolsk. The boats are modern and comfortable, but they are mainly bought by South East Asia, where tourism is expanding rapidly. Now tourists in Thailand or Vietnam travel on steamers made in Russia. Things seem to be going well for Zelenodolsk. I still haven't managed to meet their Managing Director, as he seems to be tied up with delegations all the time. But I learnt about their products from the head of the PR department, Rafis Fattykhov: “The A.M. Gorky factory in Zelenodolsk used to be the only enterprise in Russia with full-scale production of light metal alloy passenger vessels. 

Another reason for the sorry state of the Russian passenger fleet is the rules of the game, which are drawn up by the government. High customs duties on new ships mean that the owners cannot buy any of the new technology. 

In Russia our boats go up and down the Lena and Yenisei rivers [in Siberia], but in recent years we haven't had export orders for passenger boats, though previously there was a brisk trade with countries like Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Czechslovakia, Greece, Holland, Norway, China and Vietnam”.

Meanwhile little old passenger launches keep sailing out of the Kazan river port. Grannies with string bags and baskets take fresh vegetables, fruit and berries to the city market.

Verkny_Uslon

With the nearest bridge many kilometres away, the inhabitants of Verkhniy Uslon can only get to Kazan by boat. It may be dangerous, but they have no choice...

City dwellers with gardens and dachas on the other bank of the Volga also have to use these boats. On the high bank opposite Kazan there is the big village called Verkhniy Uslon: at night its lights twinkle attractively. By water it's only 7 kms away, or less than an hour on a launch. I ask an elderly lady with a shopping bag on wheels if she isn't afraid to go by boat. She brushes me away: “Of course I am, but what can I do? I certainly won't go by bus. I have always gone by boat and shall continue to do so.” You can of course get to the other side by both car and by bus, crossing the road bridge which is higher up the river, but then the distance will be almost 100kms. This is why people go on using the old  river buckets– it's cheaper and quicker and they reckon that tragedies on the Volga don't happen every day, so perhaps this time they'll be all right.


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