Baikalsk, Russia – One of Russia’s most notorious polluters still stands – long-deserted but looms large over the city it once depended on for jobs and identity.
The Baikalsk pulp and paper plant closed eight years ago after a long campaign by environmentalists who said For decades, the Soviet-era plant has been spewing waste in Lake Baikal in Siberia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains about 20 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves.
What happened in Baikalsk, which is more than 3,000 miles east of Moscow and north of the Mongolian border, is the Russian version of the American rust belt and other regions have gone through tough times as economies changed and the world became more aware of industrial pollution.
But Baikalsk’s story is also a uniquely Russian story: one of the country’s nearly 300 “single-stick” cities, a one-factory city that was built during the Soviet Union, and is now on the brink of extinction and a sense of oblivion by its government.
The Kremlin’s promises to find economic alternatives to Baikalsk, including turning it into a tourist destination or even an “eco-city”, have not gone anywhere. With fewer job opportunities, Baikalsk has caused the population to bleed since the factory closed, from more than 17,000 people to around 12,000.
“A lot of people just couldn’t deal with this tragedy,” said Albina Ergina, a local historian and director of the city’s cultural center. “There was a wave of suicides because people felt they had lost their purpose.”
It still poses an environmental risk, too. Although the government closed the plant, its tanks filled with about 6.5 million tons of lignin sludge at the plant. – Waste of pulp and paper factories – Which ecologists say is especially dangerous in an earthquake-prone region.
As with the town itself, the government has been hesitant about how to deal with the toxic ponds. Last fall, Moscow named the State Nuclear Energy Corporation To use its expertise in waste disposal To solve the problem by 2024.
“We’re kind of used to all of this,” said Ergina. “Nobody really cares about it anymore. What is important is what happens today, for those who have a job not to lose it or for those who do not have a job to find it. There is nothing to find here.”
Presented at the Baikalsk Culture Center. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post)
View of Baikalsk from the window of the Cultural Center. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post)
Boris Preseuk, who lost his job as a mill engineer, worked for a while as an electrical technician before deciding he would be a “freelance artist”. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post)
A stuffed seal is on display at the Culture Center. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post)
Top left: Displayed at the Baikalsk Culture Center. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post) Top right: View of Baikalsk from the window of the Cultural Center. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post) Bottom to the left: Boris Prisyuk, who lost his job as a mill engineer, worked briefly as an electrician before deciding he would be a “freelance artist.” (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post) Bottom right: Stuffed seal on display at the Cultural Center. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post)
Founded in 1966, the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill became one of the first targets of the environmental protest campaign in the Soviet Union. Environmentalists said the factory bleached the paper with chlorine and emptied sewage into the lake, partly attributing this to declining numbers of local Baikal seals and fish. The smell of rotten eggs permeates the town.
According to data from Irkutsk records obtained by Marina Rykhanova, an Irkutsk ecologist, the death rate from respiratory diseases in Baikalsk was nearly three times the nationwide average in 2009, and twice the average for the Irkutsk region in Eastern Siberia.
At its peak the factory employed about 3,500 people. Boris Preseuk was one of them. When he lost his job as a windmill engineer, he bounced around other trades. He briefly worked as an electrical technician before deciding he would be a “freelance artist”.
His current project is making raisins and juice from berries collected from the nearby Taiga forest. Brysyuk dreams of making his business mobile, creating a stand out from the trunk of his car and traveling along the coast of Lake Baikal in the shape of a crescent to sell his product.
“Adjusting to the service industry is not easy,” Prsiuk said. “It didn’t work for me in the beginning either. But you have to keep trying.”
Few others in Baikalsk were self-employed. Many men are forced to travel to other parts of Russia for work. With jobs scarce in the city, it is considered a place for retirees to settle. Some locals can earn cash by growing a variety of strawberries – a festival is held every summer that brings buyers from hours away.
But the mill’s continued existence, and especially the sight of it fading away with time each year, is a burden for many residents. They once hoped that a different factory would eventually replace the old factory and give the city a new purpose.
“This sense of community was associated with Theme, It is a pulp and paper mill. “Once this mega project stopped, that feeling of a big idea ended and that was the case,” said Evgeny Rakityansky, the 38-year-old resident. “There were no obstacles for people to stick to, and people just had no idea how to stay here, and they didn’t see a future.”
Rakityansky spends his time volunteering and building hiking trails around Baikalsk, which is part of the dream of turning the city into a hub for ecotourism.
Ecologist Marina Recanova found that the death rate from respiratory diseases in Baikalsk was nearly three times the nationwide average in 2009, and twice the average for the Irkutsk region of Eastern Siberia. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post)
Evgeniy Rakityansky builds hiking trails around Baikalsk, which is part of the dream of turning the city into a hub for ecotourism. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post)
Left: Ecologist Marina Rykhanova found that the death rate from respiratory diseases in Baikalsk was nearly three times the national average in 2009, and twice the average for the Irkutsk region of Eastern Siberia. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post) Correct: Evgeniy Rakityansky builds hiking trails around Baikalsk, as part of a dream to turn the city into a hub for ecotourism. (Elena Anosova for The Washington Post)
But the attempts have so far been unsuccessful. There is a ski resort, but it mostly attracts people from the surrounding areas on a short excursion. Visitors from all over Russia and East Asia have flocked to Lake Baikal in recent years, but they have rarely made it to Baikalsk.
Suggestions for what to do with the old mill included turning it into a museum.
“Who’s going to look at all of those things?” The historian said Arjina. “Are they going to take people here so that there are visitors to the museum?”
Although the pulp and paper plant itself is empty, the property is not completely arid. In 2015, Igor Sherpakov opened a small plant for dried herbs on the site. The company started out making tea and then expanded to include other products, employing up to 50 locals before it had to cut back on its staff within Corona Virus pandemic.
Sherpakov, a yoga instructor, saw fit to start an environmental company all over again in a place previously known to harm the environment.
“What will happen to the factory is the big question,” said Sherpakov. “A person needs to find a balance between industry and the environment. What was here did not follow any standards. My personal dream is for this city to become an environmental Mecca.”