Social, Economic Change Staggering In Chelyabinsk While based in Russia in the 1990s, NPR's Anne Garrels followed developments in the "real Russia" from the provincial town of Chelyabinsk. Returning 10 years later, much has changed. This series charts the transformation.

Social, Economic Change Staggering In Chelyabinsk

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While based in Russia in the 1990s, NPR's Anne Garrels followed developments in the "real Russia" from the provincial town of Chelyabinsk. Returning 10 years later, much has changed. This series charts this transformation.

While I was based in Russia in the 1990s I chose Chelyabinsk as the provincial city I would regularly visit to chart developments in the "real Russia."

Situated 1,000 miles east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains, it was built in Soviet times around huge metallurgical, tractor, tank and weapons facilities. Like the rest of the country, Chelyabinsk suddenly had to become part of a market economy for which it was ill-prepared. Closed to foreigners until the early 1990s, Chelyabinsk was suddenly open to the world. People were at once scared, anxious and excited.

In the 1990s, the economy of Russia fell apart. There was no demand for Chelyabinsk's goods; they could not compete on the world market, and the decrepit factories all but shut down. The city was bankrupt. Civil society, the ability of people to take responsibility for themselves, was in its infancy.

The Chelyabinsk region also is home to the Russian nuclear weapons labs, the equivalent of Los Alamos and Livermore. In the 1990s, scientists and environmental groups revealed for the first time the deadly legacy of pollution and accidents at these sites. And there were new concerns. Nuclear scientists, for example, were suddenly making the equivalent of $15 a month. The U.S. government was concerned that impoverished bomb builders would sell their talents to rogue states trying to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. government also wanted to ensure the safety of plutonium from newly dismantled nuclear warheads.

I returned this fall to find out what had happened to this city and region, more than a decade after I was first there. The changes are staggering. Thanks to the global economic boom in the intervening years, demand for Chelyabinsk's metals and raw materials saved the city. With new service industries, shops, restaurants and everything that comes along with them, there is an emerging middle class. There is a profound psychological change. Residents credit former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with bringing stability and a renewed pride in being Russian.

In this series, I look at how this has affected attitudes about everything from foreign adoption to religion, and at new social challenges like soaring drug abuse and a high rate of HIV infection. Corruption, always a problem, has grown worse. The security services, the heirs to the KGB, are increasingly powerful and are once again harassing those who raise uncomfortable questions. Cooperation with the rest of the world on nuclear issues, which looked promising in the 1990s, has become much more difficult. The fragile financial gains of recent years are now threatened by the global economic crisis.

For better or worse, Chelyabinsk is now indeed part of the world.