Economic Growing Pains For Russian Industrial City Ten years ago, Chelyabinsk was still stuck in the Soviet past, gray and grim. Now, new megamalls, supermarkets, cafes, hotels and museums fill the town center. But the new confidence has also seen a rise in drug use and widening class divisions.

Economic Growing Pains For Russian Industrial City

Economic Growing Pains For Russian Industrial City

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The first of a five-part series.

New hotels, museums, megamalls, supermarkets and cafes now fill the once gritty industrial city of Chelyabinsk. Juri Bizgajmer/ hide caption

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Juri Bizgajmer/

New hotels, museums, megamalls, supermarkets and cafes now fill the once gritty industrial city of Chelyabinsk.

Juri Bizgajmer/

More In The Series

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.

A thousand miles east of Moscow on the edge of Siberia, Chelyabinsk is a gritty industrial city. Its population of almost 2 million was hit hard in the 1990s by the turmoil after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Factories, geared largely for the Soviet arms and metal industry, all but shut down.

Back then, Chelyabinsk was gray and grim. A far cry from the bustle of the new Moscow, Chelyabinsk was still stuck in the Soviet past. People seemed lost, tied to hulking, decrepit steel mills and arms factories while the mantra from above was "Market, market, market."

Their goods had no market. The air was clean, but that meant the furnaces were dead.

Shopping meant wading through open air stalls, where desperate people sold the odd pair of socks or cheap Chinese imports. There was one hotel — a grungy establishment with surly staff providing no services. Eating out meant rubbing shoulders with suspicious-looking men in black shirts and ties who were clearly members of the local mafia. As one of my Russian friends here put it, "Nice people don't go to restaurants. After all, who could afford them?"

Ten years later, well-heeled couples stroll through the center of town past sparkling shop windows, megamalls and supermarkets. There are new hotels, new museums — there's even a new zoo. And there are plenty of inviting cafes offering Italian, Chinese, sushi — you name it.

It seems that nice people do go to restaurants here, after all.

A New Confidence

Sitting in one of the new eateries, Tamara Khatumova, an English professor, laughs as she remembers how isolated and naive she felt when we last met.

"I read quite a number of novels," says Khatumova, "and in every novel, there was a margarita. Margarita, I thought, 'What is it — margarita? I want to try it.' And so now, you can ask in every cafeteria, and they will serve you a margarita. Things change. We are part of the world."

The biggest change is psychological. There is a new confidence. Khatumova credits former president, now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with bringing stability.

"Putin has made quite a number of very important decisions — decisions which are in the interests of Russia and the Russian people," she says. "We started to respect ourselves."

The Price Of Growth

There is a new pride in being Russian. But not everyone thinks this is all good. Twenty-eight-year-old Sasha, who did not give his last name, believes Russia is on the way to becoming a police state once again.

"There's no real democracy here. We are dependent on officials and their whims," he says. "There is no free media. I don't like Putin or President Medvedev. Nothing good will come of what they're doing."

In 10 years, the country's security services, the heirs to the KGB, have resurfaced here. As if to emphasize this, Sasha's friends tell him to shut up.

Sasha spent a summer bussing tables in the United States. More and more students are doing the same. A staggering 7,000 just from Chelyabinsk were in America last year. Most of them seem to come back with fond memories. Alexander Ivanov, is a clerk at one of Chelyabinsk's comfortable new hotels.

"I can't remember any bad things about my trip," Ivanov says. "It was a great time."

This, despite what he calls a generally negative picture about the U.S. in the Russian media.

"Not a positive one now because of the political situation," he says.

Once largely dependent on the arms industry, Chelyabinsk was closed to foreigners until the early 1990s. It took awhile to make contacts with outside investors to improve and diversify the economy. Those efforts have helped fuel the changes, but Chelyabinsk got a huge boost from soaring world prices for its metals and raw materials. Until the financial crisis suddenly hit this fall, there was full employment.

A cloud of choking, acrid pollution hangs over parts of the city — the price of this boom. You can see the growing gap between the haves and the have-less. Ten years ago, the apartment buildings were all similarly run-down and ugly. Now there are clearly some pricey new housing complexes bought with new money.

An Emerging Middle Class

The signs of an emerging middle class are also evident. Vera Sokolova wraps a bouquet of lilies in one of her six plant stores. Ten years ago, she was a nurse, struggling to support her growing family.

"We were educated in the Soviet Union and knew what was ahead of us," Sokolova says. "Everything was planned for us. But suddenly, the market arrived. Suddenly, I had to make some decisions. I had to develop."

She started out buying seeds and plants from foreign suppliers in Moscow and selling them out of a basement. But those products were expensive. She looked around and found good Russian varieties, but the packaging was unappealing.

"I told the suppliers, 'I will be your agent in my region if you give me exclusive rights, and we will learn together.' We redesigned the packaging. It was really interesting, and it took off," she says.

She has become a community leader, helping other female business owners.

"We have a glass ceiling. Believe me — there is only one woman in the regional parliament. We still have a long way to go."

Alcohol Remains A Problem

Some things don't change, and some things get worse. There is soaring drug use and continued alcoholism. Beer has replaced vodka as the drink of choice. Tanya Kelleher, a teacher, says kids don't seem to realize that beer is also alcohol.

"You see 12-, 13-year-olds sitting in the benches, just drinking beer like soda. So young. That's a problem," Kelleher says.

It's even more of a problem in villages outside the city where life has stood still. Abandoned by anyone with ambition, the shabby wooden houses lean to one side, seemingly as drunk as many of the remaining residents.

Early in the morning, two young men stagger down the muddy unpaved road holding empty beer cans. They ask for money to buy more booze.

While the heart of Chelyabinsk has been transformed, outlying areas still have a lot of catching up to do. Improvements in infrastructure — everything from electricity, roads, trains and facilities like truck stops are still in the future.

And that future, seemingly so bright just a month ago, is now uncertain. Chelyabinsk is feeling the ripple effects of the global economic crisis. For better or worse, this city in the middle of Russia is now indeed part of the world