Saturday, September 3, 2016

Bratsk, Siberia: A Country of Contrast - August 2016

"Everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece. Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash. We don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair." Lorde's song "Royals" is bellowing over the car speakers as we drive through the dark, dilapidated industrial town of Bratsk, Siberia.

The twenty-something Russian interpreter sitting next to me in the backseat is humming along to the music while gazing out the window. Overgrown fields blanket the landscape dotted with broken-down buildings and trash. "Do you have any plans for the weekend?" I ask, trying to connect with the girl who will be my sidekick for the next day and a half. "Oh, yes," she answers with a smile. "I'll take a bus to my grandmother's dacha to dig up potatoes. We need to harvest them now to feed the family through the winter."

I nodded and smiled. This girl's reality couldn't be farther from the words she sings along to on the radio. The designer store studded boulevards and lavishly decorated palaces in St. Petersburg seem a world away. Instead of donning full-length fur coats and stiletto heels, the women in Siberia wear their hardship on weathered faces unmasked by gold-toothed grins. It's hard to believe it's even the same country I thought to myself; what an amazing contrast. 

I was in Siberia for work. After an overnight flight from Moscow over the Ural Mountains, we arrived into the south central Siberian city of Bratsk. The dimly-lit airport was one of the smallest I'd ever seen; our baggage was thrown onto a conveyor through what looked like a barn window. Once all of our belongings were accounted for, our group of two Americans and six Russians loaded into two vehicles and set out for the town of Ust-Ilimsk.

For the next four hours we endured a hair-raising drive through the Siberian countryside dodging stray dogs, chickens and cars approaching us head-on, before finally arriving in one of the most notorious places in Russia. Ust-Ilimsk was the site of a gulag in the 1930s where tens of thousands of people lost their lives.

Despite its grim history, we were now there to visit the town's paper mill. The mill and a hydroelectric plant are accredited for the creation of the town in the 1960s when people were recruited from all over the country to start-up the industrial city. The paper mill remains one of the largest employers in the area and even dictates the city's traffic flow with its shift schedule. After our two-day visit to Ust-Ilimsk, we returned to the slightly larger but equally depressed city of Bratsk to visit another work site.

All together, it was a humbling week. Unlike the Russia I was previously acquainted with, namely St. Pete and Moscow, visiting Siberia felt as if we were going back in time sixty years.

In Siberia, due to the unforgiving winters and harsh temperature swings, the roads are riddled with potholes. Communist block architecture towers over the cities and hides the sun. Buses blow clouds of black smoke that hang in the air. Faded and torn billboards flank the trash-littered streets.

Traveling outside the cities, the grass is uncut and fields are overgrown. Small wooden triangular dachas, or rural houses, are enclosed by rusty gates and bear the scars of broken windows and caved in roofs. In both Ust-Ilimsk and Bratsk, the city's main tourist attraction is the hydroelectric dam. Locals commonly retreat into the forested taiga to flee the noise and polluted air. Siberia is the far less publicized face of Mother Russia.

Regardless of the difficult conditions, the locals welcome foreigners to their towns with a smile and, not unlike the rest of Russia, are passionately patriotic. The lyrics of the pop song continue, "And we'll never be royals. It don't run in our blood. That kind of luxe just ain't for us. We crave a different kind of buzz." And maybe that goes for the people of Siberia as well. It's a different kind of buzz, but they keep marching on every day, working hard and digging out potatoes to survive the long, harsh winter that is soon approaching.

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