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Siberia: Not so remote after all

A lot changes in 20 years, even in a place like Siberia.


KRASNOYARSK, Russia — It’s difficult to imagine, while sipping an Americano in a marble-and-glass shopping mall and watching elegantly dressed people browse in stores like Zara and Adidas or tap on their iPads in open-plan cafes, that you are in the far reaches of Siberia.

Especially if you knew what things were like here two decades ago, as communism was collapsing.

That was when I made my first visit to this city of a million people on the banks of the Yenisei, which up until 1990 was closed to foreigners. Five hours flying time from Moscow, it stands at what was the apex of the “gulag archipelago,” as the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the communist-era system of labor camps and prisons.

In those pre-capitalist days everything was run-down and Krasnoyarsk was a forbidding city. Store shelves were empty. Slogans extolling the benefits of communism rusted on rooftops. The mood of the people was described to me by the popular Siberian author, Viktor Astafyev, as “irritated.” There were so many prisons that people joked it was better to live across the road from a jail than live across the road from your home.

Contrast that with Krasnoyarsk today. The commercial energy released with the fall of communism, combined with the enormous natural wealth of the region in the form of aluminium, oil, nickel, copper, iron ore, uranium and timber, has transformed it into a modern European-type city.

The 19th-century buildings on Peace Avenue have been renovated and colored in light pastel shades of blue, yellow and brown. Lexus and Mercedes automobiles jostle for parking spaces. On Sundays worshippers crowd into the Orthodox Cathedral of the Protection of the Virgin, which was before a run-down museum. The shabby old Soviet-era stores have been transformed into delicatessens, boutiques, video stores, jewellers, cake shops, sushi bars and pet food kiosks, and even the concrete exterior of the biggest city-center prison has been faced with red brick. Hugo Boss and Armani have established swanky downtown outlets.

Roadside billboards advertise new restaurants with attractions in English such as “Myaso (meat) and Wine” events at the Summer Veranda.

The shopping mall I visited, Planeta, was opened just last year, with palm trees, a multiplex cinema, bowling alley, restaurants and all the outlets you might expect in any Western mall, spread over 1.5 million square feet. No longer “irritated,” people laugh out loud and staff fall over themselves to be nice to customers. Not everyone can afford to shop here of course.

The median income in Krasnoyarsk, according to official figures, is still under $5,000 a year, about nine times less than that in the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi. The consumer-driven middle class is still small and oligarchs distort the figures.

Jonathan Anderson, an expert on the Russian economy at UBS, informs me that in his recent analysis he found the Russian economy is now “in more or less full recovery mode” after a steep economic decline in 2008 and early 2009, and cities like Krasnoyarsk can expect more growth. The basic reason is that Russia did not become a bubble economy like some in Europe, where excess lending went into real estate and mortgages, and the banks are in good shape.

Some things, however, have not changed.

I leafed through Krasnoyarsk Gazette as I lingered over my Americano and felt a sense of deja vu.

The broadsheet reported in non-critical, Soviet-era, style the visit to Krasnoyarsk the day before of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It was the same that evening on television news. The newspaper also reported approvingly the restoration on Aug. 31 of a metal plaque commemorating Dmitry Martynov, hero of the Soviet Union, that had been pried off the wall of his apartment block after the fall of communism.

The media is much less critical or freewheeling than in the first post-communist years – or indeed in the final years of Soviet rule. As former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar told me in an interview last year, Russia at the end of the Soviet Union “had the most free press probably in the world because it was free from official control, it was free from censorship, it was free from the opinion of the readers, it was free from the owners — but it could not survive!”

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, all three major Russian television networks are now in the hands of Kremlin loyalists and several of the most influential newspapers have been acquired by companies close to the Russian government. On top of that you cannot buy a foreign newspaper in Krasnoyarsk — but then you will search in vain for a Financial Times or an Internatioinal Herald Tribune in Domodedovo airport, Moscow’s glittering new international hub, through which I passed en route to Siberia.

Politically, Krasnoyarsk is more like a Chinese than a European city.

It adheres to an unwritten contract between the government and the governed: you can do what you want, make as much money as you like, travel wherever you please, so long as you don’t seriously challenge the system. This is the Beijing model.

On one thing Putin and I agree, however. In Krasnoyarsk, the prime minister told students at the Siberian Federal University that traveling between Russia and the EU should be made as easy as possible as part of the transition to a visa-free regime. Anyone who has gone through the bureaucracy at a Russian embassy seeking a visa to visit Russia can only say, “Hear, hear!”