One of Russia’s most infamous polluters is still standing – long abandoned but looming over the city that once depended on it for its work and identity.
The Baikalsk pulp and paper mill was closed eight years ago after a long campaign by environmentalists who said the Soviet-era mill was dumping waste into Siberia’s Lake Baikal for decades, a Unesco World Heritage site which contains around 20% of the world’s freshwater reserves. .
What happened to Baikalsk, located more than 3,000 km east of Moscow and just north of the Mongolian border, is the Russian version of the American Rust Belt and other areas that have seen hard times then as economies change and the world is becoming increasingly aware of industrial pollution.
But Baikalsk’s story is also uniquely Russian history: one of the country’s 300 or so “monogorods”, one-factory towns built during the Soviet Union, now on the brink of extinction and feeling forgotten by its government.
The Kremlin’s promises to create economic alternatives for Baikalsk, including turning it into a tourist destination or even an “ecotown”, have gone nowhere. With few job opportunities, Baikalsk has bled the population since the plant closed, from over 17,000 to around 12,000.
“A lot of people could not cope with this tragedy,” said Albina Ergina, local historian and director of the city’s cultural center. “There was a wave of suicides because people felt like they were losing their purpose.”
It also remains a danger to the environment. Although the government shut down the plant, its reservoirs filled with about 6.5 million tonnes of lignin sludge from the plant – the waste produced by pulp and paper mills – which environmentalists say , is particularly dangerous in a region prone to earthquakes.
Much like the city itself, the government has not decided how to handle the toxic pools. Last fall, Moscow tasked the state nuclear power company to use its expertise in waste disposal to solve the problem by 2024.
“We just got used to it all,” Ergina said. “Nobody even cares about it anymore. The important thing is what is happening today, for anyone who has a job does not lose it or for anyone who does not have a job to find one. And there isn’t one here.
Founded in 1966, the Baikalsk pulp and paper mill became one of the first targets of an environmental protest campaign in the Soviet Union. Environmentalists said the plant bleached the paper with chlorine and dumped its sewage back into the lake, blaming it in part for the decline of Baikal’s native seal and fish populations. A smell like that of rotten eggs permeated the city.
According to data from Irkutsk registers obtained by Marina Rikhanova, an Irkutsk-based environmentalist, the death rate from respiratory diseases in Baikalsk was almost three times the national average in 2009 and twice the average for the Irkutsk region in Eastern Siberia.
The mill employed around 3,500 people at its peak. Boris Brysyuk was one of them. When he lost his job as a factory engineer, he bounced back into other trades. He briefly worked as an electrician before deciding that he would be “a free artist”.
His current project is to make raisins and juice from berries harvested from the nearby taiga forest. Brysyuk dreams of making his business mobile, setting up a booth out of the trunk of his car, and traveling along the crescent-shaped coast of Lake Baikal to sell his product.
“Adapting to the service industry is not easy,” Brysyuk said. “It didn’t work for me at the start either. But you have to keep trying.
Few others in Baikalsk have been so enterprising. Many men are forced to travel to other parts of Russia for work. With jobs so scarce in the city, it is considered a place for retirees to settle. Some locals can make money growing a sweet variety of strawberries – the town has a festival every summer that attracts shoppers a few hours away.
But the continued presence of the plant, especially the sight of it decaying every year, is burdensome for many residents. They once hoped that a different factory would eventually replace the old one and give the city a new purpose.
“This sense of community was linked to one object, which is the pulp and paper mill. As soon as this grandiose project stopped, that feeling of a great idea ended and that’s it, ”said Evgeny Rakityansky, a 38-year-old resident. “There was no problem that people could hold onto, people didn’t know how to just be here and they didn’t see a future.”
Rakityansky spends his time volunteering and building hiking trails around Baikalsk, as part of a dream of turning the city into an ecotourism hub.
But attempts have so far failed. There is a ski resort, but it mostly attracts people from neighboring areas for a short trip. Visitors from all over Russia and East Asia have flocked to Lake Baikal in recent years, but they rarely make it to Baikalsk.
Proposals on what to do with the old mill included its transformation into a museum.
“Who would watch all of this?” said Ergina, the historian. “Are they going to move people here so that there are visitors to the museum?”
Although the pulp and paper mill itself is empty, the property is not completely sterile. In 2015, Igor Sherbakov opened a small factory of dried herbs on the site. The company started out making teas and then expanded into other products, employing up to 50 people before it had to downsize during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sherbakov, a yoga instructor, thought it appropriate that an eco-friendly business had restarted in a place once known to harm the environment.
“What will become of the plant is the big question,” Sherbakov said. “A person has to find a balance between industry and the environment. What was here did not follow any standard. My personal dream is for this city to become an eco-mecca.
© The Washington Post