Russian ex-Gulag town on China’s doorstep eyes rebirth

Workers repair a street in Svobodny. The Russian town had been vegetating in disrepair from the fall of the Soviet Union until the arrival of mega-projects. (AFP)
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Updated 07 September 2020

Russian ex-Gulag town on China’s doorstep eyes rebirth

  • Launch of new mega projects is expected to give Svobodny a new lease on life

SVOBODNY, Russia: The remote Russian town of Svobodny has languished in misery for decades but the launch of new mega projects with their sights set on nearby China is expected to give it a new lease on life.

In the center of a town that once served as headquarters of one of the largest Soviet-era Gulag camps, children huddle around a small skate park, the sole attraction of the drab Lenin Square.

Svobodny’s roads are riddled with potholes, and many buildings are dilapidated and crumbling.

Few streets have modern pavements, and just over 15 percent of public spaces are illuminated. Heavy rainfall frequently leaves streets flooded, and tap water sometimes turns reddish brown.

But the recent emergence of new sports facilities and streets being dug up signal the beginning of an ambitious project to transform Svobodny by 2030.

“We have prepared a road map for the city’s development,” said mayor Vladimir Konstantinov.

Konstantinov hopes that Svobodny — whose name means “free” in Russian — can eventually become one of the “Far East’s most beautiful cities” and offer its residents a new quality of life.

Over the past decade Vladimir Putin’s government has spent billions of dollars to renovate Soviet-era towns and cities, and in 2017, authorities approved a 50 billion ruble ($663 million) plan to transform Svobodny.

Authorities want Svobodny to become one of Russia’s fastest-growing cities and a top industrial hub that will benefit from its proximity to China.

The forecourt of a used car dealership in the town of Svobodny. (AFP)

Russia’s tensions with the West and Moscow’s pivot to Beijing give those plans new urgency.

Outside the town of 54,000 people, construction of two huge plants is under way.

Energy giant Gazprom is building what it says will be one of the largest gas processing plants in the world, part of its Power of Siberia project with China.

In August, petrochemicals company Sibur began early work on a huge gas polymer plant that will also serve Asian markets.

Svobodny’s population has dropped by a third since before the fall of the Soviet Union, but the master plan foresees the arrival of a new workforce.

Tens of thousands of people will work on-site at the peak of construction and Svobodny’s population may double in several years, according to Strelka KB, the country’s top urban consulting firm working on the project.

Founded as a gold mining settlement, Svobodny earned notoriety as headquarters of the Baikal Amur Collective Labor Camp (BamLag).

Set up in 1932, the gulag housed hundreds of thousands of prisoners who built the Baikal-Amur mainline railway.

In later years, Svobodny was a busy industrial center but most of the manufacturing plants closed in the early 1990s.

Some locals like Ilya Kutyryov note that Svobodny — which suffers from power cuts and offers limited leisure opportunities — has begun to change.

“In the morning, I can now find takeaway coffee here,” said the 34-year-old who has lived in the town for the past two years.

A website has been set up to crowdsource development ideas from locals, and older residents say they want to see more public spaces for young people to keep them in Svobodny, said Semyon Moskalik, project director at Strelka. He said that in its work on Svobodny, Strelka used some modern American and Canadian cities “as inspiration.”

But many online critics have accused authorities of being “dreamers” or seeking to “line their pockets.”

Mayor Konstantinov acknowledged that some residents were against the massive overhaul but most recognize that the town needs the huge industrial plants to develop.

“Out of 54,000 people around 85 percent understand everything perfectly well and say that if not for these two plants Svobodny would find itself in a very difficult situation,” he said.

Strelka’s Moskalik said the resistance of some locals did not surprise him.

“It’s hard to believe that all these plans one day will come true,” he said. “The contrast seems too big between reality and the pictures we show.”

Big week for Big Tech as earnings, hearings loom

Updated 25 October 2020

Big week for Big Tech as earnings, hearings loom

  • The four giants drawing the most scrutiny — Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google — have been wildly successful in recent years

SAN FRANCISCO: Big Tech is bracing for a tumultuous week marked by quarterly results likely to show resilience despite the pandemic, and fresh attacks from lawmakers ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

With backlash against Silicon Valley intensifying, the companies will seek to reassure investors while at the same time fend off regulators and activists who claim these firms have become too dominant and powerful.

Earnings reports are due this week from Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Google-parent Alphabet, whose combined value has grown to more than $7 trillion.

They have also woven themselves into the very fabric of modern life, from how people share views and get news to shopping, working, and playing.

Robust quarterly earnings results expected from Big Tech will “highlight the outsized strength these tech behemoths are seeing” but “ultimately add fuel to the fire in the Beltway around breakup momentum,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note to investors.

The results come amid heightened scrutiny in Washington of tech platforms and follow a landmark antitrust suit filed against Google, which could potentially lead to the breakup of the internet giant, illustrative of the “techlash” in political circles.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have voted to subpoena Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executives of Twitter and Facebook respectively, as part of a stepped-up assault on social media’s handling of online political content, notably the downranking of a New York Post article purported to show embarrassing information about Democrat Joe Biden.

CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google are already slated to testify at a separate Senate panel on Wednesday examining the so-called Section 230 law, which offers liability protection for content posted by others on their platforms.

The four giants drawing the most scrutiny — Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google — have been wildly successful in recent years and have weathered the economic impact of the pandemic by offering needed goods and services.

Google and Facebook dominate the lucrative online ad market, while Amazon is an e-commerce king.

Apple has come under fire for its tight grip on the App Store, just as it has made a priority of making money from selling digital content and services to the multitude of iPhone users.

The firms have stepped up lobbying, spending tens of millions this year, and made efforts to show their social contributions as part of their campaign to fend off regulation.

“For the most part, tech companies know how to do this dance,” said analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group.

“They don’t spend a lot of time bragging about how well they have done any more.”

Ed Yardeni of Yardeni Research said the outlook for Big Tech may not be as rosy as it appears.

“For one, regulators at home and abroad are gunning to rein in some of the largest US technology names,” Yardeni said in a research note.

Of interest to the market short-term will likely be whether backlash about what kind of content is left up and what is taken down by online titans causes advertisers to cut spending on the platforms.

Economic and social disruption from the pandemic also looms over tech firms, which benefitted early in the pandemic as people turned to the internet to work, learn, shop and socialize from home.

“Performance will be best for those providing solutions for people working at home,” analyst Enderle said.

Amazon, Google and Microsoft each have cloud computing divisions that have been increasingly powering revenue as demand climbs for software, services and storage provided as services from massive datacenters.

Amazon has seen booming sales on its platform during the pandemic, and viewing surge at its Prime streaming television service.

Enderle expressed concern that with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and a lack of new stimulus money in the US, tech companies could reveal in forecasts that they are bracing for poorer performance in the current quarter.