The local rock band—called Hammer and Sickle—was rehearsing loudly in the basement of a school, which for the time being serves as the only rock club in town. Their three guitars and a drum roared in a powerful cacophony, in the fashion of early Guns N’ Roses. And their lyrics—about existing in “a world of kindness and evil”—said everything one needed to know about their feelings for their industrious, polluted, beloved hometown of Asbest, a town that exists solely to extract asbestos from Russia’s Ural Mountains, where the band’s musicians toil every day at factories, on road constructions, or in the giant asbestos mine.
The town of Asbest was founded in Soviet era of industrialization on the eastern slope of Urals, Russia’s “treasure box” of precious stones and minerals. As one of 340 so-called monotowns in Russia, Asbest serves the purposes of a single industry. The name of the city speaks for itself—Asbest in Russian means asbestos, a word that the Western ear commonly associates with lung cancer. Asbest’s fate was defined from its birth as the community lying astride the world’s largest open-pit chrysotile asbestos fiber mine—a cavern half the area of the island of Manhattan, but plunging down rather than up.
In its more than a century of operations, the town’s major company, Uralasbest, shipped over 384 million tons of asbestos around the world. Until a few years ago, the company, which employs over 6,000 workers, was doing well—but in the past nine months, the profits of the town’s main employer have been melting away because of shrinking glbal demand and local economic pressures such as steep tariffs on mining trains.
Earlier this month, rain turned the clay on Uralskaya street into muddy slush, while inside a local beer bar, Gorniak— or The Miner—the workers of Uralasbest dwelled on their financial troubles. “My salary is supposed to be 25,000 rubles but I only get 15,000 rubles a month,” complained Alexander, a worker from the ore-dressing line, referring to sums of $767 and $460 respectively. In order to not inhale a piece chrysotile fiber, which could lead one to grow ill with the common ailment here of asbestoses, Alexander and his friends always wore respirators for protection. In fear of losing their jobs, workers felt reluctant to criticize the factory on the record.
Journalists working in Asbest recently were pressured by anonymous men, who followed them around for days—possibly from the police or the factory’s private security service. And although none of the workers said they minded the dangerous aspect of their work— Uralasbest gives employees two month-long vacations and free medical checks every year— “the shadow of international anti-asbestos campaign causing losses for Uralasbest filled the city up with overwhelming fear for the future,” said Yuri Druzhinin, an industry consultant for local authorities in a recent interview.
Asbest is not the only Russia’s monotown that needs an urgent exit plan for thousands of people. In 2010 and 2011, the Russian state delivered around half a billion dollars to 49 monotowns, according to the media arm of a state bank, Vneshekonombank. Some of the aid went to pave the road from Asbest to Yekaterinburg, but it did not solve the main problem of creating jobs outside the mine. Earlier this month, Russia’s ministry of labor proposed to pay between $9,000 and $25,000 to families of unemployed workers willing to move from monotowns to more successful cities. But it is not an easy decision to uproot and leave home.
Even in a place famous for its carcinogenic dust, people love their city’s history and culture. Generations of Asbest citizens have passed down proud legends about the town from mouth to mouth. In one of them, gray fibrous mineral is metaphorically compared to hair: a beautiful girl covered the town with her long hair and saved its people from a fire. In another, “a traveler set on fire his present for Russian Tsar Peter the Great—a tablecloth. He demonstratively shook the fire off the table cloth to please the Tsar,” recounted the chief doctor at a local children’s hospital, Aleksei Kislinsky , with pride. The doctor said that children in Asbest do not have more health issues than in other regions of the Ural Mountains. “Of course I would advise any parent to move to an ecologically cleaner place than Asbest, but I cannot see too many immediate alternatives for people working here, “ Kislinsky said.
Most of the town’s postwar architecture was designed and constructed by German prisoners. Two spectacular statues by a New York-based sculptor, Ernst Neizvestny, frame the entrance to the local Palace of Culture, a significantly beautiful architectural monument in the constructivism style. Over 1,000 people visit the palace of culture every day, to attend dozens of dance and theatrical events and even circus classes. “During most difficult times our people find a hermitage in culture and creativity,” said Vera Stadnichenko, the director of the Palace of Culture, in a recent interview.
On a recent evening in Asbest, the sunset painted the sky in red and purple over the town and its enormous asbestos pit. Hardly any streetlights went on down one of the central avenues, Lenin Street. Graffiti signs around the town expressed more pressing concerns than longterm industrial decline: “The power at schools belongs to drugs,” a tagger had written. Other slogans called for residents to join the annual march of nationalists. Meanwhile, over at the improvised rock club, the musicians worked out their emotions in lyrics: “Nobody knows where that door is that would lead you out of the dark,” the song went. “But for how long are we supposed to tolerate this pain and humiliation?” It is a question that many citizens in the monotown of Asbest consider acute these days.
This story was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.