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

SVOBODNY (Russia) (AFP) –

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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 centre 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 roadmap 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.

- Construction projects -

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.

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 Labour 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 centre but most of the manufacturing plants closed in the early 1990s.

- 'Takeaway coffee' -

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 recognise 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."