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Collapsed high-rise buildings an emblem of Russian hardship

For years, Moscow invested in its armed forces but neglected crumbling infrastructure

Built in 1973 and housing about 1,300 people, the collapsed section of the building was of a type of mass-produced, utilitarian housing seen throughout the former Eastern Bloc. Authorities will pay compensation of one million rubles or about US$14,800 to the families of those who died.

Magnitogorsk, Russia

A LOUD bang startled Anna Timofeyeva awake. She reached for the light, but the electricity had gone out. In the dark, she and her husband quickly dressed their two-year-old son and prepared to flee. "We understood something was wrong," she said.

But when they opened the front door of their apartment, they stopped short. From the doorstep of the family's seventh-floor apartment, she said, they could look directly down on a heap of rubble far below, all that was left of 25 neighbouring apartments.

The explosion that collapsed Ms Timofeyeva's high-rise building on Monday in the city of Magnitogorsk in southern Russia killed 39 people and initially stirred fears of terrorism. But authorities have since blamed an even greater danger to the average Russian - crumbling infrastructure, including Soviet-era apartment blocks.

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For a decade or more, as oil revenues have swelled its coffers, the Kremlin has poured resources into its armed forces, developing new weapons, upgrading its nuclear stockpile and overhauling and professionalising its army, navy and military intelligence agency.

The results - whether military interventions in Syria and Ukraine or meddling in politics in Europe or the United States - have buttressed President Vladimir Putin's drive to restore Russia to major-power status.

Yet, the apartment collapse and an earlier, highly unpopular cut in state pensions serve as a reminder of the lingering hardships that ordinary Russians are asked to endure, particularly those who live in the country's hinterlands.

In the case of the accident in Magnitogorsk, what was said to be a natural gas explosion sheared off a section of the building, flattening dozens of apartments but leaving Ms Timofeyeva's unscathed. "We were lucky," she said. Others were not, and Friday was a day of funerals in Magnitogorsk, a sprawling industrial city built around a gigantic steel factory where housing, as in much of Russia, has long been a pressing problem.

Magnitogorsk - which means Magnetic Mountain and is named for nearby iron-ore deposits so massive they are said to distort compass readings - is a city whose very name has long been redolent of the hardships of Russia's industrial backwaters. It was conjured from the empty steppe by decree of Josef Stalin and intended as a model communist city, populated by enthusiastic volunteers known as shock workers. Its roughly 415,000 residents today earn average monthly wages of US$360.

"Magnitogorsk remained the quintessential emblem of the grand transformation," author Stephen Kotkin wrote in Magnetic Mountain, a history of the city. Here, building communism "became a reality one could participate in first hand".

The Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works became the pride of the Soviet Union, while the workers lived in mud huts in the early years and scarce and shoddy housing ever since.

One park has a monument in the shape of a tent, commemorating a common early living arrangement. Inscribed into the pedestal are lines by a local poet, Boris Ruchyov: "We lived in tents with small windows, washed in the rain and dried in the sun." Another monument, called Rear to the Front, depicts a worker handing a sword to a soldier, illustrating the city's role in supplying steel to the military industry. Russia today spends about 5 per cent of its gross domestic product on the army, more than any other European nation.

But living space has always been tight in Magnitogorsk. In the 1930s, the average inhabitant got 1.9 sq m, or about 20 sq ft, often either a corner of a room or space for a cot in an open-plan wooden barracks. Today, most residents live in tenement-style concrete high-rises like the one that collapsed last week on Karl Marx Street.

Built in 1973 and housing about 1,300 people, it was of a type of mass-produced, utilitarian housing seen throughout the former Eastern Bloc. But even after Monday's disaster, older residents still sang the praises of the chunky structure, having moved there from barracks or communal apartments.

Far from demanding a new and safer building, many of them spent the week pleading with authorities to let them stay in the part of it that remained standing. "What's not to like about this building?" said Klavdia Kiselyova, 78, who moved in when the high-rise opened. Standing on her stoop bundled in furs and watching dump trucks cart away debris, she mused aloud. "It's an amazing house."

Judging by a sign on an entryway near the site of the collapse, it looked as if they were getting their way. "Dear Residents!" it read. "An inspection found residing in apartments in entryway 10 is allowed." The collapse had occurred in entryway seven.

Yet, others were more sceptical about moving back in. Yulia Skalvysh, an accountant at the steel mill, said she was told she would have to return to her two-room apartment a few hundred metres away from the collapse. Authorities were apparently unconcerned about a crack in the tiled wall of her kitchen that she said was growing longer each day. "They say, 'It's safe, you can return,' but I don't want to," she said. "I want to live in safety."

Several residents praised Mr Putin for visiting within a day of the catastrophe, and they directed their anger at local authorities. Vladimir Vorontsov, 71, a retired steelworker whose son died, showed up seething for a meeting with the Chelyabinsk region governor. "My son was crushed to death, and these clowns are still sitting here," he said of the bureaucrats. "They receive money and do nothing."

Authorities are to pay compensation of one million rubles (S$20,100), or about US$14,800, to the families of those who died. Renters who lost apartments will get 50,000 rubles, or about US$740, to compensate for personal items. NYTIMES