C.A. Milson visits the “City of Death” – Chapayevsk

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My journey to Chapayevsk was something left to be desired. I had heard local rumors of this town, and from legends believe, the town of Chapayevsk reminded many people of a version of Silent Hill.

Now you can imagine just how my imagination was running riot on my hour long train ride to Chapayevsk. Buildings falling apart, scrapings of paint ascending into the sky, darkness that covered the area, the sound of a warning siren every few hours, flesh eating zombies from beyond the grave every which way you look, some guy wearing a helmet to cover his lava scorched face, brandishing a 20 foot steak knife….

But was there any of that fantastical stuff? NO! I was sadly disappointed by no sign of flesh eating zombies from the beyond 🙂

What I did see though was a town so heavily polluted that entering the town was like being exposed to an extreme overdose of radiation (Hmmm, one conjers up the thought of a Simpsons episode here where Bart calls out “Watch Out Radioactive Dude!”)

We started our little trek by visitng the ticket booth, then taking a walk past the chemical plant. Hmmm, gave me some ideas, but not many. The chemical plant looked like a demiliterized zone. The eerie thing about this chemical plant was that it had a hell of a lot of ravens in the trees. Now I am not talking about just your average 3 or 4 ravens here. I am talking about DOZENS and DOZENS of the feathered creatures. Seeing them was like watching a scene from Alfred Hitchcocks flick “The Birds”. For a second I thought I may have to high-tail my ass to the nearest phone booth and duck for cover 🙂

No such luck this day 😦

Next up was the old church they were restoring. A beautful piece of architecure that has been in restoration for the last decade. Obviously there is a serious lack of funds to maintain this church as it is literally falling apart everywhere you look, and the grounds are maintained by a gypsy woman who looked like she was born when Stalins’ parents were children 🙂

The food in this little town was also something left to be desired. It is well advised that if you are going to buy food here, take with you a good litre or more of Pepto Bismol. (Seriously, with a town on the brink of a major environmental holocaust, would you “really” want to buy food here?).

With the town features looking anything but scary, we did see an elderly woman in a wheelchair begging for money. Such a sight is common around these parts, and it makes you wonder just where the likes of The Salvation Army is. In many places in Russia, there is a definate class of those who have nothing, and this woman really had NOTHING. So I gave her ten rubles. Her eyes lit up, and she was amazed. As I am told, that is a whole day wage for common people. But it made me wonder just how many others in this town were just like her.

We saw an abandoned puppy with a broken leg. No one seemed to care or bother to notice. Infact, when I went to pet it, it cringed. Obviously it’s former master only showed affection in the forms of beating it. Very sad.

After that we bid farewell to Chapayevsk, and got on the train to return home to Samara. Another eventful trip in which not only did the train take 2 hours to make a 60 minute trip, but the train driver overshot our stop by several miles.

Although the town was extremely depressive, it did give me some ideas for scenes and characters. Like the guy who works in the convenience store who handed me a lighter after having his dirty hand in his mouth; the druken woman who walked down the street, staggering, yelling and crying; the abandoned buildings that were on the brink of collapsing; the ravens (Strange, that reminds me of E.A.Poe); and who can forget the puppy with the gimpy leg.

Alas I await my next adventure.

For those who don’t know much (or anything) about Chapayevsk, here is a little something I found online. For more results you can google the town

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Harsh winters, polluted air, crumbling apartment blocks – the residents of many Russian towns might feel that they have cause for complaint. But in Chapayevsk, a town of about 70,000 inhabitants in European Russia, the mayor himself has suggested a novel way of solving the town’s problems – abandon it. You can hardly blame him – 96 per cent of all children there are deemed unhealthy.

Chapayevsk, close to the Volga river and the city of Samara, is home to factories that produced chemical weapons for many years, and is blighted by air and soil pollution. According to the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, at a round table meeting on the environment in Samara this week, the town’s mayor, Nikolai Malakhov, said that resettling the town’s residents would be an “ideal solution” to Chapayevsk’s problems.

The town was founded about a century ago and was named Chapayevsk in 1929, after the Bolshevik Civil War hero Vasily Chapayev. It was the site of a chemical weapons factory that churned out mustard gas and other deadly weapons in industrial quantities. The factory also made conventional bombs and mines. According to factory veterans, chemical warheads were made by pouring mustard gas solution from a teapot into the bombs, with the toxic chemicals frequently spilling over into factory drains. Over time the city’s water became contaminated with dioxins and other poisons. Today the factory produces herbicides, not chemical weapons, but the pollution in the air and the ground is there to stay.

A study undertaken by American scientists in 2005 found that not only was the air in Chapayevsk contaminated with dioxins, but also locally produced fruit and vegetables, as well as the meat from locally farmed animals. The more local produce that people ate, the more likely they were to get ill. The scientists found dioxin levels in the ground as high as in those parts of Vietnam sprayed with the infamous Agent Orange during the US campaign there. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the fatality rates from throat, liver and kidney cancer in Chapayevsk are three times higher than in nearby cities. The American study found a whole range of sexual abnormalities in Chapayevsk boys, who typically have a late start to puberty.

With the factories no longer providing work, the town also has a high level of unemployment, and one of the highest levels of heroin use in the country, which is contributing to the start of an HIV epidemic. So the mayor’s plan sounds like a good one. But a spokesperson at the local parliament denied that there was any serious talk of relocating the town’s inhabitants.

Some experts believe that abandoning the town might be the most economically viable option, however. “For 100 years, factories in Chapayevsk have been producing weapons, powders and chemical components,” Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of Russia’s official environmental watchdog, told a Russian agency. “There are several cities like this in Russia. But we can spend 50m roubles (£1m) on recultivating the stream that runs through the village that has been contaminated, and nothing will improve. To do it right, we’d have to dig a new channel, redirect the stream there, and remove all the soil. Can you imagine how much that would cost? The only sensible way to solve this problem is with resettlement.”

But despite all the problems, a representative of the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, said that Chapayevsk was far from being among the worst Russian cities. “It had an air pollution index of 7.8 in 2007,” said a spokesperson. “To be in the league of the dirtiest towns in Russia, it should be 14.”

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Posted on October 31, 2008, in Life in Samara and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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