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Pulp mill's closure puts a Russian town in peril

Global crisis has shut down the plant, a step activists, trying to save Lake Baikal from its runoff, long sought.

December 21, 2008|Megan K. Stack

As the global crisis grew and demand for pulp dropped, managers began to warn workers that the mill was no longer turning a profit. After production stopped, the regional government began saying it would drum up investment and create new jobs. Talk spread about luring tourists, or developing a ski resort around the trails carved into the mountains on the edge of town.

Pintayev, who says he is busy trying to secure enough coal to keep residents warm during the winter, is skeptical.

"Given the crisis we have today, these plans are not realistic," he said.

Workers and managers at the mill believe its fate is already decided. If production doesn't start soon, the underground pipes will freeze and crack, rendering the factory infrastructure useless.

A sort of melancholy has settled over the town. Rusted satellite dishes yawn on the roofs of apartment blocks. Playground equipment stands buried in snow. In the market, old-timers in fur hats mutter uncertainly about how the town will survive.

A few hundred workers still toil at the plant. They are maintaining the equipment, or running the power plant that sends heat to the town. When they walk homeward through the early Siberian darkness, the townspeople rush from their homes and press them with questions -- What did you hear today? Is there any news? Tell us.

"Now they only buy the most necessary things, bread and milk," said grocery clerk Lyubov Stafiyevskaya, passing a gray afternoon behind the cash register of a deserted store. "The men are drinking more because they have nothing else to do."

By 3:30, dusk is coming down, and gaudy streaks of pink, yellow and orange glow over a frozen landscape.

Nervous families spend their days huddled inside. Svetlana Brovkin was born here to a family of factory workers. Her father helped build the paper plant; then stayed on, along with his wife, to work.

In 1988, she met and fell in love with a young man on a visiting construction crew. Soon they were married, and her husband, Alexander Brovkin, had joined her at the plant. "We have been fully happy here," he said wistfully.

Now the couple and their 19-year-old son have been laid off. They disconnected the Internet and cut all long-distance service. Their sitting room is dim because, to save money, they unscrewed all but one bulb from the light fixture.

When they confess to this frugality, Svetlana Brovkin blinks away tears; her husband tightens his jaw and flushes. The first order to stop work, Svetlana says, "sent goose bumps over my skin."

Svetlana shows her root cellar, brimming with jars of pickled vegetables from their small plot of land. At least the family won't starve over the long winter, she points out grimly. If summer comes without work, they will be forced to split up -- her husband and teenage son will look for jobs elsewhere, while she and her younger son stay behind to grow and preserve another summer's worth of crops.

The idea of moving away from Baikalsk frightens her.

"There's no place for us to go," she says. "Nobody's waiting for us. Nobody's expecting us."

--

megan.stack@latimes.com

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