Desnogorsk: Young and Prosperous
Published: October 10, 2012 (Issue # 1730)
COURTESY OF ANDREI ZAVERUHA
In the center of the Smolensk regional town of Desnogorsk stands the Church of Our Lady the Joy of All Who Mourn, which residents proudly note was blessed by Patriarch Kirill in 2010.
DESNOGORSK, Smolensk Region — At a time when many of the country’s single-factory towns are crumbling, one settlement located 350 kilometers southwest of Moscow tells a different story.
Fueled by one of Russia’s 10 nuclear power plants, Desnogorsk has boasted steady growth throughout its short history. The town, which traces its roots to a cluster of apartment blocks built in 1974 to house the employees of the then-newly constructed Smolensk Nuclear Power Plant, only gained the status of a municipality in 1989. It has retained an unassuming appearance, with many typical nine-story Soviet buildings. Only recently have several family estates begun to spring up in the outskirts.
More than 80 percent of residents are involved in the smooth running of the nuclear power plant, and the figures associated with the work that they perform are astonishing. Every year, the facility churns out 20 billion kilowatt-hours of energy, which accounts for 13 percent of all nuclear power produced in Russia and 80 percent of all electricity generated in the Smolensk region. A significant proportion is also exported to former Soviet states, in particular to neighboring Belarus. The plant accounts for 82 percent of the town’s industrial output, and a drive to diversify the economy away from energy is in its infancy.
But Desnogorsk defies expectations when judged against the financial stagnation that many other so-called monogorods are experiencing. The town has the youngest population of any in the Smolensk region, with an average age of 30, and for most of the past decade, it is the only one whose population has grown. Indeed, it is the only town in the Central Federal District whose birthrate exceeds its death rate, according to its website. With an average monthly salary of 32,000 rubles (just over $1,000), residents earn twice as much as their neighbors in the rest of the Smolensk region. The 2011 unemployment rate of 0.57 percent, in contrast to 7.7 percent for the region, outperforms even the economic powerhouse that is Moscow, which recorded 1.40 percent, according to the State Statistics Service. The social credentials are also impressive: Free housing is offered to a large part of the population, and a system is in place that offers extra financial assistance to young families.
But for a time, it looked like Desnogorsk would follow the fate of other monogorods. After the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the government came under pressure to suspend the use of the RBMK-1000, the Soviet-designed reactor that exploded in Ukraine and remains in use throughout Russia. As a result, the construction of a fourth and final reactor unit at the Desnogorsk plant was halted and eventually canceled. A few years later, a decision was made to dismantle the plant by 2015.
In 2000, however, the government overturned the decision in a remarkable about-face and drafted plans to build a second nuclear power plant in the town in line with a nationwide drive to double nuclear power production by 2020. Smolensk Nuclear Power Plant 2, as it will be called upon completion, is due to replace the existing facility by 2027. According to official estimates, the town’s population of 30,000 will increase by 15,000 to 20,000 people once construction is complete.
No doubt the town’s location near the major 101 Highway to Belarus will facilitate its diversification efforts. But perhaps the real secret to the town’s success will lie in the resolve with which its inhabitants have worked to develop a sustainable economic base for the future. Several companies have opened their doors in the past two decades, including the Desnogorsk Polymer Plant, a 2009 finalist in the “100 Best Russian Products” competition, an annual government-run incentive initiated in 1998 as a way of encouraging domestic manufacturers to raise the quality and competitiveness of their products.
Desnogorsk’s inhabitants discuss with pride the dynamic and vibrant atmosphere of their town. Yet such overtures may conjure up disappointment for a visitor venturing out on a Saturday night. The empty streets and eerie silence can serve as an anticlimax for anyone expecting a weekly carnival.
That is until you get to the downtown area. Nestled in a small corner of the main square (a large patch of grass with a modern Orthodox church planted in the middle) is the place to be: Marzipan, restaurant by day and party central by night. Anyone who is anybody in Desnogorsk goes to Marzipan on Saturday night. The look and feel is distinctly that of a village disco: Girls in short skirts writhe around on the blindingly lit dance floor, while what seems like the town’s entire male contingent lines its edges, looking on wide-eyed while trying to gather enough courage to step forward.
Although many beautiful women can be spotted at the Marzipan, the coveted Miss Atom title has never been brought home to Desnogorsk. The beauty pageant, which began in 2004, is open to all women from former Soviet states working in the nuclear industry.
Some events do unite the town’s young population. A national youth festival held in June gathers thousands each year to celebrate Desnogorsk’s status as the “youth capital of the Smolensk region.” This year, the attractions included break-dance, beat-box and street-art competitions. The revelry served as a fitting warm-up for Heavy Water, a free rock festival in its second year whose 4,000-fan turnout marked a sixfold improvement from its 2011 numbers. Organizers of both events are convinced that they will enjoy high attendance in upcoming years.
Lying beside the town is the biggest reservoir in the region. Constructed in 1979 as a cooling pond for the nuclear power station, it is separated from the Desna River by a dam. The 44-square-kilometer reservoir is so large that it spans three districts of the Smolensk region, and its depth at certain points reaches 22 meters. A unique microclimate surrounding the reservoir, the result of its proximity to the power station, means that the water is around 10 degrees warmer than other bodies of water in the region. In addition, most of it remains immune to the ice that blankets neighboring lakes and ponds during winter. Even in February, the coldest month of the year, its temperature rarely slips below 17 degrees Celsius.
Fishing enthusiasts can catch diverse species teeming in its waters, including sturgeon and the increasingly rare grass carp, also known as the white amur. Some locals have even reported spotting fish as exotic as the tilapia, which relies on warm water for survival. A large population of crab and shrimp testifies to the cleanliness of the water.
As a result, Desnogorsk’s reservoir is known as one of the best fishing spots in European Russia. In June, it played host to a national float-fishing championship, which gathered over 70 participants and was sponsored, among others, by Rosatom, the federal nuclear power agency.
What to see
if you have two hours
Those who find themselves strapped for time or perhaps are stopping off in Desnogorsk as part of a trip to Smolensk or Belarus should set as their priority a moment’s relaxation by the warm waters of the reservoir, which spans the northern reaches of the town. A convenient position along its bank can afford the weary traveler a spectacular view of the nuclear power station and surrounding nature. On cooler days, a thick blanket of steam can be seen rising from the water’s surface, forming an opaque screen above the town that is evocative of the air of mystery in which its activities were once shrouded.
Following the bank of the reservoir to the northeasternmost point of the town, you will reach the 17-meter-tall dam separating the body of water from the Desna River. The area is crowned by an enormous, star-shaped memorial to those who died fighting in World War II. Alongside it lie five mass graves containing the bodies of more than 550 Red Army soldiers who died defending the Smolensk region from invading Nazi forces.
Heading back into the town itself, spend your remaining time exploring its center. The beautiful wooden Stephen of Perm church (4th Microdistrict), constructed in 1997, is particularly worth a visit, while the Church of Our Lady the Joy of All Who Sorrow, located in the main square, is hard to miss. Local inhabitants take pride in the fact that it was personally blessed by Patriarch Kirill in 2010.
Don’t miss a memorial to victims of nuclear disasters located in the 2nd Microdistrict next to the Town Hall. It was erected on the eve of the 22nd anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in 2008.
What to do
if you have two days
Regardless of where you stand within Desnogorsk, you can see the three imposing towers of the enormous nuclear power plant that dominates the landscape. The facility, located three kilometers away, looms over the expanse of water that separates it from the town and makes its presence felt by every resident. It would be a shame, therefore, not to venture closer and admire the various components that make up the complex.
Although a free shuttle bus runs from the town center from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., with an extra lunchtime service during working days, the bus is officially reserved for workers of the plant. It may be easy to blend in with the morning rush-hour crowd, but if you have access to private transportation or 100 rubles to spare for a taxi, you will save some hassle. The plant is not open to the public, but it’s worth taking a few minutes to skirt its perimeter and satisfy your curiosity. Be warned: Taking photos is forbidden.
The thing most likely to catch the visitor’s eye is a huge Lenin mural that hangs above the main entrance to the plant. Emblazoned on it are the words “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire nation,” a reminder that although the town may be young, its roots are in a country very different from modern-day Russia.
A stop by the Desnogorsk History Museum (1st Microdistrict; +7 (48153) 3-36-86; desnogorsk.ru/istoriko-kraevedcheskii-muzei) will offer photographs and various artifacts preserved from the earliest stages of the town’s existence. It also has a collection of historical items that date from World War II and beyond and were dug up by workers constructing the power plant. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except Sunday.
Desnogorsk’s mayor recommends a visit to Yekimovichi, a village 7 kilometers south of the town with a history of monasticism dating back to the 18th century. It still attracts visitors as a religious center today. Also pay your respects at a mass grave to 1,400 Soviet soldiers and peek into the quaint 19th-century Moscow-Warsaw Highway Post Office. Buses to Yekimovichi leave hourly from Desnogorsk’s bus station and return with the same frequency.
Remaining hours, weather permitting, can be spent exploring the town and relaxing by the reservoir bank. This is a great place to try your hand at fishing, because the odds are favorable even for those with little to no experience. The town’s tourism board was unable to advise on any options for fishing equipment rental in the local area but said a program to facilitate this is currently being looked into.
Where to eat
Several decent restaurants dot the town. None is geared toward the wealthy visitor with a penchant for gourmet cuisine, but most offer an affordable, quality menu consisting mainly of traditional Russian dishes.
Cafe Marzipan (1st Microdistrict; +7 (48153) 3-32-32) is the most popular place to dine in the town. Spacious and in a central location next to the main square, the restaurant offers a surprising choice of dishes and even a separate sushi menu. A wide range of cocktails is available at the bar, which is open all day. The food is good, but don’t expect anything spectacular, and don’t try the sushi. The average bill for one is 400 rubles, excluding alcohol.
Tri Tolstyaka (3rd Microdistrict; +7 (48153) 7-57-45), whose name comes from the revolutionary Soviet fairy tale “Three Fat Men” and accurately reflects the sizes of the portions it serves, is an unassuming eatery with an interior decorated in a hunting theme and a wall adorned with what is probably the biggest moose head in European Russia. The menu is comprised of Russian dishes including solyanka soup and zharkoye, a traditional stew. Expect to pay around 400 rubles per person, excluding alcohol.
Where to stay
Only one hotel is currently open to all visitors. It is in the Institute of Nuclear Training (6th Microdistrict, Building 180; +7 (48153) 7-19-78; desnogorsk-67.narod2.ru/gostinitsi), which specializes in preparing personnel to work in the industry and is referred to locally as UTTS, an abbreviated version of the institute’s name. A night at the hotel costs 2,530 rubles for an apartment with a single room and 2,720 for an apartment with a double room. Included in each are a kitchen, a fridge and other basic amenities.
In anticipation of the reopening of the nuclear power plant’s third reactor, which is currently undergoing a thorough refurbishment, a number of bed-and-breakfast cottages are being constructed on the outskirts of the town. But information regarding completion dates is scant.
The town’s name is the result of a competition held between construction workers to determine what the future settlement should be called. Among the most memorable suggestions, as local inhabitants clued in on trivia will tell you, were Mechtal (short for Mechta Lenina, or Lenin’s Dream) and Kurchatovsk (after the Soviet nuclear physicist). A surefire way of breaking the ice with a Desnogorsk local would be to point out the irony evident in adding the suffix “gorsk” to the name of a town intentionally built on a flat surface.
How to get there
Desnogorsk is best reached from St. Petersburg by train and bus via Smolensk. Trains to Smolensk depart almost daily from St. Petersburg’s Vitebsky Railway Station, although be warned that some trains travel via Vitebsk in Belarus, necessitating a separate transit visa.
The journey to Smolensk from St. Petersburg takes around 13 hours and costs around 2,000 rubles ($64) traveling in second class and around 1,000 rubles ($32) in third class. Buses cover the 130 kilometers between Smolensk and Desnogorsk five times daily, but an overnight stop in Smolensk may be required.
An enormous mural of Vladimir Lenin dominates the entrance to the Smolensk Nuclear Power Plant.
A nascent tourist industry means a lack of public transportation links. There is no train station, and although a public bus service operates in the town, the buses are few and far between, and punctuality can often leave something to be desired.
Most sites worth visiting locally are within walking distance, but the combined distances involved will likely appeal only to visitors who are prepared to trek along roads and across fields to reach their destinations. The walks, at least, are picturesque.
Main industries: Nuclear power
Mayor: Mikhail Khobotov
Founded in 1974
Interesting fact: Desnogorsk has no street names. Instead it is split up into eight micro-districts. The main street, located in the 1st Microdistrict, is referred to colloquially by locals as Broadway, after the name of a large grocery store that used to operate there in Soviet times.
Sister cities: Chavusy, Belarus
Helpful contacts: Mayor Mikhail Khobotov (+7 48153-7-12-50; admin-smolensk.ru), Oleg Prudnikov, head of the sports and tourism department (+7 48153-7-19-74; admin-smolensk.ru)
Smolensk Nuclear Power Plant (+7 48153-7-05-21; snpp.rosenergoatom.ru) is one of the biggest energy producers in Russia, responsible for more than a tenth of the country’s output. Three RMBK-1000 reactors are currently in operation at the site. Construction of a second facility due to replace the aging plant by 2027 have already begun, although progress is slow.
Desnogorsk Polymer Plant (+7 48153-7-22-04; dppsm.ru) is one of the largest manufacturers of polymer film in Russia. Founded in 1990, it produces a wide range of plastics for use in the packaging of food products and domestic storage. Fresh from a recent merger with St. Petersburg-based Tekhnopak-Flex, it has partnerships with several European companies, including Macchi and Ampacet.
Atomtrans (+7 48153-7-23-23; atomtrans.ru) is a transport company and subsidiary of the state-run nuclear corporation Rosatom.
It serves as one of the main goods couriers in the Smolensk region and runs a parallel vehicle repair service for local residents. Along with the local administration, Atomtrans funded the construction of the local football stadium in 2008, which recently underwent a major refurbishment.
Q: How has Desnogorsk managed to overcome the limitations associated with single-industry towns?
A: In 2009, Desnogorsk was included in the official list of Russian monogorods, and a 10-year modernization plan was drafted. But Desnogorsk continues to be a monogorod. The town’s income depends almost entirely on the nuclear power plant, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of the municipal budget.
Q: Do you see potential for growth, perhaps through foreign investment?
A: One of the main hopes for Desnogorsk’s future development lies in the execution of a thorough refurbishment and modernization of the nuclear power plant’s reactors, which would ensure continued operation until 2027. The construction of a second plant would give further impetus to the town’s drive to develop.
As part of a government-funded modernization program, land plots have been designated in the southern part of the town for the construction of an exhibition hall, a business center and a science park, complete with facilities for the manufacture and assembly of household appliances. Of course, these ambitious projects would require an increase in housing, and residential construction is already under way, most of which will take the shape of low-rise family houses and hotels.
We are always ready and willing to cooperate with anyone keen to contribute in whatever way to the development of our town and are ready to establish business connections to facilitate this process.
Q: What are the perspectives for tourism in Desnogorsk?
A: Desnogorsk is the youngest town in the Smolensk region; this year we are celebrating our 38th birthday. We cannot boast of ancient landmarks or historical sites, but the town has its own unique history and traditions. Beautiful landscapes, a calm atmosphere and a huge reservoir with clean water all create perfect conditions for water sports such as diving, yachting, fishing and extreme sports. About 10 sacred springs are located within 30 kilometers of the town.
The town’s immediate surroundings include many great places for skiing and snowboarding, and plans are in place to construct ski lifts on nearby hills.
Desnogorsk also has a wide array of youth festivals, which we hope to promote in upcoming years.
Director, Smolensk nuclear power plant
Q: Why was Desnogorsk chosen as the home for the Smolensk nuclear power plant?
A: The Soviet government’s decision to build a nuclear power station in the Smolensk region was guided by industrial growth in the European part of the country and an accompanying power deficit. Desnogorsk was the most suitable location in the region.
Q: What impact did the Chernobyl disaster have on nuclear power safety at the Smolensk plant?
A: Every nuclear disaster has been subjected to a thorough analysis, and we have learned from each mistake. The safety of RBMK reactors, such as those used at our plant, is on par with that of reactors used abroad. The safety of our operations is the top priority.
Q: What is the safety record of your plant?
A: The safety of the Smolensk power plant is, first and foremost, under the control of the government. Our work is closely monitored by experts from Russia and abroad, and all of them confirm the reliability of the plant and its adherence to the industry’s safety principles. In 2006, 2010 and 2011, the Smolensk power plant was awarded the title of safest nuclear power plant in Russia. In 2010, we won a corporate competition for the best nuclear power plant in Russia.
Founder of the annual Heavy Water music festival, an employee at the nuclear power plant, and a Desnogorsk native
Q: What gave you the idea to start the festival?
A: The idea came from Alex Sigmer, a friend and musician based in the Smolensk region. He called me one day and asked, “Why don’t you create a music festival?” I thought, “Why not?” It was as simple as that. The festival was a success the first and second year, and so we decided to continue.
We chose Desnogorsk because it’s the youngest town in the Smolensk region and has a great youthful atmosphere that you can really feel. It’s also a very progressive town. We’re urbanized people who lead lifestyles far removed from the traditional small-town ways.
Q: How popular is the festival?
A: Exact attendance figures are hard to cite because we don’t sell tickets. Entrance is free, and people simply come to camp out in the open air and enjoy the music. In 2011, the first year the festival was held, about 600 people turned out despite bad weather. This year, we had about 4,000 visitors.
We plan to move to a new location on the other side of the reservoir, where there is far more space and a hostel currently being built. We also want to extend the festival’s length to three days and include more music genres. The idea for next year is to start with alternative music Friday, move to heavy music Saturday, and then have a relaxed Sunday with soft rock and jazz.
Q: What future do you see for your town?
A: Desnogorsk could grow through the construction of new reactors and technological production of any kind. But the future is bright. After all, everyone needs electricity.
Q: What would be a good way for a visitor to spend time here?
A: We have plenty to do. We have an enormous reservoir, great fishing opportunities and year-round capabilities for diving and other water sports. The possibilities for relaxing while being surrounded by nature are open to everyone.