N-th kilometer

A town that is not

18.02.2010 | Text: Yana Taranchuk special for Weekly.ua Pht: Evgeniy Kostyukov

Weekly.ua correspondents took a trip to a small little-known town in the East of Ukraine, which was once thought to have great future of a large industrial center. Today, few residents of Stepnohorsk that remained living in the town are barely surviving without jobs, water, heating, electricity and gas

Living in fully decked-out comfortable apartments, we find it pathetic when we lose our electricity for half an hour or have no hot water running through the taps. And if wages do not meet our expectations, we moonlight or find work that brings home more bacon. And little do we think that there are people living a few hours away from our home sweet home in the big city which have been jobless for years and have long forgotten what heating or normal drinking water even is. There are hundreds of such provincial cities and towns all across Ukraine and as often as not if their residents have never seen a better life, they accept their unenviable situation.

Only dogs visit the sports club in the town center

Be that as it may, we discovered that these amazing people do not give in and disagree with those that think their native towns are dying. Correspondents from Weekly.ua visited one such ghost town Stepnohorsk in Zaporizhzhya Oblast to see with their own eyes how local residents manage to survive in a place that is ostensibly not suitable for human life

In the mid-1990s, all Stepnohorsk enterprises were shut down, because the crumbling economy failed to secure the demand
for the products of local companies. To this day, the delapidated industrial buildings reproachingly look at the world through t
he vacant eyes of broken windows

Prosperity

In Soviet times Stepnohorsk was a small populated area located about half-hour by bus from Zaporizhzhya where slightly over 1,000 people lived.

Then it was a typical village whose inhabitants were mostly farmers, Chair of Stepnohorsk Village Council Iryna Kondratyuk told Weekly.ua, However, in the 1980s, deposits of high-grade mineral resources were discovered, which had no analogs in the country, I think.

Literally within a few years, construction of two mines was in its final stage, the first processing enterprise was built and 9-story residential buildings were raised. The provincial authorities projected that by the end of the 1990s there would be around 75,000-100,000 residents, predominantly coal miners and employees at local plants and their families in the small town. The first new high-rise buildings were occupied mostly by young specialists from the north of Russia and provinces neighboring Ukraine.

The high salaries attracted people to move here with their entire families, says Kondratyuk, They were all offered excellent conditions: spacious apartments, room for professional growth, new schools for their children and stores and cafes.

Stepnohorsk could most likely contend for the world record in terms of the per capita number of electric heaters- around 4.
The kids, however, are used to the cold inside
Going from the ninth floor for water to a spring

One-way ticket

In the mid-1990s, all Stepnohorsk enterprises were shut down. Everybody here knows about the reasons why the government made such a decision, but nobody likes to recollect them. There is a similar deposit in the neighboring oblast, which was discovered much earlier than ours, the local residents told Weekly.ua. Our products were greatly competitive, which why we were shut down.

As a result, around 10 thousand people remained in the town without work or money hoping that everything was just a grave mistake. The experienced specialists who for decades were recruited from across the entire Soviet Union had to leave with their families to earn a living in neighboring big cities or abroad.

At the polling station, the temperature is 15 degrees Celsius above zero

Many of the people did not survive the test and drank themselves to death out of despair merely within a year. Others went to Portugal, Italy. Many our former residents work on construction sites and markets in Moscow, says the town resident Mykola Zavhorodniy, adding, Nobody came back.

By the turn of the century the provincial city had fallen into total decay. Apartments in the middle of the plains that nobody needed were selling for US $1,000-2,000, but the demand for them was nil.

A city turned town

Not all locals abandoned the city. Slightly more than 2,000 locals survived and kept hopes alive that the city would rise from its knees.

Those that did not leave the city in the 1990s eventually grew accustomed to unemployment. IN order to not give up their homes they ride to work on the route buses to Zaporizhzhya, work the earth at their summer cottage, explained Lyudmyla Kravchenko, Stepnohorsk resident.

Weekly.ua reporters saw neat and relatively new apartment buildings, cozy yards and it all reminded of a ordinary neighborhood in a large city with its school, kindergarten, stores and route buses. All playing grounds were neatly painted, swings and slides were repaired, and orchards and gardens looked well-groomed even in winter all over the town.

It seems that 80% of Stepnohorsk residents are elderly people

However, some abandoned buildings with gaping holes instead of their windows and walls taken apart still remained there.

Approximately 3,000 people live in the town at present. Since 2008 the population has increased mostly due to people who arrived from Zaporizhzhya, because of their desire to move from an expensive metropolis to its suburbs.

The prices grew immediately after the minimum demand on them was observed, said Kondratyuk. Now the record price is US $35,000 for a 3-room repaired apartment. On average studios or 1-room apartments are sold for US $5,000 6,000, two-room apartments for US $8,000 9,000, she added.

As a result the population increased to the extent when there were not enough places for kids in kindergartens. Life conditions for kids and grown-ups are completely unsuitable for civilized standards, though.

No heating, gas or water

Februarys freezing weather did not let us forget that it is winter outside and since we spent most of the time outside walking around, the desire to warm up somewhere was explainable. Only, it is impossible to warm yourself up in winter in Stepnohorsk. And this is because unemployment is not the only problem in Stepnohorsk.

In the 1980s gas lines have never been laid and in 2004 heating was cut off in many places as old boilers is broken beyond repair. On top of that, the equally outdated water main cannot support an uninterrupted supply of water. So, people have been heating their apartments with electric heaters (which we learned are incapable of heating panel buildings), preparing meals using gas cylinders for six years now and checking their watches every day to make sure they dont miss that moment when the local utility company turns on the water at 7 pm.

We see on the news how people are left without heating for a week, while we are freezing in our homes with frozen radiators since 2004 and nobody knows about us or wants to solve our problems, the head of the city tells us.

Children freezing at home and in kindergartens and schools have grown accustomed to such conditions as they have never known anything different since birth. They dress warmly for their classes as their teachers usually refrain from turning on the electric heaters during the day. In order to train kids in the basics of hygiene, special plastic containers are hung over sinks so they can wash their hands when there is no running water.

We spoiled big city slickers think it inconceivable that these gullible children can play, laugh and learn.

Maybe this time we will get a good one!, dreams an 80-year old voter from Stepnohorsk, just like all residents of Ukraine

UAH 1,000 for electricity

Heaters are even installed in 9-storey buildings in Stepnohorks so that the pipes dont freeze. Naturally, the electric wiring in these buildings cannot withstand the constant overload and often catches fire. Then within a very short period of time the wires simply wear out. So Stepnohorks faces frequent blackouts. Sometimes the electricity misses for several days and buildings turn into glaciers without water, electricity and gas.

Despite all this horror the residents of the town pay their utility payments monthly and moreover they pay huge sums of money regarding their standards of living and poor salaries. I have a two bedroom apartment and my monthly utility bills usually run into UAH 800, says Fedir Matskevych.

Repeated written claims to all possible local and national authorities to establish a special discount rate on electricity have not led to any positive changes, so the residents had nothing to do but to get used to this situation.

Water from the natural source

Water that in Stepnohorsk costs UAH 10.5 per cubic meter is transported with an old broken water supply, which in the early 80´s was built as a temporary, just for 5 years. Soon it would turn 30 years old, so its pipes resemble Swiss cheese.

As we were explained by Director of the Local Water Utility Administration Borys Bondarenko, he is forced to supply the water by the clock to somehow save the dying system. When the electricity is cut off and pumping stations stop supplying water to the taps people take buckets and plastic containers and stand in lines to the natural water source in the outskirts of the town. Descending down the icy hills people say a quiet word about the authorities of all levels.

"The town needs money to build a gas pipeline to get the heating and to repair water system, says the village council member Oleksiy Druzhko. However, we first need to re-launch local large enterprises. Then we would not expect mercy from the centre, but run their local economy independently, said Druzhko.

Against all odds, Stepnohorsk residents are waiting for
a miracle and believe that their town will raise from ashes
some day

Waiting for a miracle

Surprisingly, despite the cold and lack of basic living conditions, residents of Stepnohorsk do not despair.

"Despite the fact that everything is not as good, we do not give up and certainly not dying, said in the end Kondratyuk. People have adapted to such difficult conditions, so cold and damp could not take us, we simply got used to it. We try to keep our town clean, we plant trees and flowers. We invite all to visit us during the warm season, as city looks very nice and cozy then. There are nice shops, markets, small cafes in our small town, adds she.

By the way, thanks to these small businesses local treasury is filled with some money approximately UAH 500,000 a year. Another UAH 600,000 is transferred from the oblast administration. But in order to maintain at least the minimum order, we need about UAH 5 mn, so the town is waiting for a miracle and hope that investors will soon come to restore production and wind of change will blow over the city, while the town life will sparkle again.

But when leaving the town we saw just a tiny town freezing in windy February winds.

Oleksandr Nefyodov

head of Zaporizhzhya Oblast Council

There are ailing towns and villages in our and other oblasts, major enterprises were closed there a few years ago. We found investors for Stepnohorsk in 2008, though. However, the economic crisis gave the new owners no chance to open their manufacture. The crisis will come to its end, and hopefully, the investors will start their business, and many people will get their jobs back. For now we are doing our best trying to support such settlements and pulling the strings to finance them from the national and oblast budgets. It is also worth to remember it will take us 3-7 years to restore or construct enterprises, for this reason such large-scale problems are not a matter of a few days.

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