29.01.2022

Life at the bottom of a coal basin. How mining towns die in Russia

Dozens of mines were closed, but people who lived in coal mining remained in the region. Today, not only is it difficult for the Ukrainian Donbass , where the war is going on, for ours it is not much easier. The mines of the Eastern Donbass have been closed for the past thirty years, leaving behind the ruins of enterprises and residential buildings.

People flee or are interrupted by shifts and occasional part-time jobs – along with the coal industry, jobs from the once rich mining monotowns are also disappearing.

Correspondent 161.RU Grigory Ermakov went to the north-west of the Rostov region to find out if there are those who are still waiting for the billions promised by Prime Minister Mishustin to save the coal territories.

Myths of Eastern Donbass

Shining Helios rushes across the sky in a chariot, in its rays – the team of the legendary “Argo” departs. Hercules fights with the Nemean lion, and Oedipus – over the riddle of the Sphinx. Athletes are trying to twist each other, an orgy is moving past them – some are still in a merry run, some are already crawling.

Nowadays, an uneven drawing of the male genital organ is laid on a mosaic from ancient Greek mythology. Along with it are primitive tags of “street artists”, insults and advertising of banned telegram channels. This is how the wall of an abandoned pool at the mine of the 50th anniversary of October in Gukovo looks like today.

On broken glass, chipped bricks and the remains of parquet flooring, skirting around empty bottles, crumpled packs of cigarettes, we make our way through the sports complex. Once here, miners were engaged in the prevention of occupational diseases like anthracosis – this is when coal dust clogs the lungs. Now the local walls are like a growing up novel about a Gukovchanin in three volumes, floors.

“Life is a huge ship, and you are thrown overboard.

And you will hardly be saved. “

“Ira, I’m scared, because it won’t be good.

It doesn’t matter that I was thrown twice in a year. “

“Hell is Earth.”

The hall on the third floor is the peak of doom. Inside there is almost no debris and graffiti, the dusty floor is dissected by stripes from the wheels of scooters. There is even a makeshift springboard leading directly into the open window.

At the entrance we meet a couple of teenagers. They say that young people often gather here – there is nowhere else to go to Gukovo. I ask one if he plans to stay in his hometown when he grows up. The guy answers with a riddle, worse than a sphinx:

– What for?

The residents of the city probably had similar questions when the mines began to close. And it’s not just about miners – the coal industry that developed under the USSR attracted builders, engineers and geologists, repairmen, and railroad workers.

But now the mines are closed and the infrastructure is abandoned. Those who could have left. The rest survive and complain about the same things as residents of other monotowns: a growing communal apartment, stupid improvement, lack of work and meager wages. But if you’re lucky, on the uncrowded streets of winter Gukovo you will meet a former miner (most often a man over forty) who will tell stories that sound no more believable than the myths of Hellas.

– There were such salaries that Rostovites were jealous.

– The mine administration allocated money, and at the expense of them housing was built for young families. People poured here in droves.

– The city was the greenest in the Rostov region. Yes, it was not a city – a real anthill.

So they talked about other mining towns in the Eastern Donbass: Shakhty, Novoshakhtinsk, Kamensk-Shakhtinsky and Donetsk. Now they are more silent everywhere.

Crippled city

The Donetsk Basin (aka Donbass) remains the largest coal deposit in Europe. The territory of more than 60 thousand square kilometers stretches from the western border of the Donetsk region of Ukraine to the mouth of the Seversky Donets, next to the village of Ust-Bystryanskaya. On the territory of the Rostov region lies about a third of the coal basin – this is the Eastern Donbass.

The first deposits were discovered here in 1721, and only two years later they began development – in the current Ukrainian Artyomovsk. On the territory of the Rostov region, the Grushevsky deposits (Shakhtinsky) became the flagship of production. By the middle of the 19th century, about 80 mines operated on the Don.

The real intoxication from the success of coal mining fell on the 30s of the XX century and the post-war decade. By the end of the century, more than 30 million tons were mined annually in the Rostov region, but restructuring began in the 90s, followed by the crisis of the coal industry in the 2000s. The industry was finished off by the war in eastern Ukraine – it became impossible to export coal directly through it. Then there was a severe hangover.

The disintegration of an entire industry is involuntarily illustrated by a stand at the entrance to the mine of the 50th anniversary of October. The significant dates fixed on it from 1967 to 2003 are still distinguishable, but everything that follows has already been eaten up by time.

Now there are only five mines left in the Eastern Donbass. One is in Gukovo. There used to be five more coal mining enterprises in the city, but all have closed. The microdistricts that have grown up around the factories are still standing. The underground works negatively affected the residential buildings – they had to be wrapped in order to avoid collapse. But that was not enough either. Many damaged houses are abandoned, others have already turned into ruins.

– And this is our old water tower, – the taxi driver Alexander points out the window of the car. – I was small, they told me that here, in Gukovo, people often killed themselves. They climbed up the stairs and [killed themselves]. The stairs were cut. And on its remnants all the same [they continued to kill themselves]. Recently, a store was opened under it, called “Mayak”.

Alexander is 25 years old. He admits that he would have left Gukovo for Krasnodar long ago, but he cannot: loans, family, child. Speaking of mines, he jokes: “When five mines were closed, people left to work in taxis. So now we have five taxi companies in the whole city, not counting Yandex. “

We drive through the center of Gukovo – this is a microdistrict, remote from the rest of the city by four kilometers of road through the Mars farm. On the main streets, the eye catches on a panel at the Palace of Culture – miners greet guests. On the side of a residential building facing the street, there is a worker with a jackhammer. On the way to the only active mine in the city, you are no longer surprised when you see the statues of miners along the road.

The paint peeled off on the statues that had been repainted three times. Dirty bus stops are covered with advertising brochures. Under the painted houses there are dug up streets. With the loss of the mines, this city seemed to cease to be necessary for itself – as if Rostov had lost the Don, and Taganrog had lost the Sea of ​​Azov.

Chronicle of decay

In the Soviet years, there were two trusts: Gukovugol, which included the northern mines of the Eastern Donbass (near the cities of Gukovo, Donetsk, Zverevo), and Rostovugol (Shakhty and Novoshakhtinsk). In the late 1980s, miners were not ready to move to a market economy. As the author of the article “Main directions of restructuring of the mining industry in the Donetsk coal basin” notes, this was prevented by a technical backwardness, a lack of economic and marketing structures and pressure from the “center”.

The shift to cost accounting was also opposed by the miners themselves, who staged massive strikes in 1989 – they were against low coal production rates. The miners demanded to provide their families with apartments, bring groceries to the shops and observe the work schedule. The requirements were not met and production dropped significantly from 1989 to 1990.

Already in 1992, Rostovugol and Gukovugol became joint stock companies. In 1994, restructuring began – old and small mines went under the ladle. Large and relatively young people continued to work.

New players have appeared on the market. In 1995 Donugol was founded with plans to create new mines. The company launched Sherlovskaya-Naklonnaya only in 2007, and the mine will survive until 2021. The plans, announced back in the nineties, include the construction of the Kadamovskaya and Obukhovskaya No. 1 mines.

Rostovugol will lose mines throughout the 90s, until it self-destructs in March 2002. The seven remaining mines will be leased to the Russian Coal company, but after the accident at the Zapadnaya-Kapitalnaya mine, they will also be closed. The remaining mines will be bought up, and only Sadkinskaya will survive until 2021.

Abroad (will not) help

The spontaneous parking lot sprinkled with snow is filled with budget cars with license plates of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The territory is fenced off with a roughly hammered fence, behind the ajar door of the street toilet – a fetid darkness.

We are standing in front of an almost emergency two-story house. On many windows the film has not yet been torn off, in other openings there are wooden frames with polyethylene instead of glass. The walls are decorated with self-made antennae from beer cans, on the windowsills – pots and bags with food.

This is a hostel for shift workers from the LPR and DPR, working at the only operating mine in Gukovo – “Rostovskaya”. At the entrance to the hostel we meet a short man in a sweatshirt and slippers, he smokes. Around his eyes, thin black lines are traces of work in the face.

“I used to work in mines in the LPR,” the man says. – This is my fourth watch here. Housing as a whole suits, there is no need to pay – only a communal apartment. It’s no longer possible to talk about the industry in the LPR – there are only private incisions left, I don’t want to work.

They do not give a walk around the entire hostel – they ask permission from the director. Men with short-cropped heads wander the dimly lit corridors of the building. The commandant tells us that the workers are calm and not rowdy – she, the only woman in the building, never had any problems with them.

At the entrance there are two advertisements with a “strictly obligatory” requirement for all foreign citizens to inform them of their arrival and departure on duty – and to hand over a copy of their passport. Housing, as it turned out, is not free – 78 rubles per day.

In the yard we meet a thin middle-aged man, his eyes are also decorated with black miner’s marks. In his calloused left hand, he holds two cans of beer at once, while his right hand is actively gesturing.

– I’ve been working here for a year. We ride on shifts for 15 days. We are generally paid, but sometimes they make a fool of the layer. You work out a meter, and you should get 2000 for it. And at the close of the [shift] you see that they write 0.79. And you get 1200, – the miner grins.

The man left a family near Luhansk. The daughter and wife have already received Russian citizenship, the miner himself also plans to move to Russia. But so far finances do not allow. Speaking about what is happening with the coal industry in the Western Donbass, he grins:

– Yes, there is also a fool. It’s all [cheating] everywhere. Everywhere there is one militia.

Visitors from the Luhansk region are sure that most of the workers at the Rostovskoy mine are also Ukrainians. And if locals do work, they get positions in the middle management.

– I’m an underground miner. The average salary in Gukovo is 10-15 thousand. Here, on “Rostovskaya”, – says Vladimir from Gukov, pointing behind his back. – The salary starts from 25 thousand. Two brothers, a mother – my whole family worked in the mines. I don’t understand why they were closed.

Volodymyr agrees that most of the miners are definitely newcomers from Ukraine. The situation is similar with mine owners.

Across the street from the hostel is an abandoned mine canteen. From there, a red-haired mongrel is looking through the broken window, behind it is a broken tile. A little further away – a Soviet-era stop, decorated with a panel depicting a miner: in his right hand – flowers, in his left – coal, behind his back rises a waste heap.

Chess player, boxer, senator and Ukrainian billionaire

Three out of five operating mines in the Rostov region are fully or partially in the hands of Ukrainian owners. Dalniy and Obukhovskaya are owned by DTEK, while the Rostovskaya mine in Gukovo is owned by E.CONNECT. It is a trading company with offices in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Cyprus, Ukraine, Germany and Russia. It is engaged in the production of heat and electricity, personnel leasing. The E.CONNECT group includes the Ukrainian company Kramatorskteploenergo, the Rostovskaya and Zamchalovskaya mines.

The first guard, whom we meet on the territory of the closed mine “Zamchalovskaya”, lets us through without question. While we are talking, the man complains about the frost: there is no heating inside the empty administrative building, we have to heat the wood-burning stove in the old fashioned way.

Suddenly, a black BMW X5 appears from around the corner. The car stops, a man in camouflage comes out, who also introduces himself as a guard and asks to leave the facility. Leaving the territory of “Zamchalovskaya”, we see how both security guards load the dead wood collected in a forest belt into the trunk of a German SUV.

According to data from EGYURL, E. CONNECT, the Russian branch of an international company, is owned by half of E.CONNECT and half of the non-profit organization “Center for Boxing Progress” by Umar Kremlev, president of the International Boxing Association.

Two mines of the Ukrainian company DTEK, acquired through the established company Donskoy Anthracite, are located not far from Zverevo. Dalnyaya and Obukhovskaya were bought out in 2012, now they are the assets of the Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov.

The other two remaining mines are also not fully owned by Russian owners. South Coal Company manages the operating Sadkinskaya, builds Sadkinskaya-Vostochnaya and prepares the Sadkinskaya-Severnaya project. 68% of the company included in the “Governor’s Hundred Investment Projects” is owned by four companies registered in Cyprus. The rest is shared by the Tuloma investment company of the Russian billionaire and the president of the Russian Chess Federation, Andrey Filatov.

The last operating mine in Eastern Donbass, Sherlovskaya-Naklonnaya, belongs to Donugol. The company also owns the unfinished mine Obukhovskaya No. 1. Donugol is also included in the Governor’s Hundred. The company is 95% owned by a British Virgin Islands company – Shaxten Assets Ltd. The previous owner of the coal mining company is ex-senator from Ingushetia Akhmet Palankoev. On the company’s website, he is also listed as the owner.

Face rescue plan

The rescue of the coal industry in Russia was again talked about in February 2020, with the arrival of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. It was decided to raise coal from its knees – from the Far East to the Rostov Region – by 2035 and for 6 trillion rubles. The goal is to increase exports, develop railway infrastructure, and improve life in mining towns.

Projects for the Rostov region were estimated at 56.9 billion rubles, including borrowed and own funds of the owner companies. The money will go towards the completion of the construction of Obukhovskaya No. 1, owned by Donugol, the construction of Sadkinskaya-Vostochnaya and Sadkinskaya-Severnaya, which are part of Yuzhugol, and the construction of Bystryanskaya No. 1–2.

Now the latter is owned by the Regional Development Corporation, controlled by the Ministry of Construction of the Rostov Region. The unfinished building used to belong to the Rostov Coal Company, which was part of the Ukrainian Zaporizhstal

The ruins of the obsolete coal industry are planned to be liquidated within the framework of the program. Almaznaya and Gukovskaya will be demolished. We visited the territory of these mines – now both are not even fenced off.

In addition, the authorities promise to invest in “the development and support of employment in mining towns.” In 2020 alone, the federal budget spent 682 million rubles on Donetsk, Shakhty, Gukovo, Novoshakhtinsk and regions of the region. As explained in the administration of one of the cities, the money goes primarily to resettlement of emergency houses affected by coal mining. The ruins are not dismantled.

Such ruins are easy to find in the eastern part of Gukovo and the Novaya Sokolovka area in Novoshakhtinsk.

– We have a center for issuing Russian passports for Ukrainians nearby. They come to us and ask: “What is this, and did the bombs reach you?” I’m even ashamed somehow, ”says a resident of Novaya Sokolovka.

The volume of infusions into the cities of Eastern Donbass promises to grow – by 2023 at least 794 million rubles will be invested. According to the senator from the Rostov region Irina Rukavishnikova, more than three quarters of all future budget allocations of the Russian Federation to support depressed mining cities will go to the Rostov region.

This is not the first attempt to save Eastern Donbass. In January 2016, the “Gukovo” advanced development area appeared. The program was created to attract investments to the monotown and create jobs. Investors were promised preferences – reduced insurance premiums, property tax and a complete zeroing of the mineral extraction tax. After 5 years, neither the streets nor the wallets of Gukovo residents noticed any positive changes.

Cities without meaning

– Do you know how these programs are made? – says one of the former leaders of the coal enterprise to me. – I did it myself. You make one real, for yourself, and there you know that there will be [nothing]. Another for the leader. And the third – to the very top. When we calculated how much money it would take to launch the first longwall in one mine, which was not flooded at that time, the total amount was 7 billion. And now for a flooded, cut-off – this is already twice as much. Well, who needs it here, in Gukovo?

Another senior miners interviewee believes that the opening of new mines in the east of the region will really help both the region and the dying cities.

– Even now, people travel from Gukovo to the Sadkinskaya mine (about 120 kilometers, two hours away. – Ed. Note) to work. It’s hard to drive such a distance every day. And who is in the leadership, who is delayed – for them it is no different from the watch. But these are salaries of 70-80 thousand rubles. For cities where the average salary is 10-15 thousand, this is completely different money. Although these workers deserve more, he is sure.

The former head of one of the enterprises agrees that the salaries at the operating mines are worthwhile. And driving a couple of hours to work is not the worst option. Other miners have to travel much further – for example, to Mosmetrostroy.

Snow-covered waste heaps rise above Novoshakhtinsk, once the capital of the regional coal industry. This city began to lose mines earlier than Gukovo. One after another, they began to close after major accidents in 1999, 2001 and 2002. The latest was the accident at Zapadnaya-Kapitalnaya – 46 miners were trapped underground. Rescuers managed to save almost everyone: one was missing, the other was killed.

“Three factors do not add up: infrastructure, people, and, finally, money,” said Gennady, a former miner at Zapadnaya-Kapitalnaya. – It is they who influence the fact that it will be difficult to return coal mining to the region. There are few people who remember what it is like to work in the face. Infrastructure – railways, repair facilities – disappeared. And launching mines that have been idle for a long time is too expensive.

Gennady’s son Anton agrees to escort us to Zapadnaya. On the way, we meet the same stops decorated with miners’ stories, bearing the names of long-closed enterprises, as in Gukovo. Looking at these artifacts from the past, you realize that the city has lost more than just jobs and infrastructure.

There is a barrier on the road to the mine. But it is not the land that is guarded, but the Vagondormash plant that has grown nearby. The security guard lets us in without question: he himself once worked for Zapadnaya and quit shortly before the accident. He says that if he had stayed at his post, he would have had to go underground exactly on the shift that was during the flooding.

There was nothing left of “Zapadnaya-Kapitalnaya” except a waste heap in the heart of the city. Construction debris is scattered on the grassy, ​​bumpy ground.

– It hurts to see it, – says Anton. – You know that all this once was, once worked. And the mines gave meaning to life for so many people. Now its inhabitants have lost this meaning.

Showing the ruins of the Lenin mine, Anton draws our attention to the empty pedestal in front of the entrance to the administrative building. The leader of all working people once stood there. Where has gone now is unknown. Perhaps he left the city along with thousands of former miners.

Anton, 27, works remotely. He does not plan to leave Novoshakhtinsk.

Instead of a postscript

Despite the deplorable situation in mining cities, two coal mining enterprises were included in the top 50 most profitable companies in the Rostov region at the end of 2019. The Sadkinskaya mine, owned by the Southern Coal Company, is in 5th place. The company’s net profit is 2.8 billion rubles. Its largest owners – through offshore companies from Cyprus – could receive up to 1.9 billion rubles in dividends. Obukhovskaya earned 397 million and took 38th place. It is wholly owned by the Ukrainian billionaire Akhmetov’s DTEK.

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