A sinking city: the case of Berezniki in Russia

Olga Suslova

By Olga Suslova, on June 30th, 2019

> Read Olga Suslova's articles

Have you already seen the pictures Berezniki (RU), being swallowed by the sinkholes? If you have not, here they are in the following post.

Sinking city

How come Berezniki is literally being swallowed by sinkholes? To answer this question, we have to take a quick look at the history of the city. Berezniki was formed out of several villages in 1932 in order to sustain the industry of salt extraction. Part of one of the biggest potash deposits in the world, today the four mines of Berezniki are both the life and death of the city. The company ‘Uralkaliy’ that owns them is employing 15% of 145 000 Berezniki citizens today, but also destroying some of their houses.

The first sinkhole appeared in 1986, but didn’t impact the city due to its remote location. Twenty years later, however, another sinkhole appeared in the city itself. The solution was to flood the mine, but it only worsened the situation because the salt (as we all remember from chemistry classes!) dissolves really well in water. To date there are 10 sinkholes in total, forcing people living nearby to move away.

Not everyone is so pessimistic about the situation though. “The whole city lives close to the sinkholes. If the new one comes right at my door, then I will be really scared. Not now though, the closest sinkhole is 400 meters away”, says local, Oleg Pashkov, in an interview to ‘Meduza’.

Shrinking city(ies)

Apart from the sinking problem, Berezniki has to deal with its population loss too. The whole life of the city is organised around its resource extraction, making the foreseeable future unstable in the post-industrial era. For the last 30 years, Berezniki has lost 50 000 people, and is continuing to do so making it one of the “Russian shrinking cities”, representing a striking 70% of all Russian cities. Besides, Berezniki is located in Permskiy kray, one of the regions in Russia with the biggest fraction of single-industry towns in decline. Such cities, called in Russian ‘mono cities’, are facing even bigger challenges.

One third of officially named 319 mono cities is in a critical state, where the industry is closing down, leaving the population with high rates of unemployment.

Approximately 14 million Russians live in single-industry cities, though little makes them want to stay, especially the youth. In order to diversify economic activities, the government introduced a tax deduction scheme in 2014 for companies to relocate to mono cities and create new jobs. However, the program proved to be inefficient: the number of single-industry towns has actually increased by 2019. This is why the authorities are launching a new funding program this year to replace the old one. Whether the EUR 800 million invested will actually help or not, time will tell, but one thing can be said for certain: the question of shrinking cities is even more crucial in modern Russia than in Europe.

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