The smokey mountain city rising

The smokey mountain city rising
/ James C. Pearce
By James C. Pearce November 4, 2021

Friends was a low-cost diner at Grinvich shopping mall right in the centre of Yekaterinburg. Most days throughout its 13 years in business, it was packed full of customers.

And then the pandemic hit.

With rapid competition growing and no guests, Friends was running huge financial losses. The mall’s rent increases were the last straw. Friends went bankrupt without the owner paying his employees their final salary.

The owner claimed all employees were released in accordance with their labour contracts, but Friends’ closure was a shock to the city’s residents. No sooner did it close in early October, than a picket line formed. It was one of a small handful of popular restaurants to close in 2021. In part sped up by the pandemic, Yekaterinburg’s service industries and city culture have been changing fast for some time now.

After 2017, Yekaterinburg’s development as a venue for international and Russian events continued. Local diplomatic missions and foreign businesses actively supported these efforts only increasing the city’s visibility, business contacts and tourism.

The central streets are lined with upscale bars and restaurants that rival Moscow. At the other end of Vaynera Street — the Arbat of Yekaterinburg — is another luxury mall, Passazh, with high-end local supermarket chain giperbola. All around 1905 square, which Passazh looks out onto, locals frequent the many cocktail bars conveniently located next to the popular regional food chain, Pizza Mia.

A little further up is the business district, where Russia’s only equivalent of a presidential library, the Yeltsin Centre, sits. Like any European business district full of skyscrapers and glass buildings, it’s also full of young people attending theatres, museum and gallery exhibitions, conferences, forums, cafes and asking bank consultants about investment plans.

Contrast this to a northern city district where old factories deteriorate among the grey, seemingly lifeless, residential buildings. Few people walk the streets here even though new housing developments are under construction. Once thriving in the Soviet era, today its production has practically gone, leaving behind a water tower that sometimes features on postcards.  

Yekaterinburg is Russia’s fourth largest city with a population of 1.5mn, including its surrounding urban areas. The population has grown steadily since 2003, and in the past five years its growth defied UN projections, which anticipated small declines. The streets are full of graffiti that touch on social and political topics, causing some to dub Yekaterinburg the ‘street art’ capital of Russia.

A monument depicting the Europe-Asia borderline sits just outside the city limits as an inconvenient stopgap for tourists and wedding parties looking for Instagram photos. It also represents the key to the city’s success as an important hub between the two continents, sitting on a strong economic foundation. Finance, transportation and logistics, warehousing and retail trade all came to fill the void left by Yekaterinburg’s disappearing industry specialisations following the Soviet collapse.

Nowadays approximately 78 trains pass through a city with more than 100 banks every hour. Many more truckers coming from all corners of the Russian Federation and beyond travel by via six federal highways. Sverdlovskaya Oblast is one of Russia’s leaders in mineral extraction and non-ferrous metallurgy remains a growth sector for the city, as does food production, responding to increased demands for domestically produced foodstuffs. 

Climate change challenges ahead

An interesting few years lay ahead for Yekaterinburg. In 2023, it will host the World University Games and unveil a time capsule buried under a manhole cover next to the river Iset’. Both are certain to increase tourism and media exposure and engage its residents, yet so too are the challenges of climate change. Ash and smoke linger in the city air as local forest fires rage on. The day Friends employees turned up for their final shift, some of the city’s roads and schools had to be shut due to poor visibility and air quality. Planes were also diverted to Tyumen, simply unable to land.

Forest fires in the Urals often start in peat bogs, which can burn even in the cold winters. But peat fires this late in the year makes their duration in 2021 one of the longest in recorded history (the first broke out in late April).

In many respects, Yekaterinburg is just like any other big Russian city. New districts with modern flats and school buildings paid for by local banks, like the Sinara Group, are popping up all the time. Residents are piling into Moi Dokumenty for their QR codes complaining about gosuslugi’s user-friendliness. Parents are extremely wary of potential school closures. On our way into the city, we also passed The Mask of Sorrow memorial site to victims of the Great Terror, as the annual reading of the names took place.

However, one can’t help but notice just how many young people are out and about. About 5,000 took to the streets earlier this year over the arrest of Aleksei Navalny — one of the highest turnouts in Russia. For Russia’s young now opting for physical mobility to get ahead, Yekaterinburg offers good paying jobs and a lifestyle akin to Moscow — only cheaper and smaller. Pretty much all of Russia’s largest companies and banks have a second or third head office here, some even moved their main headquarters here, taking advantage of cheaper office spaces. In 2019, it had quite a high global start-up rate, too, mostly in trade and services. Being the third largest Russian city by diplomatic representation aids and abets this.

Yet, the fact it isn’t Moscow comes as something of a double-edged sword. Whilst accommodation, food and travel costs are about a third that of Moscow the average salary is still much lower (around RUB40,000 a month). Adding to those woes is the fact that Yekaterinburg’s streets and ecology are notoriously bad. Even with so much going on, city walks and driving commutes aren’t the most pleasant of any Russian city. As one resident put it, the roads look like dirty rivers. 

Overwhelmed by COVID-19

Like Russia’s other big cities, Yekaterinburg was also unable to escape the pandemic unscathed. Last summer its hospitals became completely overwhelmed. Ambulances were unable to keep up with the demand, often queuing outside hospitals for hours. Patients had to find their own beds, and some stayed in corridors for eight days at a time. Part of that may have been the late surge of infections in Russia’s regions, but Sverdlovskaya Oblast did ease its restrictions earlier than most. COVID-19 cases skyrocketed more or less immediately, taking the life of a prominent local politician.

Businesses are taking another hard hit from the introduction of QR codes. In the relatively new Akademicheskiy district, a waiter at a burger restaurant tells me it’s been dead all week. As it turned out, I was their only customer all afternoon. The gym next door was empty at peak time, yet people were literally queueing on the streets to enter the local mall.

None of the drawbacks seem to be deterring tourists, however, who continue flocking to the Urals. In 2017, just before the World Cup, foreign tourism increased by 57%, resulting in a 14.6% increase in tourism overall. Although much of that was business tourism, a series of new tours have been created in the last five years from geological nature walks around the Ural region to a Victory Tour, celebrating the region’s role in the Great Patriotic War. COVID-19 notwithstanding, the upward tick has continued. 

Progress is being made and bigger things, it seems, lie ahead for Yekaterinburg. People and companies alike are taking note, but climate change threatens to derail its ascent — quite literally, as the extreme summer heats can bend untended rail tracks. If the Kremlin finally gets serious about tackling climate change and improving the nation’s ecology, Yekaterinburg will only benefit. Geographically, the city is ideally positioned to help lead this change and is in desperate need of it.

On that note, it’s worth remembering that Yekaterinburg, the site of the Romanovs’ murders and the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin, has a way of coming into the limelight of Russian history. It would be wise for spectators to keep an eye on the Urals.