The Economics of Rust: Building a Silk Road of Soviet Industrial Heritage

The German city of Essen, representing the wider Ruhrgebiet region, is one of Europe’s capitals of culture in 2010. The EU-sanctioned designation is enabling Germany to showcase the social and economic transformation of an area that just a few decades ago threatened to become a Rust Belt. Essen’s experience could have practical lessons for some of the former Soviet Union’s down-and-out industrial centers.

Twenty years ago, the Ruhrgebiet – a string of industrial cities situated along the Ruhr River, constituting one of Europe’s most urbanized areas -- was known for its desolate factories, and was synonymous with economic dislocation brought on by the decline of industrial production. Since that time, the area has reinvented itself as a core part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage, a route that includes dozens of factories, buildings and other curios. It now draws hordes of tourists, not only Germans. For example, Zollverein, a former coal mine in Essen, draws a million visitors a year and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Soviet parallels with Germany are there and should be shamelessly copied. From an industrial point of view, any country around the world would be hard-pressed to compete with the scale and thoroughness of the Soviet industrial heritage. Former submarine bases in Ukraine and the Russian north, Azerbaijan’s Oily Rocks and Sumgait, Uzbekistan’s former fishing center in Karakalpakstan and Kazakhstan’s nuclear proving ground at Semey are just a few examples that could qualify as industrial sites that are ripe for a face-lift.
A Silk Road of Soviet Industrial Heritage could breathe life into some regions. With the majority of foreign tourists visiting only capitals or select larger cities, an industrial tourist trail would be an innovative way to broaden the distribution of visitor spending.

Many tourists taking the Trans-Siberian Railway, for example, stop only in two cities between Moscow and Beijing. It’s amazing that the average tourist accepts up to three days straight in a train, with a very limited opportunity to penetrate the Russia that they’ve come to see, apart from babushki selling pickles on rail platforms during twenty-minute stops. If some of the industrial cities along the route – including Perm, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Krasnoyarsk -- were to offer industrial sites and museums that cater to non-Russian speakers, and couple it with good marketing, then hotels, restaurants and others tourist-related services would follow, providing a big boost to local economies.

An industrial heritage route in the former Soviet Union would be one way of promoting economic diversification, especially in countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that now depend heavily on energy exports.

Uzbekistan’s region of Karakalpakstan is already taking steps to turn industrial blight into a benefit. One of the Soviet Union’s largest canneries was located in Moynaq on the Aral Sea’s former shoreline, built to serve the once-thriving fishing industry. Now desolate, nearly uninhabitable and located far from the sea’s fast receding shoreline, Moynaq is a very moving and surreal testament to Soviet policies gone wrong. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].

Karakalpakstan has started to market Moynaq, along with the wider Aral Sea disaster zone, to hardy eco-tourists, who, despite having seen the pictures of boats in the desert, want to experience it firsthand. While maybe not for the mainstream traveler, Moynaq has started to attract a following among a certain segment of cultural tourists. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was one such visitor in early 2010. Coupling the Aral Sea’s legacy with the nearby ruins of the ancient civilization of Khorezm and the Nukus Art Museum -- home of the Savitsky Collection of avant-garde art – is helping Karakalpakstan establish itself as a destination for the rough-and-ready type of tourist.

Assembling a Silk Road of Soviet Industrial Heritage will involve a lot more than just the preservation of old industrial sites. In some cases, environmental issues need to be addressed. More broadly, infrastructure improvements need to be made. To do this, government officials at the national and local levels will have to work with local activists and entrepreneurs to create a small number of sites that can appeal to a wide variety of visitor interests. It’s a tall order. But cooperation could pay big dividends for some hard-pressed cities in the former Soviet Union.

Richard R. Dion has been working with Karakalpakstan on realizing its industrial heritage potential.

The Economics of Rust: Building a Silk Road of Soviet Industrial Heritage

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