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A bridge crosses the Kama River near the train line to Perm
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The governor of Perm promised Putin he would replace an essential railroad with ‘urban space’ right before an election How Perm residents are fighting back against a deeply unpopular project

Source: Meduza
A bridge crosses the Kama River near the train line to Perm
A bridge crosses the Kama River near the train line to Perm
Ivan I. Karpovich / Photobank Lori

Maxim Reshetnikov, the regional governor of Perm Krai, promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would tear down a railroad in the region’s administrative center, also called Perm. Reshetnikov was up for election at the time. Putin approved the plan to install an “urban space” in the railroad’s current location, and information about the project appeared on the Kremlin’s website. However, local residents who rely on the railroad to move between the city's center and its outskirts have expressed their opposition to the plan. They have circulated petitions and organized protests in hopes of keeping the railroad in place. Yekaterina Makarova, a journalist with the local news source Zvezda (The Star), reports for Meduza on the ongoing conflict.

The railroad runs along the Kama River and is popular with locals who live in dachas or on the outskirts of town

When it was constructed in the late 19th century, the Gornozavodskaya Railroad was the first to reach the Urals. Now, it connects the Perm-1 and Perm-2 stations with the Ordzhonikidzevsky neighborhood on the edge of the city, major towns throughout the region, and cities like Nizhny Tagil and Yekaterinburg. Every day, 34 commuter trains pass through here along with a few larger passenger and freight trains. One branch of this railway that has run since 1898 along the Kama River on the border of the city of Perm serves as a primary route for residents of the city’s outskirts to reach its center. In the summer, these trains also give city dwellers an easy way to reach the KamGES beach, a popular vacation spot near town. People who live in dachas, or small country homes, often rely on commuter rail because buses frequently get caught up in the city’s traffic jams.

Several large industrial buildings line the railroad. The most notable are factories belonging to Motovilikha Plants that produce everything from military gear to gas extraction and mining equipment. Remputmash, a conglomerate that builds and repairs railroad cars, also has facilities near the tracks. The Kama River hugs a portion of Perm’s municipal border before leading the rail line into the city; from here, passengers can reach a variety of cultural institutions like the Theater of Opera and Ballet as well as the local history museum.

Perm’s new governor promised Vladimir Putin he would “develop an urban space” and destroy the railroad. The Russian president approved his plan.

On September 18, Maxim Reshetnikov was elected governor of Perm Krai. He had previously helped manage the region’s administration and finances before joining the federal government’s bureaucracy and working in Moscow’s municipal government. On September 8, ten days before the gubernatorial election, Vladimir Putin arrived in Perm on an official visit. Reshetnikov, who was then acting governor of the region, took a walk with Putin along the Kama River and used the opportunity to tell the president about his plans for a “massive reconstruction of this urban space.” Reshetnikov said that of the 70 kilometers (about 44 miles) of riverbank that lie within city borders, only two are fully developed. The rest of that space is home to factories and to the train track—and that, he argued, had to change.

On the very same day, an official message appeared on the Kremlin’s website. It stated, “In order to improve public services on the banks [of the Kama River] and contribute to the 2023 celebration of Perm’s 300th anniversary, [local] authorities have proposed the destruction of a rail line, which would allow for the construction of a new urban space here. Freight traffic will be rerouted to a parallel line across the river. A streetcar will be constructed in the newly opened space.”

Officials had been planning to tear down the railroad for seven years. They initially decided to remove the stretch that runs from Perm-1 to Perm-2 and later decided to deconstruct the line all the way to the Motovilikha station. In its place, authorities hoped to build a detour for commuters as well as new buildings for the Theater of Opera and Ballet and the Perm Art Gallery. The historic buildings that currently house a riverside train station and the Perm-1 station were to be repurposed for a new iteration of the multi-city “Russia—My History” exhibit engineered by Episcope Egorevsky Tikhon, a close friend of Putin’s in the Russian Orthodox Church.

The railroad was supposed to go out of use on December 1, 2018. However, the closure did not occur: the idea of a “massive reconstruction of this urban space” met with fierce opposition.

City residents began protesting and writing letters in opposition to the project. Scholars warned local authorities that removing the rail line could be dangerous.

Perm residents protest the proposed closing of a local rail line. Their sign reads, “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN UNNECESSARY ROAD.” November 6, 2018
Anastasia Yakovleva / URA.RU / TASS

In March 2018, a petition appeared on Change.org demanding that the railroad be preserved and Reshetnikov be fired. The petition states, “It looks like the only people who weren’t consulted about this were the residents of Perm and of Perm Krai. Nobody considered the losses our manufacturing industry would face […] Nobody thought about how people from the outer neighborhoods of Perm would get to their workplaces and back […] To this day, nobody even knows how many billions of rubles this fantasy of the governor’s would cost.” More than 20,000 people have signed the petition.

On November 6, 2018, local activists organized a protest in support of keeping the railroad in place. Among them were members of Alexey Navalny’s staff, ecologists, advocates for historic preservation, and members of various political and social groups from the area. “It’s no disaster that the residents of an entire neighborhood will soon be unable to get to work and school on time,” one of the protest’s organizers, Lyudmila Yoltysheva, said sarcastically. Yoltysheva, the chair of an organization called For the Rights of Perm Krai’s Large Families, added, “It’s obvious that this project will bring profits that are disproportionately larger than its losses. After all, an entire chunk of land will be available for elite housing complexes, not just any development!”

On November 14, the faculty of Perm State University published an open letter addressed to federal and regional authorities and requested that trains be allowed to continue running along the river. The researchers argued that if the railroad were to be destroyed, the riverbank would be prone to landslides while “city residents would be brought to a standstill in traffic jams.”

Residents of the Ordzhonikidzevsky neighborhood said they believe the railroad is being removed so that those who live in the central neighborhoods, Leninsky and Sverdlovsky, “will have a great time strolling along a beautiful riverbank” while they will be “tossed around on old buses and shuttles.” Meanwhile, residents of the nearby villages Tupitsa, Zaozerye, and Glushata spoke out against the construction of a new detour because it would potentially cross through their properties.

Local factories made heavy use of the railroad. So far, they have no idea what they would do without it.

In November 2017, regional authorities purchased the territory that currently houses the Remputmash factory with the intention of incorporating it into the city’s cluster of cultural institutions. The factory’s workers wrote a collective letter to Putin asking for their workplace and the nearby rail line to be left alone and recorded themselves reading the letter aloud. The factory’s leadership had told workers that they would remain in their positions through the end of 2018 but that a portion of their jobs would be transferred in 2019 to Vereshchagino, which is located 130 kilometers from Perm. The rest would be scattered in factories throughout Russia in locations such as Kaluga, over 1,500 kilometers away. The factory’s board of directors declined Meduza’s request for comment on the current state of manufacturing there.

An announcement issued by Motovilikha Plants indicated that the company supports the city’s urban development project but that “the majority of Motovilikha Plants’ production is transported by rail. For approximately two thirds of our military products, that is the only possible mode of transportation. Therefore, any project that impacts local railroads is potentially opposed to our interests.”

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A new bus route between the Perm-1 and Perm-2 stations became active on December 2, 2018. City officials intended for passengers to take a commuter train from the outskirts of Perm to Perm-1 and transfer to the bus there in order to reach the city center. The very first bus to take the route never made it to its final stop because traffic had reached emergency levels in the city. Passengers were forced to walk between their penultimate stop and Perm-1 on foot. On the same day, local authorities ordered the bus to continue to the end of its route. The city’s administration did not respond to Meduza’s questions about the safety concerns surrounding that command.

Russia’s federal railroad agency announced in early December that “structural problems” had been found between the two main city stations that would “interfere with the course of their deconstruction.” Vladimir Chepets, the head of the agency, said removing the rails in that area would become possible no sooner than October 2019 and that the timeline for removing the rest of the railroad is entirely unknown. Perm Krai’s Transportation Ministry has continued to insist that the regions marked for reconstruction will “fit harmoniously into the creation and development of a cultural space in Perm City along the banks of the Kama River.”

Yekaterina Makarova, Perm

Translation by Hilah Kohen