New East Digital Archive

Abandoned Kemerovo: tracing the 20th century in Siberia

21 December 2021
Introduction: Katie Marie Davies

The Russian region of Kemerovo in south-west Siberia was once part of the Soviet Union’s beating industrial heartlands. Over the past three decades, economic decline has seen many of the area’s great factories and plants — some the size of small villages — fall into disrepair and disarray. As employment dwindled, the region’s population and finances also found themselves in free fall before many of Kemerovo’s cultural centres and outposts were eventually abandoned too.

Kemerovo photographer Alexander Nikolsky has captured these former industrial sites, many of which still bear the damage of fossil fuel extraction. For the most part, these industrial sites remain monitored under lock and key — a remnant of their past strategic importance. But seen together through Nikolsky’s lens, they also tell a new story, following the fate and fortunes of Siberia throughout the 20th century.

Progress Factory

Rocket test site and proving ground

The Progress Factory opened in Kemerovo in 1939. During the war, it produced powder for the Soviet Union’s famous Katyusha rocket launchers before moving on to rocket engine assembly in the 1960s. Along with the Kommunar Factory, Progress is just one part of Kemerovo’s military-industrial zone, an area which takes up almost as much space as the whole residential town itself. Production of military equipment stopped in the 1990s, but the area remains under strict supervision. Today, several workshops inside the complex are rented out by entrepreneurs, but local people say that many of the buildings are being dismantled for brick and metal scrap.

Kommunar Complex

Explosives and acid production site

The Kommunar factory was opened in 1942 to produce explosives such as RDX and TNT for percussion caps and detonators. But lack of state contracts drove production to a halt in 1997. “The buildings at Kommunar were surrounded by man-made hills that had driveways in them so big that even a truck could pass through,” says V, an expert on local abandoned buildings who asked to remain anonymous. “These served as a barrier in case of a fire or explosion, and created shade which made it difficult to tell the scale of function of the building even from a satellite. The hills also help hide covert or protected infrastructure and transport. Some hills are four storeys high.”

Sosnovy Bor Eagle

Three stone sculptures — an eagle, a deer, and a ram — were installed on the right bank of Kemerovo’s Tom river in the 1970s. Representing the rich wildlife that once inhabited the area’s pine forest, the figures once stood almost perfectly aligned on three separate hills.

Yet the sculptures started deteriorating without proper upkeep, and the deer and the ram were removed by the mid-90s. The eagle, however, became a favourite for both tourists and local young people. Currently it stands alone and covered in graffiti, bereft of both its beak and former glory. Kemerovo’s residents aren’t giving up without a fight, however, Concerned citizens are now looking for sponsors to restore the eagle, and save the bird for future generations.

Sosnovy Bor Gazebos

Abandoned concrete gazebos can be found in the woods not far from the heart of Kemerovo. The trees here date back between 8,000 to 12,000 years, and it is said to be the only relict forest in any city, anywhere in the world.

These distinctive gazebos with their pointed roofs were built in the 70s, and local activists are currently asking the authorities to demolish them. Situated far from the nearest hiking trails, they are slowly deteriorating due to their concrete construction material, and the passage of time.

Kemerovo Communal Bridge

The old Kemerovo Communal bridge was built in 1952. With time, its support structures began to deteriorate, and the bridge was closed in 2005. While the structure still stands, residents now use the Kuznetsky Bridge instead, which was built in 2006.

Kuzbass Autonomous Industrial Colony School

In 1926, one of the Netherlands’ leading architects, Johannes van Loghem, arrived in Kemerovo to create housing for the workers of the Kuzbass Autonomous Industrial Colony. Today, those buildings are commonly referred to as “sausage-houses” due to their distinctive shape. But they were not his only legacy.

Van Loghem also built a local school, combining the functionalism of the 1920s, features from the Amsterdam architecture school, and Russian building traditions. The ground floor of the school is brick masonry, and the second is made of wood. According to architect Irina Zakharova, its combination of Siberian architecture with Western functionalism is unique, using wood with brick and a concrete frame. The school building is registered in Russia as a regional heritage site, and in the Netherlands, it is listed among the Dutch architectural landmarks abroad.

Originally, the school’s tower was several metres higher and had a large reservoir, which was later filled in during the 60s, when a centralised water system was installed. Today, the school’s windows are broken; its floor is covered with glass and litter.

Basins for the Azot Chemical Plant

Azot is one of the largest nitrogen fertiliser producers in Russia. Based in Kemerovo, it also produces ammonium nitrate, which it supplies to mining companies across Siberia and Russia’s Far East. The basins which serve the factory are large enough to be seen from space, but according to one resident, M. (who also preferred to stay anonymous), the area is not a popular local sight. “Very few people go there, there’s absolutely nothing. You can fall into the slush, get contaminated with chemicals, acids, alkalies. The ecologists come and do their tests [to see if] they’re within limits.” We called the chemical plant, hoping for more information. Those on the other end only asked how our photographer had reached the area.

Kamenushinskoe Quarry and Lake

Silver mining has taken place at Kamenushiskoe, not far from the Kemerovo town of Salair, since the 18th century. In the 20th century, copper sulphide started to be developed nearby, until 2013, when work was finally stopped due to low profitability.

“[Kamenushiskoe] is unique because it has pyrite and chalcopyrite — sometimes called “fool’s gold”— as well as azurite and malachite,” says Aleksei Tuev, mineralogist and expert gemologist. “When such soil oxidises, everything becomes this reddish brown. The water is a turquoise colour because it has a very high concentration of a dissolved copper sulphate, chalcanthite.”

Visitors still seek out the area’s rich minerals. The malachite crystals found in Salair often have layers of azurite, something which is rarely seen in similar deposits either in the Urals or in Africa. Today, the quarry and its ore reserves are kept under the watchful eyes of surveillance cameras and security guards, but you can buy minerals found in the area online.

Alguy Talc Quarry

The Alguy quarry is the largest deposit of talc — the same mineral used to create talcum powder — in Russia. The deposit was discovered in 1960, and started to be developed between 1975-1976.

The purity of the talc here reaches 93 per cent, and there were plans to build a processing plant nearby which could process 300,000 tonnes of the mineral each year. Even at the turn of the century, plans were being drawn up to develop talc in Kemerovo so that it could be used in everything from food manufacturing and medicine to construction, and cosmetology.

Mining, however, was stopped in 2001. For now, visitors can also see the tremolite buttes that dominate the area, towering above the dark taiga.

Prokopyevsk Palace of Culture

The Prokopyevsk Palace of Culture opened to serve a nearby mining equipment factory in 1951, and quickly became a city landmark. Kemerovo old-timers remember the building’s beautiful bas-reliefs, spacious halls, great acoustics. The venue hosted hobby clubs, theatre, and opera performances. But the building gradually disintegrated into a critical state and finally shut down in 28 August, 2006. Following vandalism and arson attacks, it was finally demolished last year.

Salair Plant Tailings Dam

A silver mine functioned in Salair between 1782-1897, and after a brief period of inactivity, was revived to retrieve ores for the Belovo zinc plant in the early Soviet era. By the Second World War, the mines were producing thousands of tonnes of lead, zinc, gold, silver, for the war effort. But in 2013, coal company Kuzbassrazrezugol stopped mining in Salair altogether, after incurring losses of 4.7 billion rubles (£45,2 million) over eight years.

This dam is a tailings dam: an earth embankment used to store the byproducts — or “tailings” — from the mining process. These tailings can be either liquid and solid, but time and pressure will usually see them build into a solid mass.

The tailings dam at the Salair plant is a huge area of barite sand, surrounded by other dams and smaller bodies of water. When you arrive in Salair, it’s impossible to miss: an ominous, lifeless stain that towers over the town. The locals are used to it. Several generations now have spent their childhoods among the sands and the nearby reservoir. Sometimes, parents will use sand from the dam to fill their children’s play pits, rather than spend the extra time and expense of fetching yellow sand from the river. But the people of Salair know to stay away from the tailings when the wind is strong: the sand rises in the air, grates on your teeth, and settles on any object in its way. From afar, the barite dust looks like a solid grey wall.

A copy of this text was first published in Russian by Makers of Siberia.