Most of the world has never heard of Chelyabinsk. New to the country, I hadn't either until last month, when I received an invitation from RIA Novosti, the Russian state press agency, to spend a few all-expenses-paid days touring the region's factories and towns, nestled along the eastern flank of the southern Urals. The itinerary promised rollicking hardhat visits to magnesite mines, cement plants, and tractor factories. Who could say no?
When I told a Muscovite I was headed out to Chelyabinsk, he solemnly suggested I decline any swimming excursions in the Techa River. Why? I asked. Are there piranhas in Chelyabinsk? Did they swim upstream from bordering Kazakhstan? What a great story that would make - Russian Piranhas.
Stalin-era inspiration at a local tractor factory
The truth is worse than fish with fangs. Chelyabinsk was the site of the world's first major peacetime nuclear disaster. And its second. And its third. Basically the region was Russia's nuclear punching bag during the second half of the 20th century. Since the late 1940s, half a million people in the region have been exposed to as much as 20 times the radiation suffered by the Chernobyl victims.
The official invitation to the press junket didn't mention any of this, of course. The local government was sponsoring the trip to modernize Chelyabinsk's image, drum up investment, and disperse the radioactive haze that's clouded the region's reputation since details of the nuclear disasters came to light after Perestroika. Among the worst of these details is the jaw-dropping fact that throughout the late 40s and early 50s, the Mayak plutonium facility systematically pumped bubbling radioactive gloop directly into the Techa river. A huge pipe just squirted nuclear waste right into the local swimming and fishing waters, like sewage. For years. Cancer rates in villages along the Techa are still among the highest in the world. Mutant children abound in proportions rivaling Agent Orange soaked swaths of Vietnam.
For the ultimate throat burn: Molten copper
We didn't visit any of the real-life Tromavilles that still dot the banks of the Techa. Our trip's themes were Growth and Progress, not Geiger counters and Flipper Babies. The first stop was the mighty copper mine and smelting plant in the town of Kyshtym.
Entering the mine and factory zone, Chelyabinsk's lush summer scenery gives way to gray and gravel. Active mines, some half-filled with tempting turquoise pools, pock the area like massive artillery wounds. This strangely peaceful landscape is dominated by the factory complex, with its pitchfork of towering smokestacks, spewing powerful streams of snow-white gas into a blue sky, like cloud machines.
We disembarked from the bus and were received as visiting dignitaries by plant managers in suits and hardhats. Lurking on the sidelines was a burly leather-faced goon who looked like he stepped out from another epoch, wearing a dirty oversized suit and a black leather golfing cap. He was apparently there to provide some kind of security; he followed us in silence throughout the tour, only the tips of his fingers visible from under his long coat sleeves. He wore a company pin on his lapel.
The factory's main stadium-sized hangar boomed with clanging machinery, and beams of sun cut dusty shafts through the darkness as workers carried out their repetitive tasks in front of lathes. It reminded me of the only industrial job I ever held, at a used car parts factory in Boston. I thought about how much that job sucked as our guide proudly explained that the plant had been founded as an iron-and-steel mill in 1700s - the first such mill in the Urals. The company began refining copper in 1908 and was one of the few major industrial operations that thrived throughout the terrible 1990s. The plant even received some British award called the "Birmingham Torch" for "economic survival in conditions of social and economic crisis."