Snapshots of Russia: Chelyabinsk
Between 1989 and 2012, I worked in the international pharmaceutical industry (yes, the sometimes murky world in which my thrillers are set). During that time, I travelled all over the world, but gradually more and more of my time was spent in Russia and the Former Soviet Union countries. I met wonderful people, visited incredible places and built a fantastic collection of memories. This occasional series is designed to share some of those memories. Previously, we have visited Moscow, St Petersburg, Kostroma, Kursk and Vladivostok. Today we’re travelling across the Ural mountains and dropping in on the city of Chelyabinsk.
Chelyabinsk began life in the eighteenth century as a fort protecting local trade routes and gained town status in 1787. It remained a small settlement for more than one hundred years. Then the railways arrived, and the town began to grow. Today it is a city with more than one million inhabitants.
It is highly industrialised and used to be one of the most polluted places in Russia, although it also has many beautiful parks and is surrounded by lush green countryside. With its location on the edge of the mineral-rich Urals, mining has always been important, as has agriculture. In the 1930s, the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant was established. I remember being amazed by the size of it when I first drove past; it seemed to go on for miles. During WWII, Stalin moved much of the country’s weapons manufacture to the city, earning it the nick name of Tankograd.
Chelyabinsk was largely unknown to the rest of the world until February 2013 when a seventeen metre diameter meteor exploded some thirty kilometres above the city, releasing around thirty times the energy resulting from the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Despite extensive damage to building and more than 1000 injuries, there were no fatalities reported. But the Chelyabinsk Meteor is now part of astronomy history.
I first visited the city in the mid 1990s. It was a truly international project. A British manufacturing consultant, employed by an American business manager, to work on a Russia company recently purchased by Serbs. The factory was decades old and the staff, although dedicated and professional had no idea of modern pharmaceutical manufacturing requirements. There was no understanding of the concept of quality control. I realised there was a lot to do. But they were keen to learn and we achieved much in a short space of time.
For most of my monthly visits, I stayed in a new hotel, built by Finns. It was typical Scandinavian design; functional rather than luxurious, but more than adequate for my requirements. However, on my first visit, they put me up in an apartment on my own. It was in a Soviet-style block, several storeys high, with multiple-locks for security on the solid front door. I remember lying in bed that first night, unsure of my location, not knowing who my neighbours were, unable to speak the language and wondering exactly what I thought I was doing! I have never felt quite so alone.
But Chelyabinsk has some wonderful memories for me. It was there that I first heard Massenet’s haunting music from Thaïs; and watched brilliant performances at the State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. I shared saunas with colleagues who became friends. I stood astride the border line with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. And every time I wear my amethyst bracelet and earrings, I remember the people who presented them to me on my final visit in 1998 just before the rouble crashed and the contract came to an end. Happy Days!
Russia is the location for my current work in progress, Corruption! which will be published in September 2018. It is also the setting for my prize-winning novel Gorgito’s Ice Rink. A tale of love, loss and broken promises, it tells the story of one man through the eyes of the people whose lives he touched. You can download your copy now by clicking here.