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Economic Opportunities Are Bleak For Russian Single-Industry Town


And now let's go to David Greene, who's coming to us live from Moscow this morning. Hello again, David.


Hey there, Steve. Yeah, we're here trying to understand this country that has been in the news in the United States so much and understand Vladimir Putin's Russia at a moment when his country is just on so many minds back home. We were here in NPR's bureau last night after a long day at work. We were getting ready for the show this morning. And our correspondent who's based here, Lucian Kim, he had just walked in from a reporting trip.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Yeah, so I went out to this town that's called Kuvshinova. It's about 200 miles north of Moscow. It's a so-called monotown. And there are more than 300 of them in Russia. Basically they're company towns built around a single industry. And many are suffering from the transition from communism to capitalism. Kuvshinova has one of the oldest paper factories in Russia. What's interesting is that the new machinery that they bought allows them to increase productivity and they've laid off hundreds of people, so today that town has less than 10,000 people. It's lost a quarter of its population since the fall of the Soviet Union.

GREENE: I mean, what is life like there? What do people tell you who live there?

KIM: Well, first of all, it's not very easy to be an American journalist in a Russian backwater.

GREENE: Oh, really?

KIM: People are very friendly, but they're also very cautious and very suspicious. I did have a taxi driver, he didn't have any complexes. He complained about the lack of work and just, you know, lack - a general lack of opportunities, especially for young people. He had a son. I rolled with that. I said, OK, well, maybe Western sanctions are to blame for that (laughter). He just laughed and said that's completely irrelevant.

But probably the most impressive man I spoke to, his name is Ivan Paramonov (ph). He's 85 years old. And he was the Communist Party boss in the factory. It was amazing listening to him talk. He was so proud of the honors that his factory won. And now he says there's absolutely nothing to be proud of. He says the government talks about higher pensions and salaries. He says he doesn't know anybody who's experienced that.

IVAN PARAMONOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He's saying, how can you put up with 10 percent of the country owning all of the natural resources in Russia? So for him, you know, it was all about social injustice, but also, interestingly enough, about kind of the geographic imbalance in Russia. He said we should stop just focusing on Moscow and St. Petersburg and remember that there are towns like his and also just all the rural areas, all the agricultural areas of Russia.

GREENE: So does that capture the feeling you were getting from the entire population there, a feeling of resentment about, you know, cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg and a lot of anger? Is that what you were feeling?

KIM: Definitely. But it was actually - I had a completely new feeling when I was there. I mean, I've been coming to Russia since the early 1990s, but they all kind of jelled in this one town because it's there that I felt this really strange mixture of pride and shame at the same time. Pride in the sense that the people there were proud that they're Russians and that they built a great country, especially the Soviet Union that had achieved a certain measure of equality. And at the same time, they were a bit ashamed because the difficulty of their situation, living in that rather decrepit town, was obvious. It was plain to see for anybody.

GREENE: You're saying it's the first time you sort of put that together, that strange sort of mix of emotions. But what does that say about Russia, do you think, right now in 2017?

KIM: Well, as I said, I mean, it was really a moment of truth for me. And I think it also explains a lot of the government's - the Russian government's actions that we're seeing in the world. On the one hand, there's this feeling that Russia is entitled to be a great power, it is a great power. And at the same time, there's this realization that there are also a lot of very big unresolved problems at home.

GREENE: All right, Lucian Kim. He's a Moscow correspondent for NPR. And we've invaded his office this week as we're hosting...

KIM: No, no...

GREENE: ...The show (laughter).

KIM: You're welcome. You're welcome.

GREENE: (Laughter) OK, cool. Hey, Lucian, thanks.

KIM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KODOMO'S "CONCEPT 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.