Monday, December 16, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Company Towns Too Varied for Any One Approach to Work, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 16 – Russia’s struggling company towns recall Tolstoy’s observation about unhappy marriages: each of them is “unhappy” in its own way and will require a precisely targeted approach rather than the imposition of a single policy, according to two experts on Russian cities.

            In the latest issue of “Otechestvennye zapiski,” Nadezhda Zamyatina and Aleksandr Pilyasov argue that the diversity of the “monogorods” as they are known is Russia is simply too great for any one approach, however “radical,” to have any chance of being effective (

            Each of the company towns has a different arrangement of “power, property, and society,” the two point out in their heavily footnoted article. Indeed, this is “the black box of regional development” that at least some in Moscow ignore altogether or assume can be addressed by the infusion of money alone.

            Zamyatina and Pilyasov base their conclusions on to neighboring company towns in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, one of which (Gubkinsky) is doing relatively well despite the economic shocks after 1991 and another (Muravlenko) which although superficially the same is doing much worse.

            In Gubkinsky, the two note, small business has taken off and provides many new jobs and ideas; in Muravlenko, on the other hand, it hasn’t, and the media focus on the city’s underlying economic problems and crime reports. And they argue that this reflects support for small business by the authorities in the first, and the absence of it in the second.

            But to understand why this is so and why the differences are so great, Zamyatina and Pilyasov argue, one needs “to look deeper,” to consider the relationship of these two cities to the authorities in other cities and the level of support the city officials offer not only to local business but to local identities.

            Muravlenko is approximately 120 kilometers from Noyabrsk while Gubkinsky is approximately twice as far. As a result of this “small difference,” the former “became part of the institutional periphery” economically and politically subordinate to the center while the latter became a more independent “sub-center.”  And that has had enormous consequences for the two.

            “The institutional aspects of the economic geographic status of the city are not only its position relative to the headquarters and other organizational structures,” the two suggest.  “A large role is played by its status relative to the zones of the distribution of the most important social networks, especially those linked to the regional or branch elites.”

            Again, Muravlenko is “closely connected” with “the web” of Noyabrsk while Gubkinsky isn’t.  As a peripheral city, the former operates under “a colonial model of power,” while the latter is allowed by circumstances to take a more independent and self-reliant one. Indeed, the Muravlenko elites have a vested interest in promoting local identities opposed to Noyabrsk.

            As the two authors point out, “the consolidation of the local community” and the growth of its creative potential “is connected with the formation of local identity,” something scholars and  politicians elsewhere have frequently noted.  Among those they cite is former US Alaskan Governor Walter Hickel.

            Territorially-based identities help to “legitimate” the authorities and promote a sense of common fate that in turn serves as the basis for cooperation among the powers, the economic leaders, and the society. A major support for such identities is the local museum, something that the Muravlenko elites understand and support, unlike their counterparts in Gubkinsky.

            In support of this argument, Zamyatina and Pilyasov provide evidence from content analysis of the internet forums in the two cities which show that “a strong feeling of local identity and local patriotism in Gubkinsky has become a breeding ground for the unleashing of endogenous economic potential.”

                “If local identity legitimates the development of the local community,” they conclude, “then small business is the immediate mechanism” of this process.”  And small business develops where the local political elites understand this and can act upon it rather than believing that all they can do is wait for Moscow or someone else to intervene.

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