“There is no perspective.” the Russians are slowly withdrawing from the legendary space station city
By Andrei Borodulin
Baikonur, Kazakhstan (AFP) October 20, 2023
Surrounded by the vast sand dunes of the Kazakh steppe, in satellite photos the city of Baikonur looks like an oasis of twinkling lights in an otherwise arid desert.
The legendary launch site, leased by Russia from Kazakhstan since the collapse of the USSR, has been the heart of the Soviet space program for years, sending both the first artificial satellite and a human into space.
Russia, whose lease expires in 2050, continues to regularly use the space station to send Russian and foreign crews to the International Space Station (ISS).
But faced with aging infrastructure and limited economic prospects, Baikonur’s Russian residents are slowly leaving the once-vibrant city.
“More and more Kazakhs are settling here, and Russians are leaving,” says 22-year-old Artur Faleev, born in Baikonur.
Arthur trained as a computer scientist, but in a city focused solely on the space industry, he struggled to find work using his skills.
“There is no perspective here,” he said.
“In general, young people born here and attending school immediately go to other Russian cities… Moscow, St. Petersburg.”
He currently works as a security guard at a facility owned by the space agency Roscosmos, but plans to move to Russia’s Chelyabinsk region with his mother.
His best friend, Alexander Ognev, 22, was also born in Baikonur, but only has a Kazakh passport.
He started a long and expensive procedure to get Russian citizenship.
“My grandparents came here during the Virgin Lands campaign,” he said, referring to the mass farming program launched by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the mid-1950s.
Alexander, who has a culinary degree, is also struggling to find a decent job.
She currently works at an animal shelter for a monthly salary of 20,000 rubles (about $200).
– “Many are leaving” –
Almost 16,000 Russian citizens still live in Baikonur, out of a total population of around 57,000.
“Many go. Those who have jobs stay,” says 65-year-old Sarsenbek Abechev, an ethnic Kazakh, fruit seller.
The city, still dotted with monuments to its Soviet-era past in space travel, faces many challenges.
Once Moscow’s main spaceship, Roscosmos has since flown flights to Vostochny, a newly built spaceport in Russia’s far east that will eventually replace Baikonur.
Added to this is competition from US company SpaceX, which offers cheap and reliable launches to the ISS, challenging Roscosmos’ former monopoly after the US ended the Space Shuttle programme.
Russia’s offensive in Ukraine has also complicated the situation, reducing relations with the West to an all-time low.
Apart from the families of the crew members, no Western visitors have been allowed to enter Baikonur since the beginning of the conflict.
International sanctions against Russia also threaten to hamper several joint Russian-Kazakh projects in space, according to reports.
Faced with these problems, the Russian authorities proposed a program for the repatriation of Russian citizens living in Baikonur.
At the end of 2021, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that allows those who want to leave to get an apartment in Russia.
More than 1,000 households, including large families, have applied for the Russian repatriation scheme, according to the local administration, a significant part of the city’s Russian population.
“The goal of the (program) is to ensure that Russian citizens have nothing,” Baikonur Mayor Konstantin Busygin told AFP.
He believes that the city probably won’t be able to survive long if the universe shuts down.
If it is to close, the mayor wants to see measures to help the rest of the city’s residents prepare in advance and find other sources of income.
“We don’t have any factories here, when “Roscosmos” leaves, 7,500 jobs will be missing,” he said.
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