‘Putin projects Russian might. A decaying town tells a different story’. So says Maria Antonova in an article in Sunday’s New York Times. Antonova comes from the town of Donskoi in Tula province, a few hours south of Moscow, and her grandfather was mayor in Soviet times. After the USSR collapsed, Donskoi’s industry collapsed too. Now, says Antonova, the town is ‘in a state of ruin’. Despite having a population of 30,000 ‘there is not a single café.’
With the help of Google, I decided to take a look. True enough, Donskoi appears to have just one restaurant (named ‘Plazma’), a very small shopping centre which on Google Street View seems to have a faux MacDonald’s burger bar named Mru, and the Viktoria café-bar on Ulitsa Lenina which portrays itself more as a bar than a café. So yes, eating and drinking choices in Donskoi are pretty meagre. Moreover, if you drive around the streets on Google Street View, it doesn’t look like a very prosperous place.
But Antonova doesn’t leave it at that. She goes on: ‘The problems here are common in provincial towns: potholed roads, ancient uitilities, and underfunded healthcare’. In this way, she portrays Donskoi as an example of all that is wrong in what is often called ‘Putin’s Russia’ – a land of decaying towns whose resources have been sucked away by Moscow to pay the war in Syria and for frivolities like the Sochi Olympics.
But is Donskoi typical?
Just three kilometres from Donskoi is another town – Novomoskovsk, the local administrative centre. With the help of Google, I was able to discover that: Novomoskovsk has several shopping malls including a swanky new 18,000 square metre shopping centre (the ‘First Shopping Centre’) on Trudovye Reservy Street. It has a 3-D cinema; a real MacDonald’s; multiple restaurants; and no shortage of cafés: the Sinyor Pomidor; the Pomegranate Seed; Lyuks; Robin Sdobin; and so on.
In short, while Donskoi does indeed appear to be a bit of a dump, Novomoskovsk (which is within walking distance of Donskoi) seems to be doing fairly well. Drawing sweeping conclusions about the state of modern Russia from the sole example of Donskoi is, therefore, rather misleading.
To draw a parallel, it’s a bit like when Donald Trump visits some particularly depressed rust-belt town in the USA and uses it to suggest that America as a whole is in terminal decline. The New York Times really dislikes that tactic, and spends a lot of its time denouncing it. It’s rather ironic that it should think that the same ploy is valid when it comes to Russia.