A tale of two cities

‘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.

Pervyi shopping centre, Novomoskovsk

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.

15 thoughts on “A tale of two cities”

  1. And only the bad parts of Cheljabinsk. My mothers family is actually from there, the gains from lets say 2004 to 2014 for everyday Russians there were massive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Despite having a population of 30,000 ‘there is not a single café.’”

    Well, d’uh! What, you gonna argue that to be inhabitable any given “civilized” settlement can go without anti-cafes, gentrified lofts for co-working and hacker-space, vaper-shops, vegan-bars, barber-shopЪ for hipsters and continuous supply of jamon and parmesan? Who in their right mind will deny, that democracy equals having 300 types of sausage? What a vatnik approach to deny that!

    “It’s rather ironic that it should think that the same ploy is valid when it comes to Russia.”

    It’s not ironic. This is a classica propaganda trick. Who in their right mind truly thinks that the so-called Free and Independent Western Media ™ is interested in the truth?


  3. The article does rather fall into the trap of accepting Antonova’s premises. Who says that, to be happy and prosperous, a town needs cafes and malls? The West is bristling with them, although a lot of the malls in the USA are now empty. And one of the many reasons why so many Westerners are broke is that they have got into the habit of spending $10 every day on elaborate coffees and pastries. Russians, like the British of my youth, may have the common sense to make their own coffee and save over $3,000 a year.

    Remember that repeated American surveys have found that over 40% of US citizens could not raise $400 to meet an emergency such as an urgent car repair. Of course, maybe those people do not patronize cafes.


  4. “After the USSR collapsed, Donskoi’s industry collapsed too. Now, says Antonova, the town is ‘in a state of ruin’. ”

    Is it this one:

    Wikipedia tells a different story. If you believe wikipedia, the population almost doubled in the 2000s: it’s 64,000 now.

    What gives? They couldn’t even find a single real place ‘in a state of ruin’?


  5. I would like to see Antonova’s reply to this article. I bet that she has a good one! This is too facile a comeback for me.


  6. Tis good that you can “find the time” to write on little episodes such as this. It certainly makes your blog very interesting for lay people such as myself.


  7. Hi Paul.
    Of the two towns, Donskoi and Novomoskovsk, Donskoi is indeed the more ‘typical’. Novomoskovsk is the location of one of the biggest chemical plants in Europe making fertilizer, which bankrolls most if not all of its nicer facilities. Not even every 100th Russian town can boast of such a generous sponsor. As to “walking distance” – no, they are not. The two town centers are about 20 minutes apart by car. In between lie warehouses, timber yards and railway lines – people don’t walk there. Yes, younger people work in (and often end up moving to) Novomoskovsk and go there for movies, others go shopping there maybe once a week, but the two towns are quite different entities and elderly or disabled people are stuck in Donskoi because there are no longer running buses, only the jerky and unsafe vans. When I was growing up and spent entire summers in Donskoi, we maybe went to Novomoskovsk once in three months to visit the joyrides. I wrote about the town which I know well and whose condition today hurts me personally. And that town is Donskoi.
    Thanks for your interest in Tula region, I appreciate the attention to detail and especially “street view” wandering through Donskoi. I wish Russian officials did this more often.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Maria,

      Thanks for taking time to reply to this, and for the additional information. I hope that you visit the blog again!



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