Abandoned Soviet Towns
Tangible remains of one of the most stirring times in history can still be found in Kyrgyzstan. The Soviet’s legacy is one of debris and despair.
Inlycheck town deep in the moutains close to the Chinese border
Alamp dangles from the ceiling with a few wires, softly rocking back and forth in the wind. I walk through the room while the debris crunches under my feet. On the floor lies a yellowed newspaper, the Cyrillic letters making no sense to me, and I retrieve a old pay check from between the rubble. The remnants of a community that once lived in these buildings. I walk to the window without glass and gaze at the abandoned houses, situated on a perfectly flat valley floor that stretches out into the distance, surrounded by majestic, snow-capped mountain peaks. For a moment it is dead-silent, nothing but the wind and the creaking of loose hanging strips of metal. I try to imagine 15,000 people sprawling about this town. That there was once a family living in the very apartment I’m standing in now, reading the paper or cooking dinner. Then the sound of our drone transports me back to the present day.
A mural in one of the crumbling buildings
We are in Inylcheck town, far from civilisation and deep in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, close to the Chinese border which is why you require a special permit to travel here. As part of our Central-Asia project we are visiting former industrial Soviet towns and factories to learn more about this fairly recent bit of history. Walking around these areas provides a very tangible glimpse into the past, to the times of the Soviet industrialisation and collectivisation.
All the Central-Asian countries are former Soviet Union states. Being part of the Union had a big impact on these areas, which weren’t actual countries until the Soviets created them in the 1920s. Borders were drawn in the Central-Asia region and five Soviet Republics created, that were each to have their own language, culture, and identity in order to stimulate division between the people.
The leaders were afraid that otherwise they would rise up as one unified people against the Soviet government. Before this, they were just nomads all living together in one big ‘country’ (Turkestan, which was more of a region than a country) without any real borders, grouped by religion, clan or language.Now, suddenly there was Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazachstan and the people were ‘given’ (forced) an strictly defined ethnicity. With the arrival of the Soviets the Arabic language disappeared and was replaced by Russian, almost all Islamic schools and mosques were closed down, people were forced out of their nomadic ways and had to fight in World War 2. The Soviet occupation meant immense cultural oppression for the inhabitants of this region. At the same time, it also brought forth infrastructure and economic development. To demonstrate the superiority of communism and turn the Soviet Union into a modern world power, Stalin set about his programs of collectivisation and industrialisation.
There are a number of places in these countries where you can still see the remains of these stirring times and how the Soviet policies left their mark on the countries. A number of the industrial sites set up during Soviet times have barely been touched in all those years and thus give a unique and sort of tangible glimpse into the past. Walking around the now almost completely abandoned towns and factories makes you think about the impact this failed “social experiment” had on people. After the independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, things were not necessarily better for a long time. The countries fell into chaos, with no governing body. The older generation likes to think that in the Soviet time things were better than now. They brought electricity and infrastructure. There was free healthcare and free education. People were equal, and some people find it hard nowadays in an individualistic and capitalistic-like society to make a living, without the social welfare system of the Soviet regime. You can still find statues of Lenin and streets and squares named after him around the country.
Most people don’t hold negative views towards him, unlike Stalin, whose ideologies and policies had far reaching and terrible consequences for people. It’s understandable that the older generation feels this way and has trouble adapting to the current situation after growing up in a communist world.
Inylcheck, or Engilchek, was a mining town as the area is rich in tungsten, tin, molybdenum and other metals. The Soviets started mining here in 1980 and during these times many, especially young, people would come here looking for employment. Flats and houses were built to house all the workers and hospitals, schools and playgrounds made it a complete town. There was infrastructure both below an above the ground, including a runway and a mini airport. Nowadays, all of this is abandoned, derelict and crumbling down. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, life in the city began to fade away due to the unemployment as the mines closed down. It looks like people dropped everything the minute they heard of the collapse and just left.
The big boss players of Inylcheck
Growing up in the debris
We are clambering between collapsed houses, walking past an Soviet mural and shuffling through piles of debris, when suddenly we see a little boy coming towards us. A colourful backpack that is bigger than himself is bouncing on his back and he is wearing a bright, fluffy blue hat. His friend is following him and wears a fancy suit under his thick jacket. They approach us in a nonchalant manner and happily start shaking hands with all of us. They are rather cheerful, cracking jokes (which we don’t understand but apparently are hilarious) and asking for gum. Although they rarely encounter foreigners, they don’t seem too impressed, just incredibly curious. The fluffy microphone on my camera seems of particular interest.
‘’Honk honk’’ they yell excitedly when squeezing it, ecstatically giggling with each other at this hilarious object. Another kid joins them and they follow us around for a bit. We learn that there are somewhere between 15 to 30 families living here amount to a population of about 150, mostly making a living from keeping livestock. They have a little school, with on average 2-3 kids per class, and a doctor but that’s it. I can’t imagine growing up between these rather grim ruins, completely removed from civilization. How will their life unfold? Maybe they will move to Karakol, 150 km’s behind the mountains, a lively city with job opportunities in tourism. Maybe. Or maybe they will work in the mines; allegedly China is eager to start mining here again. Maybe.
Kids coming from school
The mines are located further up in the mountains, above the town. One of them is flooded but the other is still accessible. They were constructed with a type of wood that resists moist and insects, which is why we are able to walk here 35- 40 years later. The colour of the rocks indicates the kind of mineral inside upon which they would start digging and where you see the holes in the wall. The left behind machinery at the processing plant is quite intact. Cranes and trucks stand spread out at the property, a silent reminder of the activities that once took place here.
Even plates, cutlery and cooking utensils in one of the construction shacks are still set on the table and in the cupboards, as if any moment somebody could walk in and make a cup of coffee. I could just imagine the workers having a break in the room when somebody walks in and announces the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. They put down their cup, take off their workers helmet and quietly leave and never speak another word about it.
Although Kyrgyzstan is rich in valuable minerals, such as gold even, the government never had the resources to start mining for this and sold the mining rights to other countries and foreign investors. China is one of the countries that is interested in exploiting minerals, and does so already in other parts of the country and would like to start up mining again in Inylcheck. Not everybody is too keen about that, as it would ruin the incredible scenic area. On the other hand it could provide income of course for the residents, although currently the mining industry in Kyrgyzstan is riddled with dissatisfaction of locals who are not reaping the benefits.
Among the locals not everybody is too excited about superpowers meddling with their affairs, as Russia and the US are expressing interest in Kyrgyzstan and other Central-Asian countries due to largely untapped resources of oil, natural gas and valuable minerals.Fear of being exploited without seeing benefits is present, as happened some countries away in the Middle East.
We had been sitting in our rented, cramped Lada Niva all day and were tired of the drive and the constant gasoline smell that is so typical of Lada’s was getting to our heads. The tiredness soon faded when we arrived at the factory estate in Ming Kush. It was the end of the day and the sky was filled with dark, grey clouds, perfectly fitting the eerie mood of the scene we saw in front of us. A dozen or so buildings, dramatically collapsed like they had been struck by missiles, crumbling or boarded up, set against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains. All these derelict buildings and no fences or any barricades, this got us eager to explore.
Ming Kush is located far inland in the mountains at around 2000 meters height in a remote valley. The town was founded in 1953 and would grow to be one of the largest uranium producers of the Soviet Union. Radiation levels are still 10 times the norm here and little action has been taken to contain and prevent contamination.
In those days, the risks of uranium mining were compensated with high pay and extra perks for the workers, which attracted many workers and as such there waseven a waiting list to work in the factories. Having a chance at a wealthy life in the Soviet Union naturally sounded appealing to people and Min Kush used to be a thriving village, with about 20.000 people living there, who enjoyed a better life than their peers in other parts of the country in terms of comfort, luxury and income (not in health though). About 80 per cent of the population left the town when the Soviet Union collapsed and there was no work anymore. The Soviet ‘grandeur’ of the heydays has turned into almost post-apocalyptic wastelands. You can still see the grand houses in the village, once inhabited by a wealthy plant worker and his family, but now all boarded up and crumbling down. There is almost no work and no future for people living here plus considerable health risk from uranium remains. Recently a processing plant for a coal mine has opened up, but it can only provide jobs for about 15 – 20 persons and will not solve the unemployment problem.
One of the few buildings that was not completely stripped
Dust taking over
Most of the valuable materials of the factories have been stripped and sold, leaving many buildings empty of machinery. Here and there the ground is littered with old pens which were manufactured here as well. Some ripped work instruction poster on a wall, a notebook, a boot; the few traces of human activity. Donkeys and goats are roaming through the factory remains. Every now and then, metallic sounds echo through the derelict walls: two guys at the edge of the factories trying to scrape off any last valuable materials that remains from the buildings, desperately looking for ways to make some money.
From pictures I saw not so long ago I can conclude it is in pretty bad shape now (that’s pretty obvious, but I mean it seems to be disintegrating fast). Many ceilings and walls
have completely collapsed. Weeds are growing on the roofs and making their way through creaks and crevasses. Reinforced steel is poking out of walls. Slowly, with the demise of these buildings, the history of these places will be covered with the same layer of dust that’s taking over the once mighty Soviet factory.
This is probably the most tangible look into history I had ever seen or would ever see. Between a decaying imprint of the red star (Soviet symbol) on the façade of a building in Ming Kush, we could still make out the date stamp of when it was build; 1955. To imagine this empty, eerie place buzzing with workers and the halls filled with the sound of machinery, toiling away monotonously to meet the demands of the Soviet empire is almost impossible when you walk between these ruins.
A hard life
Living in these areas is tough. To see these towns almost completely desert, devoid of any work or opportunities but full of trash (e.g. uranium radiation) and derelict remains in these grim surroundings, constantly reminding you of the once thriving heydays in contrast to the rather disheartening situation you are in today, makes you realise that it’s not easy for people to live here. Most of the inhabitants like to go away if they could, but lack of money or a place to go to stands in the way.
While the older population is thinking back with nostalgia and melancholy to the Soviet days, the youth is mostly looking forward to the future and is quite positive about the possibilities for these countries (for example in tourism). After many years of unrest and wars even, the Central Asian countries are now stable, peaceful and safe. Although there are still many issues, like serious poverty and crazy dictators suffering from megalomania, developments are going incredibly fast. Hopefully these developments will turn out positively and the countries can find their place in the capitalistic and democratic world, whilst retaining their authentic culture.
See all the pictures of Ming Kush and Inylcheck below:
See some of our drone footage of the areas. More video will follow soon!