The red-and-white striped smokestacks of the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill rise above the lakeshore at the edge of town like candy canes laced with strychnine. At its main gate, workers and visitors are greeted by bold and colorful murals of hearty laborers, technicians, and managers working side by side in a spotless modern factory, pumping out massive rolls of gleaming white paper. In front of the murals, real-life workers in shabby jackets shuffle through a darkened security gate, carrying brooms made of twigs and shovels with handles made of branches into a gloomy mass of decaying steel and concrete.
The story of the Baikalsk plant recapitulates the basic elements of much of Soviet industry: The stubborn single-mindedness of the command economy. The overarching power of the state and the military. The almost total disregard for the environment. The fantasy of superior, state-of-the-art production giving way to the reality of inferior goods.
The plant was dreamed up in the 1950s as a source of super-high-quality cellulose fiber for military aircraft tires. To make this super-tough fiber, the military said it needed cellulose pulp produced with super-pure water. Baikal had that water. It also had access to boundless forests and a direct rail link to the rest of Russia"s military-industrial complex. A grand factory would rise in the Siberian wilderness on the shores of the country"s great lake, to help protect the motherland. Such symbols were a deeply engrained part of life in the Soviet Union at the time. A program of rapid industrialization beginning in the 1920s had squeezed the century-or-so-long industrial revolution of Europe and North America into a few short decades, and images of smokestacks belching dark clouds into the sky had become glorious homages to the progress of the workers" paradise, even emblazoned in mosaics on the ceilings of the Moscow subway.
But to the surprise of Soviet leaders, the cultural power of Baikal was nearly a match for the monolithic economic and political power of the Soviet state. The proposal for the pulp mill on Baikal"s shores—an outcropping of one of the world"s most notoriously polluting industries on the banks of one of the world"s most famously pristine and unique bodies of water"prompted something that was rarely seen in the country before or after: sustained public opposition. A chorus of influential scientists and intellectuals went on record criticizing the plan, risking their careers, their homes, perhaps even their lives. The Siberian branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences joined the fray, and eventually even Pravda, the official paper of the Soviet Communist party, published an essay challenging the reasoning behind the plant. "Every time nature"s interests are disregarded," Pravda"s correspondent wrote, "it answers with dead rivers or lakes." Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is said to have dismissed these opponents as being interested only in fishing and swimming in the lake. In the effort to build and protect the country, Khrushchev is reputed to have said, "Baikal, too, must work."
And of course, the Soviet leaders ultimately prevailed. The lake went to work. The Baikalsk plant went on line in 1966, delayed, but not stopped, by the cries of protest. But the promise of the plant was broken before it even opened its doors"the super cellulose fiber it was designed to produce was already obsolete. Located on the shores of an utterly unique lake, the plant ended up producing materials that could have been produced just about anywhere. It currently produces newsprint and bleached cellulose pulp...
...On this day, it"s impossible to tell where the plumes streaming from the Baikalsk plant"s stacks end and where the heavy gray sky above begins. And to an untrained eye, it"s also difficult to distinguish the mill itself from the dozens of abandoned factories that we passed in the wilds along the Trans-Siberian. Inside its fences, only the dull groan of machinery and the occasional somnolent worker suggests that this place is any less derelict. A network of skeletal black cranes and elevated conveyors that hauls logs of Siberian larch and pine to the chipping mill looks like a ride at the devil"s amusement park. The cavernous structure where the logs are chipped and boiled looks like it would be knocked down by a good wind—or a modest earthquake. With each step inside the plant, I feel more and more like one of the characters in the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker, being guided by a haunted man through a forbidden Soviet-era industrial wasteland, every structure rotting, every trickle of water poisoned, the air itself malevolent. No paper mill on earth will ever be mistaken for a chocolate factory, and the production of paper in general is one of those dismal industrial processes on which we all depend but would just as soon not get too close to or know too much about, but this mill seems even grimmer than most.
But against this stark background, plant officials are unapologetic. Natalia Parfenova, the head of the plant"s Department of Nature Protection, stands in the dreary courtyard between two of the mill"s disintegrating buildings, turns the fur collar of her long wool coat up against the raw October chill, and declares, without a hint of irony, "We local people who live on the shores of Lake Baikal are sure that our enterprise is one of the best in Russia."
I wonder if Ms. Parfenova is deliberately blowing smoke. I fear that she"s hopelessly naive. I shudder at the thought that she might be right...