BAIKALSK, Russia — One of Russia’s most infamous polluters is still standing — long abandoned but looming over the town that once depended on it for jobs and an identity.
The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill was shuttered eight years ago after a long campaign by environmentalists who said the Soviet-era plant was for decades spewing waste into Siberia’s Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site that contains about 20 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves.
What’s become of Baikalsk, located more than 3,000 miles east of Moscow and just north of the Mongolian border, is Russia’s version of America’s Rust Belt and other areas that have fallen on hard times as economies shift and the world becomes more mindful of industrial pollution.
But the story of Baikalsk is also a uniquely Russian one: one of the country’s approximately 300 “monogorods,” single-factory towns built during the Soviet Union, now on the brink of extinction and feeling forgotten by its government.
The Kremlin’s promises to create economic alternatives for Baikalsk, including making it into a tourist destination or even an “ecotown” have gone nowhere. With few job opportunities, Baikalsk has bled population since the plant shut down, from more than 17,000 people to about 12,000.
“A lot of people couldn’t deal with this tragedy,” said Albina Ergina, a local historian and a director of the town’s culture center. “There was a wave of suicides because people felt like they lost their purpose.”
It remains an environmental hazard, too. Although the government closed the factory, its reservoirs filled with about 6.5 million tons of the mill’s lignin sludge — the waste produce from pulp and paper mills — which environmentalists say is especially dangerous in an area prone to earthquakes.
Just as with the town itself, the government has been undecided about how to deal with the toxic pools. Last fall, Moscow appointed the state nuclear energy corporation to use its waste-disposal expertise to resolve the issue by 2024.
“We’ve just kind of gotten used to all of this,” Ergina said. “No one is even really interested in it anymore. The important thing is what’s happening today, for whoever has a job not to lose it or for whoever doesn’t have a job to find one. And there’s none to be found here.”
Founded in 1966, the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill became one of the earliest targets of an ecological protest push in the Soviet Union. Environmentalists said the mill bleached paper with chlorine and discharged its wastewater into the lake, blaming it in part for the decline in the native Baikal seal and fish populations. A smell likened to rotten eggs permeated through the town.
According to data from Irkutsk registries obtained by Marina Rikhanova, an Irkutsk-based environmentalist, death rate from respiratory diseases in Baikalsk was almost three times the nationwide average in 2009, and two times the average of the Irkutsk region in eastern Siberia.
The mill employed about 3,500 people in its heyday. Boris Brysyuk was one of them. When he lost his job as a mill engineer, he bounced around other crafts. He briefly worked as an electrician before deciding he would be “a free artist.”
His current project is making raisins and juice out of berries collected from the nearby Taiga forest. Brysyuk dreams of making his business mobile, creating a stand out of the trunk of his car and traveling along the crescent-shaped coast of Lake Baikal to sell his product.
“Adapting to the service industry isn’t easy,” Brysyuk said. “It didn’t work out for me at first either. But you have to keep trying.”
Few others in Baikalsk have been so entrepreneurial. Many men are forced to travel to other parts of Russia for work. With jobs in town so scarce, it’s considered a place for retirees to settle. Some locals are able to earn cash by growing a sweet varietal of strawberries — the town has a festival every summer that brings in buyers from hours away.
But the mill’s persisting presence, especially the sight of it decaying more with each year, is a heavy one for many residents. They once hoped a different factory would eventually replace the old one and give the town new purpose.
“This sense of community was tied to an object, which is the pulp and paper mill. As soon as this grandiose project stopped, this feeling of a big idea ended and that was it,” said 38-year-old resident Evgeny Rakityansky. “There were no hitches for people to hold on to, people have no idea how to just be here, and they do not see a future.”
Rakityansky spends his time volunteering and building hiking trails around Baikalsk, part of a dream of transforming the town into an ecotourism center.
But attempts have so far failed. There’s a ski resort, but it mostly attracts people from neighboring regions on a short trip. Visitors from all over Russia and East Asia have flocked to Lake Baikal in recent years, but they rarely make it to Baikalsk.
Proposals for what to do with the old mill have included turning it into a museum.
“Who would look at all that stuff?” said Ergina, the historian. “Are they going to move people here so there’ll be visitors to the museum?”
Although the pulp and paper mill itself is empty, the property isn’t completely barren. In 2015, Igor Sherbakov opened a small factory for dried herbs on the site. The enterprise started with making teas and then expanded to other products, employing up to 50 locals before it had to cut back on its staffing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sherbakov, a yoga instructor, thought it fitting that an eco-business started anew in a place once known for harming the environment.
“What will become of the mill is the big question,” Sherbakov said. “A person needs to find a balance between industry and the environment. What was here didn’t follow any standards. My personal dream is that this town will become an eco-Mecca.”