In the ramshackle office that passed for the local television studio, Andrei had clearly noticed that despite his half-hour lecture on the benefits of asbestos, I was still a skeptic. He launched forward with one final gambit.
“You know, if the Twin Towers had been made using asbestos, 9/11 wouldn’t have been such a big tragedy,” he said. Catching my look of surprise, he continued, with a note of pride in his voice, “A building made from asbestos would never just crumple like that.”
I’d ended up in Asbest, a town of 76,000 in Russia’s Ural industrial belt and the hub of international asbestos production, as I’d been asked to file a report for my newspaper on a monogorod.
Monogorods are Russian towns that survive purely on the basis of one major factory. Everywhere in the world, there are towns and cities that grew up around particular industries, but the Soviet Union’s planned economy made the situation more extreme, and there are more than 500 such places in Russia today. There’s Magnitogorsk, a city of nearly 500,000 entirely based on steel; Togliatti, where the whole city lives off the Lada car plant; and Sukhinichi, near the Russia-Ukraine border, home to a stuffed-toy factory, which means that passengers on the Moscow-Kiev train are woken at 3 a.m. by hundreds of women hawking giant pink elephants and green giraffes—it’s all they have to sell.
Many monogorod industries are stuttering in the financial crisis, especially those that produce materials that fed the pre-crisis construction boom. When the factory goes under, the whole town is effectively destroyed, and the resultant mass of unemployed people with nothing else to do means that monogorods could well become the focal points for anti-government protests. But I didn’t just want an ordinary monogorod, I wanted a quirky one, and when I scanned Google Maps, I quickly found what I was looking for.
Asbest. An entire town working at a factory devoted to churning out a material that most people in the developed world consider to be a deadly poison. They’d even named the place for the product: asbestos. It was perfect.
Here, things have been hard for years, what with the European Union and the United States banning the use of asbestos in most new products around two decades ago. But the internal and Chinese markets kept the town going until the financial crisis hit. Now the factory is working only a two-day week, and thousands of people are out of work. I chatted with workers who were out drinking beer instead of doing their normal shifts; many of them didn’t know if they could survive the enforced pay cuts to their already meager salaries.
My first official port of call was to Andrei Kholzyakov, the leader of the town’s main trade union. A bear of a man with a comedy moustache and thick spectacles, he gave me a warm welcome and a cup of tea. I felt guilty for wondering if it might be laced with asbestos fibers and drank it down.
There are 19 different factories and workshops that make up UralAsbest, the company that defines the town, he told me, and more than 70 percent of the families living in the town have at least one member who works there. He handed me an English-language brochure called “Asbestos Saves Lives.”
Kholzyakov sat back in his chair and let out a long sigh. “The thing is, amphibole asbestos, which was used in Europe, really was dangerous. But we mine chrysotile asbestos here, which is perfectly safe. It’s only because companies in the West have made expensive substitutes that there is a campaign to ban us.”
“All we want is for people to listen to us, but people don’t even want to talk. I went to a trade union conference in Vienna and nobody would even shake my hand—they looked at me as though I was some kind of gangster.”
Later, I met the mayor, Valery Belosheikin. His office featured a large green flag bearing the town crest of Asbest—white asbestos fibers passing through a red fire and emerging unscathed. He eyed me with suspicion and seemed to hold me personally responsible for the “Western conspiracy” against asbestos.
“There are two kinds of asbestos, chrysotile and amphibole. …” he began. His press secretary nudged me in the ribs and asked why I wasn’t writing it down.
“I’ve already been told about this,” I said.
“The thing is,” continued Belosheikin, “your Western companies are busy making expensive synthetic substitutes; that’s why they engage in propaganda against us. You tell me—what’s more dangerous—something natural or something synthetic? It’s obvious!” He sat back, looking pleased with himself, and I drew the interview to a close.
“Even without the West, we’ll survive,” he said in conclusion. “There’s a huge market for asbestos, and when the crisis passes, we’ll be on our feet again.”
Toward the end of the day, I called in on Asbest TV, the local station broadcasting to the town’s residents for a few hours each evening. Here, I thought, I might get a more balanced view of the area’s prospects. I shook hands with Andrei, the chief correspondent, and he shot me a wary look.
“The first thing to tell you is that there are two kinds of asbestos, chrysotile and amphibole. …” he begun. I started to tune out; I was getting tired of the chrysotile/amphibole diatribe, and I wanted to go home.
After an hourlong lecture on the many reasons why asbestos was so great, we went on a walk around the town center—the grim-looking factory towers were always in view, but the center of the city, built by German POWs after World War II, was surprisingly pleasant. Andrei kept jabbing me in the side and pointing at various passers-by. “See, they don’t look ill, do they?” I later went to the local doctor’s surgery, where they refused to talk to me, brushing me off with, “We don’t have any problems here.”
Before I left, Andrei made me promise that I would “tell the world the truth about asbestos.”
That evening, I had dinner with the editor of a local paper in Ekaterinburg, the nearest big city to Asbest, and I asked him what he thought of asbestos—was there really an anti-Russian conspiracy? After all, two-thirds of the world still uses asbestos—it’s only the United States and most of Europe that have banned it.
“Asbestos? My God, it’s completely poisonous—no wonder the town is dying. Who on earth would want to buy asbestos these days? It gives you cancer!”
“But they say that their cancer levels are no lower than …” I began.
“No lower than where?” he interrupted. “No lower than in an oncology ward, maybe!”
I giggled, guiltily. If Asbest is ever to rise from the ashes, it’ll need a big PR effort, starting closer to home than it might like to think.