cruel. Sergei and I stand at the door to the bus and ask if we can put our luggage in the
compartment underneath. He shakes his head no.
“Where do we put it?”
He motions inside the bus. So Sergei and I lug our roll-aboards in and place them in
the vacant seats next to ours, which moments later become occupied. And so our bus to
Chelyabinsk involves Sergei and me being pressed up against our suitcases, squeezed into
a seat. The bus jostles back and forth, hits every imaginable bump, and smells on the in-
side distinctly like an outhouse. I can't sleep a wink because my nightmare is missing our
stop and being awakened by Kazakh immigration authorities asking me for a visa. (I once
arrived at a small airport in Kazakhstan's neighbor, Kyrgyzstan, thinking I did not need a
visa but learning on arrival that I did. I was held for six hours in the transit zone, a small
concrete area with no air-conditioning—it was ninety-seven degrees—no food, and facil-
ities that amounted to a hole in the ground. A fellow passenger sharing my predicament
offered me warm Kahlua. I politely declined. At hour five having eaten no food and found
no water, I took him up on his offer. Hence my pangs of fear about accidentally arriving in
Kazakhstan tonight visa-free).
Our bus bounces its way into Chelyabinsk, and on first impression the stereotype that
this is the armpit of Russia is spot on. In near-darkness, looking from the bus in all direc-
tions, we see endless oceans of industry, hulking towers and monster machinery rising over
lots full of old trucks and vehicles caught in the orange glow of spotlights.
This city of three million people is among the most polluted places in Russia, maybe the
world. The city has long been home to major industry—iron and steel plants, and a huge
tractor factory—and a large number of Soviet tanks used in World War II were produced
here. And while foreigners could not visit firsthand to know for sure, there was evidently a
major Soviet nuclear research center in the region outside the city where a deadly nuclear
accident occurred in 1957. In other words, this is not the nicest place to live. Then again,
being a native of Pittsburgh and familiar with all the jokes and stereotypes of living in a
dirty place, I come to Chelyabinsk with an open mind.
My former NPR colleague and Russia veteran Anne Garrels followed the story of this
industrial city in a series for our network. Anne reported, when she visited in 2008, that the
city had closely followed the broader narrative of Russia.
In the 1990s, the economy of Russia fell apart. There was no demand for Chelyab-
insk's goods; they could not compete on the world market, and the decrepit factor-
ies all but shut down. The city was bankrupt. Civil society, the ability of people to
take responsibility for themselves, was in its infancy. . . . I returned this fall to find
out what had happened to this city and region, more than a decade after I was first
there. The changes are staggering. Thanks to the global economic boom in the in-