Letter from: the blast furnaces of Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine’s decaying industrial heartland – by Alan Turgutoglu (Calvert Journal – February 19, 2015)


The Calvert Journal is a daily briefing on the culture and creativity of modern Russia.

Ugly cities are plentiful in Ukraine, but Kryvyi Rih, a city in central Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region, is uglier than most. Its skyline of towering pit heads and blast furnaces extends for 130 km across the horizon, following the line of the region’s iron ore deposits. The city has the odd distinction of being the longest city in Europe.

The statue of Lenin still looks proudly upon his labourers, even though many of the iron ore mines are now long closed. In a country where nobody minds the rashes from bathing in the polluted seas and rivers in summertime, this city is dirty enough to make people want to leave. What brought me here were the stories of former inhabitants who left and who told me that the pollution is so bad that houses, cars and even cats and dogs are constantly coated in red dust, a by­-product of the ore extraction process. Upon arrival I was welcomed by a cloud of smog unlike anything I’ve seen in Ukraine, rivalling that of some Chinese cities.

It’s worse in the evening, when the sky is covered with brownish­red clouds of smoke. The chemical smell is nauseating. “It’s probably because these plants function at lower capacity in the morning and afternoon, then go up to full capacity in the evening.

People are less likely to complain then,” Andrei, 28, tells me. He’s a foreman in a metallurgical plant at a full-­cycle combine, a complex which carries out the complete iron production process from the moment the ore is extracted from underground all the way to casting the metal bars which are then shipped across the country. The fuel for the blast furnaces is also mined here in the form of coal and then processed into coke, meaning that the city deals with pollution at every stage of the production process.

Until the largest steel conglomerate in the world, ArcelorMittal, bought it in in 2005, this complex was known as Kryvorizhstal. It was once the industrial pride of the Soviet Union, offering work to over a million people. Today, over half of its plants have closed, and the steel giant’s money marked the first investment into the mining and steel casting technology in over 20 years.

It’s still nowhere near the levels of plants in Poland, Germany or the Czech Republic, says Andrei, who has visited these countries and their industries. At the moment he’s taken over the office for an engineer who’s on holiday — normally, his job takes place in the workshop. Most of his working tools are pretty modern, but some of the equipment he has to work with is over 60 years old, built shortly after the war.

“Of course we try to work as safely as possible, but sometimes accidents happen. Sometimes a worker loses his arm or even his life here in the plants,” Andrei said. Most of his team are young guys in their twenties, like himself. He doesn’t really like his job — the hours are long and it’s hard work. But because of the country’s economic problems, he’s glad that he’s at least got a steady job and a salary, which, despite the risks, isn’t that high compared to the Ukrainian average (miners earn up to $1000 a month, while the average salary is about $300-$400).

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