Worker Tells of 1,900 Infected Construction Workers at Novatek Site According to him, work team got hold of computer file containing actual numbers of infected and test results
Artyom Alexandrov NEWS.ru
April 28, 2020
Workers employed by contractors Velesstroy Montazh at a Novatek construction site in Murmansk Region have refused to report for their shifts due to a coronavirus outbreak in the workers’ dormitories that management has preferred to ignore. NEWS.ru has talked to workers who allege that the results of their tests for the virus have been withheld from them, and both healthy and sick workers have been encouraged to work. To top it all off, the employees fear they won’t be paid.
Novatek’s Artic LNG 2 project involves the construction of a facility for the production of liquefied natural gas on the Gyda Peninsula in the Gulf of Ob. To implement the project, a center for the construction of large-capacity offshore facilities, which the local press has dubbed the “factory of factories,” is being erected near Belokamenka in Kola Bay in Murmansk Region. The agree to build the construction center was signed in 2015. Such a a large project has not been undertaken since Soviet times.
Reports of a coronavirus outbreak at the construction site started appearing in the media and social networks in mid-April, and since then the situation has become more alarming. However, neither Novatek nor local authorities believed that work should be stopped. Construction workers were tested for the virus, but officially there was not talk of a serious outbreak.
Work has been halted, however, by a “grassroots initiative.” A construction worker named Ilya told NEWS.ru that everything changed dramatically after workers got hold of an Excel file in which management had allegedly recorded the real number of cases and actual test results.
“We were not informed of the test results. In fact, until now, almost all of us know them only thanks to the documents that surfaced. It turned out we have a huge number of cases in every house where workers live. There are 205 people in my dorm and 171 infected people. There are a total of 4,000 workers, and 1,900 have been infected,” said Ilya.
According to the crisis center in Murmansk, 867 people at the construction site were confirmed to have the coronavirus. However, the other figures for the numbers of infected were not a big surprise to the workers since many of them have long since complained of symptoms of COVID-19, including fever and loss of smell. But, as was mentioned above, despite the fact they submitted to tests in good faith, they were not told the results. Despite massive health problems among their employees, construction site management has pretended that everything is fine.
“I have gone to the GP four days in a row and still haven’t received any information. If you say you’re not feeling well, they don’t really treat you. They only hand out anti-fever medicine. Some of the guys have pneumonia, however, but there are no antibiotics. Management has told us to pack up and travel to the hospital if we want. The infectious disease hospital is located 128 kilometers from here, in Monchegorsk. And yet they’re also scaring us by saying that things are so bad there, we’d better stay here,” said Dmitry, another construction worker.
Several nurse practitioners work at the site, but according to the workers, they are not equipped to fight the epidemic. There is also an Emergencies Ministry mobile hospital near the site where thirty-nine of the most severely ill patients have been taken, as well as to the Murmansk Regional Hospital. Large-scale hospitalization of the workers has not occurred, however. For some reason, construction site management does not even want to separate healthy workers from sick workers in the dorms.
“The dorms haven’t even been disinfected. No one has been moved, although the infrastructure permits it. People could be grouped together, after all. There are one to three healthy people in each room, and they could be housed in one place, but no,” Dmitry said.
On April 11, Andrei Chibis, the region’s governor, publicly stated that “all measures for quarantining, separating, and strictly monitoring” the construction site had been implemented. Chibis later said that the COVID-19 outbreak had been localized with quarantine measures, the work site had been isolated, and new workers were not being transported to the facility. Despite what Chibis said, however, according to Ilya, he was first tested for the coronavirus only on April 22, while many other workers were tested even later.
Consequently, the builders worked until April 17, after which they had refused to go to work.
“Nearly everyone has stopped working, except those who keep the dorm facility running—food suppliers, canteen workers, sewage cleaners, and so on. However, management has recently been threatening to put everyone back to work, sick and healthy alike. The foremen have been insisting we go to work, especially the machine operators. And yet they suggest we go back to work without any preferential treatment or incentives whatsoever. But how can we work when we’re sick? This is now even prohibited by law,” said Ilya.
Initially, the construction workers were told that they were in “self-quarantine,” and they would be paid in full. Later, there was talk they could switch to sick leave, but their wages would be docked accordingly. However, this was all talk, as no orders were issued. The workers are afraid that the downtime could be deducted from their wages. The situation should be clarified when they are paid an advance for the current month on April 30, while their salaries will be paid on May 15. At the same time, there have been no threats of penalties. Nor do the workers complain of a deterioration of living conditions—they are being fed and accommodated as before.
Neither the Murmansk Region governor’s office nor Velesstroy Montazh or Novatek responded to our requests for information before press time.
On April 28, the prosecutor’s office of Yakutia’s Lensk District launched a probe into whether the rights of rotational workers at Gazprom’s Chayanda field had been violated. The probe was prompted by the protests that several hundred rotational workers staged over unacceptable working conditions. Video footage of the uprising was posted online. Workers complain that management does not care about their health and safety during the pandemic. More than ten thousand people are employed at the field. Just as in Murmansk Region, disaffected workers alleged that the results of their COVID-19 tests had been withheld from them.
Thanks to Sergei Vilkov for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Novatek and NEWS.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader. See all of my coronavirus coverage here.
Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: How Important Is Syria to the Russian Economy? The Kremlin has been trying—unconvincingly—to repackage its military campaign in this devastated country as a long-term investment project.
Yevgeny Karasyuk Republic
February 27, 2019
The economy was probably the last thing on the Kremlin’s mind when it decided to get involved in a civil war in the heart of the Arab world. But now that Russian military forces have been in the region for several years, the Kremlin has been increasingly trying to spin its support for Bashar Assad’s regime as a sound investment, a contribution to a prosperous trading future between the two countries.
Russia has claimed it is willing to export to Syria anything it can offer in addition to weapons, from wheat to know-how for preventing extremism on the internet. Along with Iran, the country has big plans for taking part in the postwar restoration of Syrian cities and Syrian industry, including the energy sector. Russia’s governors speak touchingly of their readiness to go to Damascus at the drop of a hat to negotiate with the Syrian government.
“When the talk turns to Syria, I immediately catch myself thinking I need these meetings, I need to see those people again and again, and I need to be useful,” Natalya Komarova, head of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District said at the Russian Investment Forum in Sochi two weeks ago.
The expenses Russia has incurred during the Syrian campaign are shrouded in mystery. Analysts at IHS Jane’s calculated in October 2015 that Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day. In July 2017, the opposition Yabloko Democratic Party published its estimate of the overall bill: as much as 140 billion rubles [approx. 1.87 billion euros], but this total did not include associated costs, including humanitarian aid. In 2017, according to RANEPA, 84% of Russia’s official total of disbursed humanitarian aid ($19.6 million) went to Syria. What kind of economic cooperation could justify such figures?
It would be pointless even to try and find an answer in recent trade trends between the two countries. Its volumes are negligible. During the first nine months of 2018, Syria’s share of Russia’s exports was 0.09%, while Syria accounted for 0.002% of imports to Russia during the same period. This has always been more or less the case.
“Trends in Russia’s trade with Syria (in billions of US dollars).” The pale violet line indicates Russia’s exports to Syria, while the blue line indicates Russia’s imports from Syria. The data for 2018 is only for the first nine months of the year. Source: Russian Federal Customs Service. Diagram courtesy of Republic
The largest transaction in the history of the economic partnership between the two countries was Moscow’s cancellation of $9.8 billion dollars in debt, 73% of what Syria had owed the Soviet Union. At the end of the 2005 meeting at which this matter was decided, Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin also spoke publicly of the idea of establishing a free trade zone. Subsequently forgotten, the undertaking was mere camouflage for the political bargain reached by the two men, which was and remains support for the Syrian dictator’s regime in exchange for the dubious dividends the Kremlin has received by increasing its influence in the region. It is believed Russian strategic bomber saved Assad, who had already been written off by the west. But explanations of what Russia has ultimately won for its efforts and what its economic strategy might look like have been more muddled and contradictory than before.
In an October 2018 interview with Euronews, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov avoided directly answering a question about joint economic projects. During his tenure as head of the Russian Export Center, Pyotr Fradkov (not to be confused with his father former PM Mikhail Fradkov, the current head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR) talked about Russia’s potential involvement in developing the “high-tech segments of Syria’s economy.” A month ago, however, the selfsame Russian Export Center placed Syria at the bottom of its ranking of 189 countries in terms of their favorability for foreign trade.
The Syrian economy, in turn, can currently offer Russia even less. Mainly, its exports boil down to fruit, but in such small and unstable quantities that they cannot seriously compete with deliveries from Turkey. Russia has been promised priority access to the development of natural resource deposits in Syria, which are teeming with oil, natural gas, and phosphates. But the smoldering war and the lack of security guarantees for investments have hampered implementing these plans.
Russian experts pin their hopes on the surviving remnants of industry in the government-controlled areas of Latakia, Tartus, and Damascus. Based on the fact that “the level of production that survived has enabled Assad to almost fully provide himself [sic] with food during five years of war,” Grigory Lukyanov, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics has concluded the Syrian government “depends on a well-developed business community.”
Syria, however, seemed like a nightmare for investors well before the country was turned into an open wound. “Only a crazy person would go into Syria at his own behest,” Vedomostiquoted a source at a major company that was involved in negotiations with the Syrian government in the summer of 2012. Suffering from international sanctions, Syria proposed that Russian companies take part in construction of a thermoelectric power station in Aleppo. Four years later, one of Syria’s largest cities had been turned into ruins by heavy bombardment.
The Rothschilds [sic], who made fortunes on wars, thought the best time to invest was when blood was flowing in the streets. Their approach might seem to resemble the Kremlin’s strategy. But let’s not kid ourselves: unlike the famed financiers, President Putin is completely devoid of insight when it comes to the economic consequences of his military escapades. Business plans are not his strong suit.
Photo courtesy of Mikhail Klementyev/AP and the Washington Post. Translated by the Russian Reader
On this bright Saturday evening, when the sun has finally come out in the former capital of All the Russias after a week of nonstop rain, I want to offer you two tales of two completely different modern Russias, situated unhappily side by side, but God only knows for how long and at what cost.
Both stories have their fictional and literary precedents, as is often the case in this overly verbalized country.
Smack Them Upside the Head Tired of waiting for a promised natural gas tie-in pipeline from local authorities, the Yegorevsk Urban District in the Moscow Region asked Obama for gas
Ekaterina Fomina Novaya Gazeta
June 5, 2016
Valery Slesarev. Photo by Ekaterina Fomina
After collecting 531 signatures in support of his effort, pensioner Valery Slesarev called the US Embassy and asked a specific question.
“How can I get a hold of Barack Obama?”
The embassy promised him to call him back and make an appointment.
Lots of people in Yegorevsk know Valery Slesarev. First, he has tuned and fixed TV sets his whole life, and that is deemed a vital service. Second, he has an artificial skull.
As a child, Slesarev was involved in Pavel Popovich’s Young Cosmonauts Club. One of the activities at the club was parachute jumping from towers. During one such jump, the carabiner from a pull rope slammed Slesarev hard in the head. A year later, a tumor was discovered in his brain, and it was decided to operate. Popovich himself got involved by asking for help from America, where an artificial bone was grown personally for the sixteen-year-old boy. The doctors told his mother he would not survive, but the bone up and took hold.
As the years passed, it transpired that, along with the bone, the doctors had implanted something Soviet people were not supposed to have: a faith in justice and the strength to fight for it.
Initially, the life of the young cosmonaut with the artificial skull rolled down different tracks than it might have, like in a small town in West Virginia: steady, nothing out of the ordinary.
“Maybe the Lord in fact saved me then. Eighty percent of my group at the Young Cosmonauts Club died in Afghanistan. We were all combat ready, you see, and those boys were sent straight to the front,” he says today.
Slesarev studied to be a radio technician, but went to work as a TV repairman. The celestial expanses no longer appealed to him, and he had enough to do down on earth as it was. He drove from village to village fixing TV sets and occasionally chopping firewood for old women.
In the nineties, the business where Slesarev worked fell apart, and he started a small business of his own, a tire repair shop. He called it Autocupola, and indeed the blue, two-storey building housing his shop is crowned by conical metal cupolas. The cupolas, he explains, are in honor of his artificial skull. He is proud of the black swans, carved from tires, out in front of the shop and a gingerbread boy with a painted mug.
Slesarev lives in amazing house, also topped with cupolas, only they are in the shape of little bulbs. The local council has even hung a sign on the house designating it a cultural landmark.
For a time, then, Slesarev was an amusing local landmark. In 2005, however, the Moscow Region began installing natural gas mains in the villages of Yegorevsk. The mains were quickly installed in all public buildings, but ordinary people, those selfsame old women for whose sake the whole program was undertaken, were left without gas. Slesarev says he simply could not look at old women swinging wood mauls anymore. Thus began his fight.
Only twenty-eight people are officially registered in Vladychino, a village in the Yegorevsk Urban District, but around a hundred people live there permanently, most of them people the natives have contemptuously dubbed “summerfolk.” Slesarev is one of the summerfolk too. He has land there, inherited from forebear, and his grandmother’s house, which he has managed to restore and preserve. The entire village stopped by to admire it.
As in the neighboring villages, people in Vladychino buy natural gas in cylinders. A fifty-liter cylinder, which costs a thousand rubles to refill, lasts a month. Arranging privately to have a gas line connected to your house costs at least 500,000 rubles [approx. 7,000 euros].
A spontaneous assembly of local residents has been taking place on the bench in front of Slesarev’s house. You might say he mobilized them.
Grandma Valentina, Grandpa Nikolai, Kolya, who has no front teeth and wears a leather jacket, Nikolai Alexandrovich, and Tatyana have formed a semi-circle. They occasionally get sidetracked and swat a mosquito. It is the height of the season.
“Please forgive my appearance. I came from the garden,” says Tatyana, apologizing as it were for her apron.
“TV Rain came to film, and we all dressed like peasants,” says Valentina, dangling her rubber-slippered feet by way of proof.
“Why are we appealing to Obama? We hope that, if not Obama, some other president will respond,” says Valentina.
“I’ll tell you why,” says Nikolai Alexandrovich, who steps forward, dressed in builder’s overalls. “He is a winner of the Nobel Peace Price, and he is on his way out of office in any case. Let him do one good deed at the end of his term by getting gas installed for us.”
The locals gossip. The village of Rakhmanovo got gas when an MP from the Moscow Regional Duma and a member of the Yegorevsk Board of Deputies moved there. Actually, according to the paperwork, gas lines have been laid to Vladychino and all the other villages too: 300 million rubles [approx. 4 million euros at current exchange rates] from the regional budget was spent on the program. A presidential commission even came looking for the gas, but they did not find it. To be hooked up to gas lines under the regional program, a village must have no less than one hundred residents, so Vladychino was lumped together with neighboring Parykino. Now, according to the schedule for gasification, Vladychino and Parykino should get gas lines no later than 2018. But no one believes it will happen, because dates for gasification of the villages have been postponed annually since 2005. Last year, the residents of Vladychino wrote a letter to Putin, but half has many people signed it as did the letter to the US president.
“He’s not going to help. His term is never going to end. He’s president for life,” says Nikolai Alexandrovich.
“God willing he will be president for life!” responds Valentina. “He lifted the country up! As for gas, well, we need it. Maybe he just has not been told about us. Our board of deputies should be the ones helping us, but they don’t do anything for us. This year, they didn’t even spray the bushes for ticks.”
“This writing to Obama thing is all a joke, a way of getting us riled up and forcing us to think,” explained Nikolai Alexandrovich. “But what do you think? Is America Russia’s enemy? I knew you’d say that! I’m not going to try and educate you or persuade you. Who is threatened by Russia? The Americans, however, are already in Estonia. Those are facts, Katya, facts!”
By local standards, Nikolai Alexandrovich is also one of the summerfolk, although he has lived in Vladychino for four years, since retiring. He worked for twenty-six years in security at the Kremlin. Nowadays, he is an elder at Nativity of Christ Church.
“That is war,” continues Nikolai Alexandrovich. “Was it necessary to drop the bombs on Japan? This is a continuation, just as today’s Russia is a continuation of Soviet life in many ways. Your colleagues from TV Rain were spooked. They were worried lest we go to jail for what we said. We won’t go to jail: we speak the truth!”
“The mosquitoes have already devoured us,” a bored Valentina chips in.
“It’s time for me to milk the cows,” says Kolya.
“Why was she caterwauling yesterday from lunchtime on? She was probably thirsty?”
“She has been yelling because of the bull. I haven’t been putting the pull in with her. He’s been laid low. I called the vet, and he told me over the phone to give the bull vodka. I gave him vodka. Then he told me to give it sunflower oil. I did it: same damn nonsense! Now he tells me to go and buy lactic acid.”
Slesarev outside his Autocupola tire repair shop. Photo by Ekaterina Fomina
“Sufferings, Trials, and Humiliations” Since 2005, when Valery Slesarev began his fight to have the villages gasified, he has kept a list entitled “My Sufferings, Trials, and Humiliations.” It includes such entries as “Arrest, searches of homes and shops. Bombing of Autocupola. Arson at Autocupola.”
In 2010, unknown men in masks armed with crowbars broke into his tire shop. They methodically and cold-bloodedly beat up Slesarev and his daughter. A criminal case was opened, of course, but to no avail. The police wrote off the incident as a “workplace fight.”
Slesarev wrote to Vladimir Zhirinovsky that he was being prevented from doing business. Zhirinovsky promised to look into the case. Apparently, he is still looking.
Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov once visited Yegorevsk. Slesarev was going to the meeting when he was pulled over by traffic cops, allegedly, for driving with dirty license plates. He spent the whole day in the detention center and was released without having to pay any fines.
Governors have come and gone, but the story has not changed. Slesarev had to fight his way into a meeting with current Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov at the House of Culture. In the auditorium, he was surrounded by police officers in plain clothes.
“When I stood up to ask a question, they made me sit down. They actually grabbed me by the pants and pulled me down, and everyone was laughing,” Slesarev recalls.
Governor Vorobyov noticed the strange man and asked to speak with him personally after the meeting. As Slesarev tells it now, the governor was so outraged that he promised to dismiss the head of the district the very next day. And he did, in fact, dismiss him. Only, at the next elections, Mikhail Lavrov, ex-head of the district, was elected chair of the Yegorevsk Board of Deputies, a position he occupies to this day.
“Vorobyov left, and the bathhouse we guys in the village had built for the gals burnt down. There was a criminal investigation, of course. But they didn’t catch anyone.”
“The Gas Has Come”
This time, it was the head of the Yegorevsk District and his deputies who were meeting with constituents. Slesarev did not know about the meeting, and so we arrive in the village of Yurtsovo a bit late: the event has ended. But we do find Nina Morsh, head of Yurtsovo Area, surrounded by female assistants, next to the Soviet war memorial. Slesarev knows everyone by sight, all the more so because Morsh was previously head of the Yurtsovo Rural Settlement. But late last year, all the municipalities were abolished when when the Yegorevsky District was redesignated as an urban district. The now-abolished Yurtsovo Rural Settlement included thirty-eight villages. Last year, only four of them had gas mains.
Morsh’s assistants immediately cut us off.
“You’re a little late. The head of the district was at the meeting, and he answered everyone’s questions. Residents who wanted to ask questions got definitive answers. You can ask them yourselves.”
Dressed in a suit with a rose on the chest, Morsh drags me along with her.
“Since 2005, a lot of work has been done on gasification,” she tells me, as if she were reading a report. “First, the central village of Yurtsovo and the main municipal institutions, then, in 2010, the entire residential sector.”
She speaks of natural gas affectionately.
“The gas has come,” she says.
The gas has come to Pochinki, Barsuki, Leonovo, and Polbino. And so it will arrive in Vladychino and Parykino, too, Morsh reassures me. The design plans and specifications are already being drafted.
“You cannot jump higher than the budget lets you,” says Morsh by way of explaining why gasification has taken so long. “This has been explained repeatedly to that man, who doesn’t even live in our area. Whatever emotions he may or may not be experiencing, the program has been well implemented. Just look at our governor.”
It is clear as day the village needs gas, but people have been living without it, getting by with cylinders. Some people even stoke wood stoves. Ninety-year-old Grandma Panya, another resident of Vladychino, signed the petition to Obama, but she is afraid of gas.
“That one woman of ours in Moscow, the one who left to be with her lover, was home alone once, but forget to turn off the gas. She died from carbon monoxide poisoning!”
If it had not been for Slesarev, no one would have the heard the voice of the people of Yegorevsk. But that is how his brain operates under his American skull. If the law says people are supposed to have gas piped into their homes, then that is the way it should be, even it means his having to fight hopelessly for it on his lonesome. Slesarev has lived his whole life this way.
Translated by the Russian Reader
Will Russia Be First to Build Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?
Peter Hobson The Moscow Times
July 6, 2016
In mid June, Shervin Pishevar, co-founder of Hyperloop One, sat under the high, decorated ceiling of a palace in St. Petersburg.
Men in suits lined the large, rectangular table.
“Eighteen heads of sovereign [wealth] funds and President [Vladimir] Putin. $10 trillion in the room,” Pishevar wrote alongside a photo posted on Facebook. “Then Putin called on me.”
So Pishevar, a burly, bearded Silicon Valley entrepreneur, began to speak. He talked about the Hyperloop trains his company plans to build: Transportation pods levitated by magnets inside an airless tube that could travel at speeds 300 kilometers per hour faster than a passenger aircraft, thanks to the low air resistance. Pods that could whisk goods through Russia from China to Europe in the space of hours, or turn St. Petersburg into a suburb of Moscow.
Putin listened attentively. Then, according to Pishevar, he said, “Hyperloop will fundamentally change the global economy.”
By the time Pishevar left Russia, Hyperloop One had signed its first deal with a foreign government, a partnership with Moscow’s City Hall. It had also been asked by Russia’s transport minister to design a 70-kilometer Hyperloop track in the Russian Far East.
With that kind of support, perhaps the first Hyperloop won’t be built in California, but in Russia.
Dreaming of Innovation
At first sight, all that seems strange. Russia, after all, is suffering its deepest economic crisis for nearly two decades. Much of its infrastructure is hopelessly backward. It is a country in which passengers in slippers shuffle between bunk beds in overnight trains that travel at average speeds of just over 50 kilometers an hour. Freight trains, meanwhile, move at a little over 10 kilometers per hour.
But there are a few things working in Hyperloop’s favor.
First, innovation has once again become a buzzword in government. Officials are, at least in theory, keen to diversify away from the oil and gas industry on which the country currently relies. And they are paranoid that Russia could fall so far behind the technological innovation happening elsewhere that it will never catch up.
That fear has sprouted strategic plans for major infrastructure investment and research into the technology of the future. These plans think big: On the agenda are things like quantum computing, neural interfaces and teleportation. Hyperloop, with its science-fiction-movie tube trains, fits perfectly into that vision.
From Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1.5 Hours
Second, Hyperloop has a powerful Russian investor lobbying its interests, a Dagestani tycoon called Ziyavudin Magomedov.
Tall, handsome and worth $900 million, Magomedov is a true techie. According to Forbes, for his 47th birthday party last year, he hosted a robot-themed ball and gifted each guest a book about Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor who in 2013 launched the Hyperloop concept.
Like Putin, he is emphatically excited about the idea.
“It will kill truck and air transportation at a minimum,” he told Forbes.
Magomedov is also supremely well connected. His investment company, Summa Group, spans businesses from real estate to logistics and has handled orders from state companies worth billions of dollars. He has advised the president and allegedly paid for Putin’s press secretary to honeymoon last year on a super yacht in the Mediterranean. One of Russia’s deputy prime minsters, Arkady Dvorkovich, is an old university friend and, conveniently, oversees the country’s policy on transport, innovation and industry policy, though the two deny any favoritism.
Magomedov invested in Hyperloop One through his $300 million venture capital fund, Caspian VC Partners, and set about bringing it to Russia. Bill Shor, the Russian-speaking American who runs Caspian for him, describes him as “very hands on.”
Magomedov has played the role of Hyperloop One’s deal broker. His Summa Group was a co-signatory on the agreement between Hyperloop One and the Moscow Government, which will create a working group aimed at fitting Hyperloop technology into Moscow’s transport system.
He likely also played a major role in pushing for a Hyperloop to span the 70 kilometers between the Chinese industrial center of Jilin and Zarubino, south of Russia’s Vladivostok, where Summa is investing in port facilities.
Both projects have been billed as revolutionary. In heavily congested Moscow, which is currently ploughing huge sums into expanding its transport infrastructure, Hyperloop One says its technology could potentially “give capital region commuters weeks of their lives back.”
The link with Jilin, meanwhile, would carry 10 million tons of cargo a year, zipping containers to port in minutes, says Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov. He wants Hyperloop One to present a design for the track at an investment forum in Vladivostok in September.
Tapping Into China
The third thing playing in Hyperloop’s favor in Russia is that it could unlock vast amounts of Chinese investment.
The Jilin-Zarubino spur is just the beginning. In the longer term, Hyperloop could create “the heart of the transport infrastructure for the Eurasian landmass,” says Shor. The technology will likely be used for freight before it begins to transport passengers. And the route between China and Europe is one of the world’s busiest trade arteries.
The distance between China’s eastern edge and Central Europe is some 7,000 kilometers. Freight currently navigates that distance by train in around three weeks and by sea in roughly two months. In theory, a Hyperloop could span it in six hours.
Beijing has committed tens of billions of dollars to its “One Belt-One Road” plan to create new infrastructure between it and Europe. Russian authorities have their eyes on some of that money.
Sokolov says he will discuss the Jilin Hyperloop with China’s transport minister at a meeting in August and hopes “we’ll take the next step [in this project] together with our Chinese partners.”
Also, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a $10 billion state-backed investment vehicle, invested in Hyperloop One earlier this year. The amount was “very modest,” according to its chief, Kirill Dmitriev. But the RDIF also happens to run a joint investment fund with China worth $2 billion.
China is already helping to pay for a planned trans-Siberian high-speed rail line that could cost more than $200 billion. Hyperloop’s advocates say their technology be cheaper. According to Sokolov, the Jilin-Zarubino line will cost around 30 billion rubles ($450 million)—almost one-third less than a high-speed rail equivalent.
“We must be serious about this idea,” he insists.
Where’s the Money?
But for all the enthusiasm, few in Russia are prepared to put down real investment just yet.
Hyperloop One is working “very closely” with the Transport Ministry, as well as local governments and “some of the largest Russian corporates,” says Shor. These reportedly include Russian Railways and Gazprom, two giant state corporations. But these partners are contributing expertise and access, not money. All the cash is coming from Hyperloop One and Magomedov’s Summa, which Shor says has “invested quite a bit of resources, financial and otherwise.”
Even Putin, who in St. Petersburg promised support to Hyperloop One, wasn’t talking about financial support, his spokesman later clarified.
The problem is that while the Hyperloop concept is compelling, no one has yet worked out how to build one. Russia seems content to wait for the technology to prove itself with other people’s money.
The Local Contender
It might come as a surprise to discover that one of those working on the technology is Russian. Indeed, it turns out that Russian scientists were on to Hyperloop long before Elon Musk.
A century ago, before it was derailed by World War I, scientists in Siberia began working on a similar scheme, says Sokolov. Now, at St. Petersburg’s University of Transport and Communications, the project has been reborn.
Anatoly Zaitsev is an engineer who was briefly transport minister in the 1990s. At his lab on the Baltic coast, his team of around 20 people have equipment that can levitate transport containers. He says he could “absolutely” build a levitation track to Moscow, 650 kilometers away, if you give him $12-13 billion—significantly less than the cost of high-speed rail.
The only part of Musk’s plan Zaitsev says he hasn’t figured out is how to put his levitating pods in a tube. But that’s the simple part, he insists, “like dressing [the train] in a dinner jacket.”
Zaitsev thinks his technology is more developed than that of his rivals, whose plans remain mostly on paper. Both Shor and Sokolov praise his work. But despite that, Zaitsev is largely ignored by the ministers and local governments now courting Hyperloop One.
The reason why ultimately comes down to money. Hyperloop One has raised more than $100 million to fund research, pilot projects and investor outreach.
Another California company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, is also rubbing shoulders with big investors. One of its executives has said it is talking with a Russian private investor and is looking at Hyperloop projects in Russia. Its chief, Dirk Ahlborn, also met Putin in St. Petersburg in June.
These companies can fund relentless global expansion, and they benefit from Silicon Valley’s sheen of success. Russian officials can engage with them at no cost to themselves. No wonder, Zaitsev laughs, that “when a foreigner shows up in Russia at the invitation of a resident billionaire, the music and dances start.”
“The Americans are better at getting money,” he says. “I tip my hat to Musk and his followers who so boldly and aggressively offer the world unfinished technology.” By contrast, Zaitsev has enough money to keep his lab operational, and not much more. If Hyperloop is eventually built, it is unlikely to be Russian-made.
But if Hyperloop really is the future of transport, and Putin jumps on board early, it could be a visionary move.
“Russia has a very good chance [of being the first place to develop Hyperloop],” says Shor. If the government acts quickly on regulation, he says it could happen in the next few years. That could put the country at the forefront of a transport revolution.
On the other hand, the whole thing could be a pipe dream. No one knows if the technology can be made cheaply enough to implement.
Russia, meanwhile, still lacks both money and many basics of a modern transport system, says Mikhail Blinkin, head of the transport institute at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and an advisor to the Transport Ministry.
Fifteen years discussing high-speed rail has led to a single line between Moscow and St. Petersburg that travels less than 200 kilometers per hour. The country has only 5,000 kilometers of modern expressways, says Blinkin—less than tiny South Korea and not even enough to span Russia from east to west.
The government should focus more on practical improvements to the transport infrastructure and less on visions of Hyperloop tubes criss-crossing the country, says Blinkin. Otherwise, he adds, the officials cheerleading Hyperloop are just the latest versions of Marie Antoinette, the aristocrat who saw French peasants without bread, and supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.”