City On The Edge (2019 — 2024)

Astrakhan is one of the oldest cities in Russia. Even before the conquest by the Russian tsar, there stood the fortress of Hadji-Tarkhan, a trading hub on the Silk Road. A hundred years ago, the first Russian futurist poet, Velimir Khlebnikov, lived in Astrakhan. In the poem called ‘Hadji -Tarkhan’ he wrote about Tatars warriors appeared in this local steppe, then Persians, Indians, Russians came, and all fought with each other, but then in the Volga delta they became one people. 

Little has changed for now: from a national and cultural position Astrakhan remains a reflection of the whole complex Russia. For me, Astrakhan is the very place one needs to look for the Eurasian cultural code of our country, for many people across all Russia are mixed by origin, carrying  both Slavic and Asian blood. Moreover, the Volga river, the largest in Russia’s European part, is sacred for many peoples. The important geopolitical and economic decisions for the future of Russia were once made on its banks.

But now the Astrakhan city is obscure in the information field, both Russian and international.

After the collapse of the USSR, the city lost its importance as a port. According to the main federal statistics bureau, in 2022 the Astrakhan region was leading in population outflow in the southern Russia. The once city-forming shipbuilding and ship repair enterprises have been closed long ago. While some locals develop a business or work for oil and gas corporations, the majority live on a small salary, dreaming of leaving for Moscow or abroad.  People are mainly engaged in construction and small trade — the rest doesn’t bring money. Many people work in state organizations, but with small salaries.

The architecture reflects what’s going on in the city. There are thousands of historical merchant buildings, one cannot find so many of this kind probably nowhere else in Russia. But the state of this beauty is deplorable. Restoration work is carried out only fragmentarily, and  a half of the population lives in a unique design, but in need of repair the housing stock. In fact, the historic city has turned into a slum. And this is a question not only of aesthetics, but also of people safety. In November 2023, part of a five-storey building, where a major overhaul has never been made, simply collapsed along with the residents, one person died. Just a few days after that, a massive drug poisoning occurred in Astrakhan, three people died.

Since Astrakhan is located in the delta of the large Volga river, many people out of habit earn extra money by fishing. But this is not the most profitable story. If in the 1970s, it happened, chickens were fed with excess black caviar, but then, after the poaching revelry of the 1990s and 2000s, there were few noble fish like sturgeon left in the delta. In general, the number of other fish is also decreasing. And the peculiar legislation in fishing industry doesn’t allow small businesses to earn a lot — therefore, large dealers, buyers, and poachers make money on fish.

Astrakhan is an eastern city in spirit, not classical Russia. The cosmopolitan spirit of the city hasn’t changed for half a thousand years: more than a hundred peoples live here, forming a complex cultural code on the border of Europe and Asia. The Astrakhan paradox: there are no ethnic conflicts here. At the same time, more and more immigrants from the neighbouring regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia are coming to the city. This is an important factor, because in the light of Russia’s conflict with the Western world, political scientists promise new life to Eurasian economic ties, which could breathe strength into the city. But for now it’s only talk.

The Caspian Sea is only 60 km from Astrakhan by water. Back in 2014, other Caspian states increased the volume of sea transportation, bypassing the new sanctions. Now Russia also wants to join the scheme — negotiations are underway with Azerbaijan and Iran. However, the port of Astrakhan has a low capacity. It takes time to get a large flow of goods there. But one gets the feeling that the federal center has forgotten about the region.