City On The Edge. Dmitry Ermakov. Documentary photographer

City On The Edge (2021 –)

Astrakhan is one of the oldest cities in Russia, and one of the least known at the same time. While some locals run their own businesses or work for oil and gas corporations, the majority live on small wages in historic but run-down houses, dreaming of moving to Moscow or abroad. The cosmopolitan spirit of the city hasn’t changed in half a thousand years: more than a hundred ethnic groups live here, forming a complex cultural code on the border of Europe and Asia.

According to the Federal State Statistics Service, the Astrakhan region is leading in population outflow in southern Russia by the first five months of 2022. The once city-forming shipbuilding and ship repair enterprises have been closed long ago, and the port infrastructure has decreased in volume.

The architecture reflects the ongoing processes in the city. There are thousands of historical merchantry buildings, one probably could not find as many in any other region of Russia. But the state of this beauty is deplorable. Restoration work is fragmented, and the majority of the population lives in the housing stock with both unique design and a dire need of repair. The transport issue isn’t very good either: the municipal one was abolished, with only fixed-route taxis remaining.

People are mainly engaged in construction and small trade — the rest doesn’t generate profit. Many people work in state organizations, receiving small salaries. There are branches of such oil and gas giants as Gazprom and Lukoil in the city — but “if only I could get in there”, the locals say.

Since Astrakhan is located in the delta of the large Volga river, many people habitually try to earn extra money by fishing, although that is not very profitable. In the 1970s, chickens were sometimes fed with excess black caviar, but after the poaching spree of the 1990s and 2000s, there were very few sturgeon left in the delta.

There are also some small businesses, including several successful projects, but it’s quite hard for them to function in Astrakhan. Just as it happens in other regions of Russia, people move to megalopolises like Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Sochi.

Another Astrakhan paradox: there are no ethnic conflicts here. But it seems that the USSR’s society was more international. Now the world seems to be disassociating. Society might not be separating along the national and confessional lines yet, but inclines in this direction much more confidently than it did 30-50 years ago.

In the light of Russia’s conflict with the Western world, political scientists and economists promise new life for Eurasian ties. The Caspian Sea is only 60 km away 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 with Azerbaijan and Iran are underway. However, the port of Astrakhan has a low capacity. It will take some time to direct a large flow of goods there. But one gets the feeling that the federal center has forgotten about the region.