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In last Soviet outpost, space pioneers cling on
by Staff Writers
Baikonur, Kazakhstan (AFP) April 15, 2008

Visiting the Baikonur space cosmodrome deep in the steppes of Kazakhstan is like taking a trip back into Soviet times -- and that's just the way many here want it to stay.

There are no Internet cafes, no advertising billboards and -- to hear it from proud residents -- none of the social problems that afflict large Russian cities like hooliganism and xenophobic violence.

A statue of Lenin towers over the main square, large signs hail Soviet glories, such as Yury Gagarin's first flight into space, and the authorities strive to keep the city as litter-free as in Soviet times.

"I feel more at home here than in Russia," said Vyacheslav Kononenko, head of a rocket assembly workshop. At 59, Kononenko is nearing retirement age but is reluctant to move back from this remote region to his native western Russia.

"People know you here. They greet you in the street. It's not like that in Russia any more," said Kononenko, who has lived in Baikonur for 40 years and likes to go hunting for pheasant in the steppes in his spare time.

Kononenko is used to the harsh temperatures, which can reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer and plunge to minus 40 in winter -- but complains there are few young people willing to move here from Russia.

Baikonur, previously named Leninsk, was built as a rocket and missile installation from the 1950s in one of the most remote parts of the Soviet Union and was shrouded in secrecy for decades.

The nearest major city, Kazakhstan's Almaty, is 18 hours' drive to the east.

In its heyday, the city had a population of 110,000 people. But during the economic upheaval of the 1990s and Kazakhstan's independence from Moscow, many Russians left in a hurry and there are now around 69,000 inhabitants.

"The quality of life in Russia has changed. Salaries have gone up.... As the youngsters say, Baikonur is a bit 'backward' compared to the rest of Russia" said Vyacheslav Yegorov, a reporter at the city's weekly, Baikonur.

When older people try to move back to Russia, however, they feel alienated. "They don't have any friends, their children are gone. They're in a different world.... Some of them come back to Baikonur," Yegorov said.

But even in Baikonur -- one of the last remnants of the Soviet empire stranded in the middle of Kazakhstan after the Soviet collapse of 1991 -- times are changing.

Alongside city monuments to the RS-20 intercontinental ballistic missile, the Soyuz rocket and Sputnik, the Earth's first artificial satellite, there are now clubs, shopping centres and even a luxury hotel.

In this former Soviet holy of holies, an Orthodox church opened its doors in 2006 on the edge of town. Father Sergei now blesses all cosmonauts before they launch into space and douses the rockets with holy water.

There are also even more fundamental changes afoot. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had to start leasing the cosmodrome from Kazakhstan. The lease only runs out in 2050 but already the balance is shifting.

The early settlers in Baikonur were once almost exclusively from mainly Slavic parts of the Soviet Union such as Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Now officials say 55 percent of the population are Kazakhs.

The Soviet Officer's Hall by the Lenin statue in the city centre has been bought by a Kazakh investor who wants to turn it into an entertainment centre. Another Kazakh company is planning to build a large hotel complex.

Russian language schools are being turned into Kazakh schools.

Still, for people like Lyubov Bryantseva, a Russian official at Baikonur city hall, this is home. "We decided to keep things as they were" after the Soviet collapse and the "chaos" of the early 1990s, she said.

Bryantseva has lived in Baikonur for 22 years and owns a flat in the northern Russian city of Saint Petersburg. Her space engineer husband has died and her children are all grown up, but she is hesitating about moving back.

"It's a psychological barrier. It's not about salaries, it's about psychology. We're like a small family and we hold that very dear. Russia now lives by different rules."


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