How Bukhtarma Dam Gave Momentum to an Entire Town in the Soviet Age and Could It Survive These Days?

Empty buildings, investments and hopes

The Real Kazakhstan project run by Kursiv and Chevron has tried to get to know how the town of Serebryansk is going to save its respirator manufacturing plant and what it’s doing to make people’s lives better.

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The small town of Serebryansk, which is located in the East Kazakhstan region, currently hosts about 8,000 residents even though several decades ago its population was more than 16,000. Now, local authorities plan to restore some of the town’s heritage by attracting youth to come to Serebryansk and stay here long-term.

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How People Live Here

Like many other towns in the East Kazakhstan region, Serebryansk desperately needs teachers for its three schools (two in Russian and one in the Kazakh language), medical and agriculture workers. For example, the local health system needs 10 specialists; half of them should be specialized experts.  

Of course, people come here thanks to the resettlement program but newcomers work in the agricultural sector. In turn, locals prefer to work at the Bukhtarma Hydroelectric Power Plant. Many of them were prepared by a local college devoted to this task. The problem is the youth because young people do not want to stay here; they are ambitious and want to seek more in big cities.

According to akimat, the salary rate in the town varies from 50,000 to 200,000 tenge ($118 – $472). For instance, those who work in the local locomotive facility or military bases can earn about $236. Public sector workers make slightly less, so many locals try to make a fortune by running their businesses.

In 2019 Irina Kolesnikova managed to obtain financial support from the government and started to produce bread products.

“I spent 10 million tenge ($23,620) to buy a bakery; half of that money was a grant from the state under the Bastau Business program. Another half I borrowed from a bank for five years with 6% interest. Currently, we produce 200 loaves of bread and 400 plain rolls. We had been working even in the quarantine last year even though costs became higher because of a requirement to wrap bread with shrink wrap. We can’t wrap loaves while they are hot but people want exactly that, I mean hot bread,” the entrepreneur said. 

The bakery delivers all its products to the local groceries, schools, hospitals and kindergartens. Along with the second bakery in the town, Kolesnikova provides residents with all the bread products they need and even “export” them to the villages nearby.

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Converting Plant’s Building into Social Objects

According to Akim (mayor) of Serebryansk Nurlan Makhambetov, who has held this position for just three months, the town’s administration has a lot of plans. 

One of the main tasks for the mayor has to do with the Serebryansk Plant of Nonorganic Products, which once was the biggest producer of respirators in the Soviet Union and used to export them to Warsaw Pact member countries. From 1969 to 1990 it was part of a defense system of the Soviet Union and had provided jobs for 3,000 people. Given there were just three similar plants in the USSR, this plant was playing a really important role in the past. 

However, in 2011 the plant was shut down because of debts. After the Fund of the Problem Loans took over the plant, it tried to reboot production. The fund invited various investors and rented the plant’s building to different entrepreneurs. But they didn’t make it. The plant was on the edge and couldn’t pay its workers anymore. 

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Serebryansk Plant of Nonorganic Products is still considered the only Kazakhstani producer of respirators and industrial air purifying filters. Once the pandemic hit the country in 2020, the last investor tried to launch face mask production but failed. 

“The huge problem is debt because the plant owes about $64,956 to its workers. We are trying to solve this problem and discuss the opportunity to transfer the plant into the communal property of the East Kazakhstan region,” said Makhambetov.

The town officials promise that once the plant is in communal property, it will continue to produce respirators and air filters even though with smaller output because otherwise, it would require huge investments to buy new equipment.

“The plant’s products are very important; all we have to do is to fix the problems. Currently, the plant gives jobs to 13 employees, who have produced filters for Uralsk Mechanical Plant since October 2020,” said the mayor.

Also, the authorities plan to renovate the five-floor building of the plant. It should host a cultural center and social objects.

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Big Money Is Coming 

As Danial Akhmetov, head of the East Kazakhstan region announced, a complex development program of the small towns will be launched this year. About 64 billion tenge ($151 million) will be allocated for this purpose from various sources including state and local budgets as well as investments. Roughly $18.8 million should be given to Serebryansk.  

The town’s budget in 2019 was just about $299,509; in 2020 it rose to $631,378. About $138,180 is transferred from the state budget and $305,178 from the budget of the region. 

Under the development program, the authorities want to build a sports and recreation center, which should replace the current stadium called Khimik (chemiс). Moreover, for the first time over several decades, the construction of ten single-family residences will start in Serebryansk soon. Many other houses will be connected to the central heating system.

“We are planning to connect to the heating system all private houses. Last year we bought a heat pump and 50 houses have already been connected to the system. Our goal to increase this number to 200,” the mayor said.

When you observe the town, it’s absolutely clear why the development program is needed. Almost all houses build in the 1960s look awful. Some buildings are abandoned and the mission to restore them is impossible. For example, one house was left behind in the early 1990, because people wanted to escape the town and pursue their happiness in other places. There are several such apartment houses including the dormitory of the former garment factory.

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The last is considered suitable for renovation; it stands close to the mayor’s office and might be converted into a house with 36 apartments for orphans. Another building is unfinished construction of the apartment house for military personnel. However, now it should be destroyed and a completely new house for medical workers will be built instead, Nurlan Makhambetov noted.

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The mayor is a former military officer himself. He served in Serebryansk for more than 30 years at one of the ten military bases located in the town.

“My military unit is very famous. It was formed in the early Great Patriotic War as a mortar regiment and stayed in Eastern Germany for years. When the construction of the Bukhtarma Dam began in 1961 the regiment was upgraded and moved here to defend the region. In 2013 I was a commander of the unit. A special commission carefully examined the unfinished construction of the apartment house for personnel and the conclusion was to replace it with a new house for medical workers. I think it would be better,” the mayor said.

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Among other investment projects in Serebryansk is a trout aquafarm.

“Under the fish breeding program, we work on three investment projects. Investors from Almaty and Pavlodar want to build an aquafarm here on the Irtysh River. They are experienced and ready to invest $70,861 and $236,206 respectively. It means that we can create more than 30 jobs,” Makhambetov said.

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