Vyshny Volochek is an ordinary Russian provincial town: tired, grey and emitting a general air of decay. But a group of architects have extraordinary plans for it. The town centre, where there are currently few shops, would get a makeover, while the five factories which once fuelled the town’s economy would be completely transformed. The ambitious regeneration project was the country’s entry at this year’s Venice Biennale, and lead architect Sergei Choban says that the project attempts to find a solution to a broader issue – what to do with Russia’s dying small towns.
“It’s a problem the world over, but it’s particularly acute in Russia,” says Choban, a Russian architect who made his name in Germany. “There is no pride in small towns, and all the best people leave. It’s a completely catastrophic situation for the country.”
Known as the “Russian Venice” due to its handsome architecture and canal system, Vyshny Volochek is also positioned in the middle of the Moscow-St Petersburg train line. With new fast trains on the route, it is just a two-hour journey from either city. If a regeneration effort can’t work here, there really is no hope for the small towns of Russia.
The town has five large factories that during Soviet times made glass and fabrics, but now only two of them are working. In a story repeated at thousands of factories across the former Soviet space, the cotton that was used at the fabric factory came from Uzbekistan; when the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan became independent, it was no longer financially viable to send it. Even the factories that are still open employ just a small fraction of the number that worked there in the 1980s. The population has dropped from around 80,000 in the 1970s to 50,000 today.
There are few jobs, few prospects and little optimism in the town. There isn’t even a cinema, and it’s not surprising, as Vyshny Volochek’s mayor Oleg Menshikov says during a drive around the town, that “if someone is ambitious, they want to get out as soon as possible, and go to Moscow or St Petersburg.”
The five projects mainly aim to make use of the town’s location between Russia’s two biggest economic centres. There would be a massive outlet and shopping centre, an entertainment park, and a conference and hotel centre. One of the smaller factories would be turned into a folklore theatre, while the fifth will be aimed at promoting tourism. While you’d have to be on some pretty strong drugs to confuse the “Russian Venice” with the real thing, there’s no doubting that the town is pleasant and pretty, and with a bit of sprucing up it could make a decent weekend break destination for Muscovites who currently go either to their dachas or to Europe for a weekend away.
“Even if we can implement just a small part of the project, it could make a huge difference,” says Menshikov. Choban himself thinks the project is “completely realistic” and says it has already found support at a high level in the Russian government. He expects the project to be completed in six to seven years.