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The Rehousing Scam in Omsk

A story of those stranded in hovels, in a village that didn’t have to die. From openDemocracy.

by Georgy Borodyansky 11 April 2014

Six years ago the Omsk regional authorities embarked on a program aimed at rehousing people living in unsafe and dilapidated accommodation. But the results are far from satisfactory.

 

The program is part of a national housing strategy adopted as long ago as 2001. Its progress can be judged by the fact that President Vladimir Putin, in a speech to a body of regional leaders at the end of last year, had to remind the assembled ministers and governors about their duty to implement this high priority project. He warned that they would be held personally responsible for any further failure to do so.

 

There is no doubt that the strategy was designed to benefit people, but the question remains: which people? In the district of Russkaya Polyana [a small town some 95 miles from Omsk], for example, the law enforcement and regulatory authorities have been looking for them for a year and a half. The only person who has benefited so far appears to be the leader of the Solnechnoe village council, Nadezhda Khudina. She included in the rehousing list her own daughter, who is now registered as the occupant of an abandoned house where she never lived.

 

An abandoned, tumbledown house in Omsk. Photo by Tim@sw2008/flickr.

 

The actual owner of the house is Omsk businesswoman Irina Zaitseva, who in the 1990s spent five years working as head of the village medical and obstetric center. The house came with the job, and when she returned to the city and set up a cafe and bakery, she forgot all about it. But, discovering Khudina’s designs on her old home (of which she is still the legal owner), she filed a suit with the local public prosecutor’s office.

 

The resulting investigation and court case has brought to light many interesting facts about how the rehousing program is being implemented, some of them cited in court by Nikolai Kudrilyak, a regional inspector from Rosfinnadzor, Russia’s Federal Financial and Budgetary Supervisory Service. He told the court that a list of unsafe buildings was drawn up in 2009-2010, presumably making their occupants eligible for rehousing. But 24 of them were sold by their owners for a tiny 1,000 to 3,000 rubles [$30 to $90], although the rehousing program had already been publicized. Nineteen further houses were sold when funding for the program was subsequently put in place. In other words, said Kudrilyak, local authorities weren’t telling people about the project, so they had no idea that they could exchange their moldy hovels in the middle of nowhere for new flats with all mod cons in the district center.

 

A FLOURISHING VILLAGE, ONCE …

 

One of these godforsaken places is Tam-Chilik, where even the habitable houses aren’t worth a kopek. When Zaitseva returned there to sort out the question of her old house she was shocked and has since combined her business role with community activism.

 

The village of Tam-Chilik is a mile long; it started as a single street, so this was named Main Street. In the 1930s 70 families lived here, and at the beginning of this century there was approximately the same number. The rate of change was slower here than in Russia as a whole: it wasn’t the 1990s that were turbulent, but the 2000s, as it was in many Siberian villages. Here life was pretty normal, or at least still extant, before “Russia got back on its feet.”

 

In 1992 the village got a central heating plant, so everyone had a warm home, and a two-story school with an extension for preschool classes. There was work for everyone on the farms.

 

It was a prosperous agricultural center, say the old-timers. There were 12 herds of sheep, each of 700 head, and all fine-wooled. There were also 400 head of cattle, a herd of 200 horses, a machinery park with 20 combine harvesters and as many tractors, a grain store, a carpentry shop, a mill, a blacksmith’s, and a creamery.

 

Main Street also served numerous local needs: it had a general store selling groceries and household goods, a canteen, a hostel, and a bathhouse, not to mention the medical center run by Zaitseva.

 

“What else was there…?” says former machine operator Kali Kasimgazinovich, trying to remember. “Oh yes, of course, there was the village club. They’d show all kinds of films on the weekend – Soviet, new, foreign. And on national holidays there’d be public celebrations and concerts – the whole village would be there.”

 

… BUT NO LONGER

 

But in our new century the investor-liquidators, cronies of the local administrative and judicial bigwigs, arrived, and Tam-Chilik suffered the same fate as most Siberian villages. Most notorious was the bankruptcy of the Zhelanny agricultural cooperative in Omsk’s Odessa district. Here the raiders expropriated land, machinery, and cattle (worth 120 million rubles at the time) from the more than 600 coop members, transferred the lot into their own names and raised about 70 million rubles of bank credit on it all, which they would self-evidently never pay back. Cases like this sometimes ended up with suspended prison sentences for the raiders – and real sentences for the coop managers who tried to stand up to them.

 

By the mid-2000s the sounds of neighing, lowing, and bleating and the roar of tractors and harvesters had faded in Tam-Chilik, and the buildings on Main Street had emptied and thinned out. In 2006 the school closed down and the central heating station was also redundant – the houses that remained went back to using their old wood-burning stoves. Everything else had also gone: the medical center, the hostel, the bathhouse, the shop – the locals now have to buy their bread, salt, and matches in Adrianovka, five miles away.

 

All that is left of the club is a bit of wall and a rusty display panel with the word “Cinema” on it. The school building has also been reduced to bare steel piles rising out of heaps of brick. According to the locals, it was reduced to this state by some people, supposedly from Omsk, who came a few times with a crane and trucks in which they took away the most useful part of the structure, concrete slabs.

 

The last sign of life in the village was its drinking water pump, but three years ago it collapsed and was also removed, probably for scrap. That left one standpipe at one end of the street, but the water from it is undrinkable. I tried it: it stank of diesel, and no one can imagine how that got in the borehole.

 

Twice the locals took samples of this water for testing, and at the end of last year it was officially pronounced drinkable, but a month ago there was an official admission that it didn’t meet hygiene standards. Now water is brought to the village when requested by the few people who still live here. When the rehousing program started six years ago there were about 30 households left; now there are only nine.

 

A DELIBERATE PLAN?

 

Zaitseva believes the authorities deliberately and systematically reduced the village (and no doubt others as well) to this state, so that people would leave, handing over their houses for next to nothing. The lucky new owners meanwhile received the right, thanks to the rehousing program, to new flats in Russkaya Polyana, 70 square meters (750 square feet) in area and officially valued at more than 2 million rubles (this was the figure quoted in the court case against Nadezhda Khudina, who had registered her daughter as living in Zaitseva’s house).

 

There is of course no proof that this was all planned, but the fact that villagers were not notified of their right to rehousing was clear from the evidence given by the Rosfinnadzor inspector and cited by the public prosecutor, rejecting an objection made by Khudina’s defense lawyer.

 

The public prosecutor is evidently aware of the possible scale of the alleged fraud around the village houses, but it’s unclear whether it is being investigated. The locals, and others, would like to see a list of the people who bought 24 old properties for peanuts and were then rehoused in nice new flats, but it’s difficult to say if the investigators even have one. I spoke to most of Tam-Chilik’s residents, and they all agreed that it wasn’t just random members of the public who accessed the rehousing program.

 

The court gave Khudina a two-year suspended sentence, and indeed every person in the area tried for a similar offense – all of them holders of high office – has gotten away with either a suspended sentence or a fine.

 

THE INSULTED AND THE INJURED

 

At the end of last month Zaitseva had a meeting with Omsk regional prosecutor Anastas Spiridonov and filed an official request for a more detailed investigation of how the rehousing program was being implemented in the Russkaya Polyana district. She made the same request of the regional Rosfinnadzor head. “I’m really angry about the pensioners and disabled people being defrauded by these swindlers,” she says. “They should have been the first to be given new homes, instead of which they’ve been left in their crumbling shacks in these dead villages, and nobody gives a damn about it.”

 

It’s hard to see how the lists were compiled if Anna and Grigory Krivoshei (address: No. 1 Main Street) were omitted from them. Anna was brought here by her parents as a child in 1941, Grigory by his, even earlier – he’s now 84. They both worked at the state farm for more than he as a tractor driver, decorated six times for outstanding work.

 

But neither awards nor length of service were enough to get them on the rehousing list. Some people came three years ago, they say, from the local authority “or somewhere” (probably the valuation survey office). They measured the house and garden plot, promised the couple they would get a new flat in town, and gave them a document, for which they had to pay 5,000 rubles, confirming their possession of the house they had lived in for over half a century. And that was the end of it. Two and a half years have gone by without a word from any government office.

 

Rynzha Sultanalinova lives at No. 18 Main Street with her 18-year-old daughter, Indira, who was left disabled by meningitis at the age of 2 and can neither walk nor talk. Rynzha is afraid to leave Indira at home alone for long, but sometimes it’s unavoidable if she has to go to Adrianovka to shop for food. One day Indira developed a high temperature and when Rynzha phoned for an ambulance to take her into hospital she was told to bring her herself, although they know about her daughter’s condition. “I got her into the car,” she told me, “and took her. They spent half an hour examining her and sent us home again.”

 

Two years ago the district authority turned them down for rehousing because Indira was too young, telling them to come back when the girl was 18. Now she is, but Rynzha doesn’t believe they’ll ever get a flat.

 

Other residents of Main Street tell similar tales of broken promises, and in one case, of suspected arson. In Tam-Chilik there are still 19 people without a decent roof over their heads.

 

Meanwhile, Deputy Governor Yuri Gamburg announced on 2 April that the Omsk region was ready to offer subsidized housing and jobs to residents of Ukraine who wish to resettle there. He also announced they would be entitled to a resettlement grant, as part of the regional rehousing program.

 

So far no Ukrainians seem to be taking him up on his offer. But where can the people from Tam-Chilik resettle?

Georgy Borodyansky is a correspondent in Omsk for Novaya Gazeta. This article originally appeared on openDemocracy.net.

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