Seeing Russia: Russia’s Detroit

by Hanna Miller

in 1969, Naberezhnye Chelny – translated, Banked Canoes – began its fading-Soviet, semi-capitalist formation from a small village founded in the early 1600s into a modern day factory town. the late Brezhnev era, in an anxious charade to revert to “everything is gonna to be all right,” encouraged working women and men to flood into this city located just three hours outside of Kazan, which is the capital of the Russian republic Tatarstan. a plant named Kamaz was in the makes to mass-produce big trucks, i.e. eighteen wheelers. Russia’s only city built by plan of numbered apartment and building complexes calls itself “Russia’s Detroit,” implying industrial, criminal, monochrome.

whatever Detroit is like i am unsure, having never been there. Russians here think that it is a square, cement-blocked wheel revolving round a factory center. Naberezhnye Chelny being a mere 45 years old means that everyone’s grandmother, grandfather, mom, and dad moved here not long ago for the sole purpose of assembly lined vehicle-making.

most people in Chelny have personally dabbled in the Kamaz interworkings, from translating documents into foreign languages to enrolling in college courses especially created to educate students for a future at the truck plant. Kazan Federal University – Naberezhnye Chelny Institute (KFU is the republic’s largest and most prestigious university, and a branch has been developed in the Canoe city) does its best to keep its own by offering special deals of “study this” for a reduced price and promised future employment.

the industry-based draw and new economy engendered instability and criminal danger in the city’s early years, and Chelny’s been marked and acknowledged by those afar as a delinquent city. while outsiders raise their eyebrows at the mention of “Naberezhnye Chelny,” citizens of our Banked Canoes enjoy a parallel-universe-like existence of rich capitalist economy rooted in a communist undertaking. the numbered complexes house apartments, shopping malls, restaurants, anything buyable.

looking towards the West and our merchandise we garner to self-express, Chelny attempts to construct its young identity through selling and buying modern conveniences – from truck parts to fake guns featured at the fake gun booths in every shopping center (real gun ownership is illegal). while Russia has a rich history far deeper than our own United States story, new cities are occurring in the Motherland, fretting the trench-divided tension between “new” and “tradition.” Russia’s Detroit seems unsure of itself, bouncing between the parameters of new capitalism, crime, industrialization, and huge square buildings which give home to memories of dissolving commitment to the state. in this early post-Soviet era, Chelny’s identity grasp is not unlike the confusion taking place nationally, as the Russian Federation is younger than its mother-aged predecessor Banked Canoes.


Hanna Miller

Hanna is from Mississippi and a Masters of Journalism student at the University of California at Berkeley. Her background is in Russian language + culture, sexual assault crisis response on University campuses, and generational divides between women in the American south. She has experience in documentary + TV production for public broadcasting, radio + web production for the arts and cultural exchange, and non-profit founding, organization, and development.