Ads and Traffic in Chelyabinsk

In 1995, Chelyabinsk turned out to be more pleasant than I'd expected. I'd heard about a long-secret nuclear accident in the '50s that released a huge cloud of radiation nearby, and local factories were said to spew pollutants day and night. Expecting a bleak, smoggy Soviet city, we were surprised to find Chelyabinsk quiet and somewhat quaint.

Photo Gallery: Away from the busy city center, two elderly women and a boy enjoy a quieter corner of Chelyabinsk.(David Hillegas)

Then, as now, we stayed in an apartment owned by Sergei and Lyuba right on Revolution Square, in the middle of town. The view from the windows in 1995 shows a wide-open Lenin Street, ad-free sidewalk space and the empty edge of the square.

Today, that view has changed: The streets downtown are choked with cars from morning to night. Advertising has sprung up everywhere -- on buildings, trams, billboards, flyers. And the edge of Revolution Square bustles with people hurrying down to the vast underground shopping mall, or to the new pedestrian mall on Kirov Street.

This pedestrian mall, nicknamed "Arbat" after Moscow's famous walking street, is a wonder to behold. Like downtown Khabarovsk, it's impeccably clean and well-landscaped, with completely smooth sidewalks. It also has a vast array of whimsical statues, from camels to dogs to minstrels. And the final touch: speakers mounted along the street pipe out elevator music all day long. Walking on the Arbat, I felt like I'd landed in a carefully controlled psychological experiment.

That feeling intensified when my heart sped up at the sight of a familiar blue and yellow sign on the Arbat. Ikea! Wow! There's an Ikea store in Chelyabinsk! Never mind the fact that I hate going to Ikea in the U.S. -- for some reason I was thrilled at the idea of seeing multi-colored wonders of Scandinavian furniture design right here in Russia. It was a weird and amusing feeling. Perhaps we're all just subjects in a vast Ikea psychological experiment.


It's odd to look back at photos from the 1995 trip and realize how little advertising there was in most cities. I remember thinking then that Russia felt much more commercialized than it had on my first visit, in 1988. But looking around now, it's clear that the advertising market hadn't even cranked its engine back then.

Photo Gallery: Chelyabinsk's new "Arbat" pedestrian mall offers clean, landscaped surroundings, complete with elevator music piped in. (David Hillegas)

Trolleybuses now have giant ads painted on their exteriors. Trams pipe in audio ads after the conductor announces each stop. The sides of buildings, once the preserve of giant Soviet-era slogans and mosaics, now sport 5-story-high banner ads. Billboards are everywhere. And coffee shops and restaurants offer handouts advertising cigarettes and alcohol.

This change was most striking on our first evening here, as we strolled around Revolution Square. Ten years ago, the prevailing image of the square for me was the klatsch of Communists we'd talked with, under the red banners they'd hung up. Now, we watched as a group of young people skipped across the square, carrying a flag of their own. "Kenvelo," it said. Before I could ask what that meant, one of them handed me a flyer. "Five percent discount with this coupon," it said, "and a chance to win three DVD players in a raffle!"

Next week: Kazan.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 21, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: Chelyabinsk: A 'Gift' for World War II Veterans | Next: Kazan: The Mosque Inside the Kremlin Walls


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Good to see how the capitalism, advertising, etc. have changed in the past 15 years.
You had a great variety of subject material again this week - both in articles and photos.
Keep up the good work!

Posted by: SJ | October 22, 2005 12:50 PM

I am happy and at the same time sad watching all these changes in Russian cities. The advertising looks nice, but what's behind?.. What are the values in today's Russia. Going back to your other posting about WWII Veterans, the situation with old people in Russia is very sad. Every time I come back home my heart is breaking watching the old ones selling vegetables or just begging on the street. And the saddest part is that the same old people raised my generation, the generation that hardly has any values because we were so disappointed with the old ones, and our parents/ grandparents could not offer us the new ones. And now we try to enrich our world with all this colorful advertising and forget about problems we are facing. So sad....

Posted by: AK | October 23, 2005 03:54 PM

It's nice to see the vibrant side to Russian life. When I travl in Asia, the streets are filled with children.

In contrast, the UNDP report last week had some pretty grim stats for Russian mortality and fertility. Do you see signs that things are improving or can improve so that the average Russians can feel secure enough to start families?

Posted by: Arlington | October 24, 2005 10:17 AM

That's a great question, Arlington. People in Russia are very concerned about their falling population numbers. Russian men, especially, have a very low average age of death -- I believe it's younger than 60, even. And the birth rate figures have been low for several years.
Anecdotally, people have been telling us that more Russian women are getting pregnant than before. (I don't have any concrete figures, so I can't confirm that). Many feel that the relative stability of the economy in the last 5 years has led people to feel more comfortable starting families -- which in turn is one factor people have quoted to us as a reason they're fans of Vladimir Putin. He's seen by many as a stabilizing force.

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 24, 2005 10:37 AM

I believe that when you graph falling fertility and rising mortality, it is called the "Russian Cross." In many other places, falling fertility coincides with falling mortality. But, anything can change.

It is good news to hear that the new stability has been good for Russian women. But, I hesitate to give Putin all the credit. I think strong oil demand will keep Russia's balance of payments in good order.

Posted by: Arlington | October 24, 2005 01:11 PM

I'm an American who lived in Chelyabinsk from 1993 to 2001, from the time I was 11 to 19 years old. You really would be amazed to watch the change year by year in our city. When we first moved there, the only imported goods you could find were Uncle Ben's tomato suace and Snickers candy bar. I remember how excited I was when my Dad brought home a 6-pack of Pepsi in glass bottles! I am very proud of the progress the city has made since the 1990s, and although the vast majority of people there live nowhere near the level of Sergei and Luba, life is somewhat easier. I believe though it is important to note that the changes you describe in your report are surface changes and that Chelyabinsk has many social and administrative problems that have yet to be resolved.

Posted by: Lee | November 15, 2005 05:58 AM

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company