One can hardly imagine all the odors pervading the working environments at chemical plants. Chlorine, phosgene, hydrogen chloride, petrochemicals, phenol, acetone, methyl metacrylate, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur dioxide, vinyl chloride and numerous other compounds were in the air in various concentrations and mixes at all times. Sometimes there were emergencies, and the city was enveloped in fumes. Many locals were able to identify the origin of the emergency down to the factory or even one of its buildings by the odor alone. Some compounds were highly harmful and dangerous.
Most of the hazardous industries have been shut down, and the air in Dzerzhinsk has become much clearer. However, one can still get a sense of these odors, which chem factory workers breathed, by going to remaining sludge collectors.
The audience can experience three smells from the notorious sludge settlement ponds of the eastern industrial estate in Dzerzhinsk: the White Sea, the Black Hole, and pyrolysis sludge. A relative of mine worked at a pyrolysis plant for around two decades. She was exposed to carcinogenic fumes daily and died to a malignant tumor.
Odors. 2019. Installation
56.2354828N/43.5809789E. 2016. Mixwd media. 250х300
There are still relatively many open-air waste reservoirs around the chemical industries of Dzerzhinsk. The best known are popularly called the “white sea” and the “black hole.”
The White Sea sludge pond is the largest in the area, just shy of one square kilometer. Built in 1973, it was used to filter waste before dumping it into a tributary of the Oka River. In 2011, the President Medvedev came to the site and promised to allocate funds for safe disposal and demolition of the sludge collectors. It remains unclear how to dispose of millions of tons of chemical waste. The reservoirs could be covered with soil, but this would not protect groundwater from toxic pollutants. There has already been several resonant litigation cases on misappropriation of the funds, but nothing has been done about the White Sea or the Black Hole.
I grew up nearby. South from the White Sea, my family had a garden plot where we went every weekend with my parents. Further South, my grand-grandmother, grandmother and grandfather are buried at the local cemetery. Closer to the Oka River, there is the village where I used to spend my summers.
The White Sea is a repository of tons of sludge that has compacted and almost turned into stone. Recalling its expanse in my memory, I visualize satellite images where this sludge pond can be seen as a cleanly-outlined diamond shape, white and with rounded corners.
Its surface enthralls me with biomorphic swirls and fractals. Flowing and thickening liquids have formed these quirky patterns to make a huge screen that preserves, like the ocean on Solaris, the memories and images of the past.
Graphite. 2019. Installation
Graphite electrodes are used in electrolytic production of chlorine and other chemicals. When in use, the electrodes degrade and accumulate highly-toxic dioxins. Total sorption of lead, chlorine, sulphur, nitrogen, and other toxicants by graphite rods during their service life is up to 20% of rod mass.
Locals from near the industries discovered that graphite waste burns 2–3 times slower than coal and since the 1960s through to the late 1990s they used it in large quantities to heat their homes.
Environmental studies estimate that one worker camp alone burnt around 400 tons of graphite waste each year. Earlier in the day, you could legally get graphite waste directly from the industries. Since its toxicity was discovered, though, the waste has been taken to landfills. However, truck drivers were willing to inexpensively sell graphite on the side. If chickens eat any graphite chippings, they die. The locals who had been burning it as fuel for decades, were getting poisoned and suffered from respiratory conditions. In the early 2000s, most houses got centralized gas connections and the need for graphite heating was no more.
Pits. 2018. photo
The town of Dzerzhinsk was put on the maps in 1930. Yet, for many more years, a lot of workers lived in shared housing camps: Kalininsky Camp, Mendeleevsky Camp and many others. Some camps were given outlandish names, like Solovki to house dekulakized, or dispossessed, wealthy peasants, or Fibrolite built with fibrolite sheets (asbestos cement). There would also be a Govenny Khutor for gong farmers.
Each larger plant had its Avariyny (Emergency) Town to accommodate the management and engineers who needed to have immediate access to the plant in case of an emergency. These towns had the best amenities with permanent build and good infrastructure.
Almost all my ancestors were born in one of the larger shared housing camps, Voroshilovsky. It counted over ten thousand residents, had two hospitals, two schools, a maternity clinic, a morgue, a Russian sauna, a community club and even a music school. These camps were disbanded in the 1960, including my family’s settlement. This land plot is now occupied by a thick wood overtaken by wild trees. Not even the foundations of the shared barracks have survived, but there are still pits that used to be cellars.
The cellars were used to store food but also doubled as shelters should there be an air raid or a chemical strike.
Voroshilovsky camp. Aerial photo with streets. 2018
"Monkeys". 2018 — 2019. Installation
This was the nickname for gas masks that at many plants had to be replaced monthly. For example, caprolactam shop No. 33, where my dad worked, got 150 new masks and 300 filters every month. The gear had to be disposed of after a month in use. To this day, there are heaps of these gas masks around Dzerzhinsk. One of the local factories specialized in hazmat equipment and regularly delivered new batches to hazardous industries. During World War II, this was the country’s only production of gas masks and hazmat gear. Wandering around its premises, I found piles of unused and partially decayed gas masks.
Claus. 2019. Installation
Researching the former Voroshilovsky Camp, I discovered an aerial photograph taken in 1942 by German spies. The caption said that the Germans were not looking for secret military plants that produced chemicals, but for the local combined heat and power plant that supplied the industries.
Then I got my hands on a memoire by a Luftwaffe pilot Claus Fritzsche, who gives a detailed account of prisoner-of-war camps near the Voroshilovsky settlement. The captured German soldiers manned the most harmful and hazardous jobs, for example, production of tetraethyllead. They built new process shops and set up equipment brought in from Germany.
There were three POW camps near Dzerzhinsk, two in the eastern part of the industrial estate. I wanted a precise location and found Claus’ email, wrote him an email attaching the aerial photograph. To my great surprise, I received a response with a marked- up Soviet map. Through correspondence, we were able to locate the POW camps. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Claus came to this area several times. He sent me two pictures. One photo from 1946 shows him in front of a military barrack under construction. The other was taken in the naughts: He stands on the very same spot, but instead of a barrack there are ruins in the background. I intended to go to East Germany to interview him, but Claus died in 2017. He gave me permission to publish our correspondence.