Samara’s Central Attraction
Text and photographs by John Bonar
Standing beside the Zhigulevski brewery on the banks of the bend in the Volga River you look across to the Zhiguli Mountains, which is one of the most beautiful views in Russia. The mountains have lent their name not only to the local beer brand but to one of the most popular Soviet era car models, the Zhiguli, produced upstream in Toliatti at the AvtoVAZ car plant. The original car plant was built by Fiat of Italy and the first models were exact copies of the famous Italian Fiat 124.
Today, Italian transport experts from the Omatec Company are back in Samara studying opportunities and advising the regional government on toll roads and bridges. And a Swiss mission-critical control and wi-fi communications company, Ascom AG, has offered to invest up to 30 million euros in the region’s logistical projects where it’s tracking devices would be used.
A German banker, Michael Hoffman, heads the Volga Federal District Offi ce of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development based in Samara and is actively looking for further opportunities to invest the bank’s funds in the region.
Samara, renamed Kuibyshev, after an early Bolshevik hero, from 1935 to 1991 was a closed city during the post WWII period because of its space technology R&D centers. Today it is open, and open for business in a way unprecedented in its history. While the number of foreigners in the city and surrounding region of forest and steppe are considerably less than the influx of German settlers attracted in the days of Catherine the Great, the foreigners in Samara today head multimillion dollar investment companies ranging from Nestlé’s famed Rossiya chocolate factory to Corning’s fi ber optic cable plant. The Austrian Alfred von Bakan may have founded the brewery in 1881, and his name lingers on in the adjacent hunting lodge style beer hall and restaurant Von Bakan, but Pepsi and Coca Cola have now both invested in massive bottling plants and distribution centers in the region in the current booming business era.
The Germans of the late 1700’s were attracted by offers of freedom to choose their occupations with cash subsidies or an allocation of up to 70 acres if they wished to farm. And if they chose to farm they were given seed for the fi rst winter and spring sowings, two horses per family and either free equipment or money in lieu of it. Today over 120 foreign companies have invested in the region not only because of an enthusiastic approach by the local administration and signifi cant tax breaks, but also because of the city’s strategic location. Samara, rated one of the top places to do business in Russia, is a key communications crossroads in Russia. “Samara is a hub in both southern and eastern directions,” said Regional Transport and Communications Minister, Mr. Boris Adralin, at a recent logistics conference in Samara.
The Samara Region is situated in the south-east area of European Russia at the approximate mid-point of the Volga, Europe’s biggest river, and occupies 53,600 square kilometers. That is a tiny 0.3% of the territory of Russia, but Samara traditionally punches above its weight, due to its location. The city was founded in 1586 as a fortress outpost against the raiding nomads. During The Great Patriotic War the city came to prominence as the ‘alternative capital’. It became one of the nation’s biggest industrial centers as a result of the evacuation of a number of engineering and aircraft production units here from the western regions. Most of the government offi ces and diplomatic corps moved to Samara in 1941, and there was even an underground bunker built to accommodate Stalin and his war command, the Stavka. Stalin never came, although his daughter was sent to school in Samara.
Samara’s immediate borders are with Tatarstan to the north, Saratov Region to the south, Orenburg in the east and Ulyanovsk in the northwest. The Volga water highway links it to the Black Sea and ultimately the Mediterranean. It’s a short hop to Moscow and Kazakhstan. Bulgaria lies at the northern end of its transport corridor to Ukraine and Belorussia. The UK and France are in its sights at the western end of an East West Corridor linking up with Kazakhstan and that country’s neighbors.
Samara is an example of how the centralized wealth of Russia is rapidly spreading from the Moscow-St. Petersburg axis. The region is third in Russia for per capita consumer spending. In the last decade a host of Moscow retailers have opened here. The streets are lined with retailers familiar to all Muscovites: 36.6, Sportmaster, M Video, Perekrostok, Paterson, L’Etoile, Ramstore, Techno Sila, Rostiks, Mc-Donald’s, Tinkoff and Il Patio. Foreign names have joined them recently. Metro, the German Cash and Carry and Castorama, the Kingfisher owned DIY depot are on the outskirts while Adidas, D&G and Maxanova jostle with Wild Orchid on Kuibyshev Street. In the land of the Lada and Zhiguli, billboards for Jaguar and Volvo mark the four-lane highway from Ufa, approaching the Samara city center.
Samara is renowned for having the most beautiful women in Russia, and this assetion is supported by a statement made by Russian Oscar-winning movie director, Alexander Mikhailkov. Polina Borgest, the young and attractive director of the leading local tourist gift shop likes to attribute this to the legend that Catherine II exiled all the beauties of St. Petersburg to Samara to avoid harsh comparison with her unprepossessing features! More sanguine students of ethnicity say it is due to the unique mixing of blood and genes from Samara’s exotic racial mix of 83% Russian, 4% each of Tatars, Mordovans, Chuvash and Ukrainians, with 2% of Belorussian origin and a sprinkling of Kazakh, Jews, Germans, Bashkir, Mari and others.
Whatever the reason, it makes lounging on the café lined Volga embankment a great people watching occupation on a summer evening; as leggy teens in skimpy outfi ts roller blade between the tables. And yes, I have to admit, the Samara boys are equally handsome and clean-cut looking and I am sure many a girl would find them attractive. The boys strut their stuff up the hill on skateboards on the vast Slava (Glory) Square in front of the Regional Administration building.
Samara has been called ”St. Louis-on-the-Volga”, which is quite fitting, since Samara and St. Louis are linked by a sister-city relationship and both serve similar positions of river related commerce. Now it is getting some American hotels as well. Marriott’s four-star 196 rooms Renaissance Hotel has been operating here for four years with single accommodation room rates from 7,670 rubles without breakfast. A fi ve star Holiday Inn just opened in the historic old town. And hotel lobbies are bustling. Business is brisk in Samara and Moscow’s MDM Bank, VTB 24, Absolut Bank and Citibank have all joined Alfa Bank and local banks in expanding the financial market here.
Samara is rapidly developing into a transport corridor to rival the Trans Siberian. The aim is to develop it into a regional logistics center integrated into the international network. China has pledged to play its role with increased cargo volume. Over dinner with Mr. Adralin and Mr. Habibulla Khasaef, the Samara Region’s Minister of Economy, Investment and Trade, Mr. Nigmatzhan Isingarin, the President of Kazakhstan Association of National Expediters and a former senior transport official, told us that in 2006 China was the source of 3 million tons of cargo trans-shipped to Russia through Samara. “In 2007 it will be six million tons, and in 2008 the volume is scheduled to rise to eight million,” he said. If Samara gets its logistics infrastructure right, then this could further expand the Chinese cargo volume dramatically, as Western Europe becomes the ultimate destination.
Vladimir Vladmirovich Artyakov, who was plucked from leading AvtoVAZ at the end of August and rapidly confirmed as the new Governor of Samara, believes the development of a sound logistics infrastructure is the key to tapping Samara’s potential for development and economic investment. The plan he is advocating includes calls for expansion of the M5 motorway to Moscow, the construction of the region’s first road bridge across the Volga River, developing a warehousing and logistics hub to rival that planned for St. Petersburg, expanding and upgrading the region’s river ports at both Toliatti and Samara and linking these two main regional centers by a toll highway.
Developing this infrastructure is a prime opportunity for Public Private Partnerships to prove their worth in Russia. Dr. Frank Schauff, CEO of the Association of European Business in Russia, told the 350 plus delegates at the conference, “It is foreign technologies not foreign funds that are important for Russia today.”
Between Samara and Toliatti on a spur of the Kuibyshev Railway sits a couple of down-at-the-heel warehouses. This is the site of a planned logistics center, with extensive road and rail interface. Container trans-shipment and new road links to the North-South and East-West highways that are close by are envisioned. The site lies in the center of a future metropolis merging Samara and Toliattti cities. An industrial zone is planned in the rural area between them where several communities of dachas predominate today. Both urban developments will provide two poles of residential, leisure and shopping at each end of the elongated development along the Volga.
This could be one of the projects that Ascom will invest in, Rene Hostettler, their Sales Director for Russia told me. The Swiss company signed a letter of intent with Governor Artyakov during the logistics conference, to supply 3,000 passenger card recognition systems for use on the region’s suburban train network, city metro and tramways in the region’s towns and cities.
Oil and Gas
Around 300 million tons of oil is produced annually in the Samara region, but major petroleum refining projects are fed not only from local resources but from Kazakhstan whose oil fields are linked to Samara by the Atyrau-Samara pipeline. Rosneft has bought the local Yukos assets including three refineries with total processing capacity of 400,000 barrels per day and 200,000 barrels per day oil production unit.
The key is the Samarskaya Luka National Park and the Zhiguli State Reserve. Elk, deer, wild boar, roe-deer, wolves, hares, foxes, badgers, and dozens of species of birds, fish, insects and unique plants are prolific. Samara’s old town has a stock of centuries old wooden structures with prettily carved window frames with outcroppings of cornice balconies. Rapidly these are being replaced by concrete, steel, aluminum glass and brick structures, however. The amazingly gothic Catholic Cathedral with its two towers rising skywards dwarfs the neighboring Alexey Tolstoy Literary Museum housed in a compound of traditional wooden homes.
The region’s output includes cars from AvtoVaz including the joint venture with general Motors, Tupolev-154 aircraft, space rocketlaunchers Proton and Energiya, space lab equipment Soyuz-Progress, various aerospace components, high precision bearings, lathes, communications cables, unique items of the heavy engineering industry, construction materials and others including an Alcoa aluminum plant, Nestle’s ‘Rossiya’ chocolates and ‘Rodnik’ vodka distillery.
A local art museum, the Museum of Aleksey Tolstoy, Drama Theater, Opera and Ballet House, and the before mentioned Stalin’s Bunker.
Where to Stay
Holiday Inn. Five star luxury hotel 99 A. Tolstoy Street in the old town. +7 (846) 372-7000.
Renaissance Hotel. Four star western comfort. Close to TV broadcasting centers and the Volga river. +7 (846) 277-8340
Other four-star hotels include Vesta, Tranzit (in the new railway station), Gorodok, Evropa and Rossiya (near the River cruise Port). There are a large number of three and two star hotels.