Nobody knows how long people live in Dzerzhinsk – life expectancy statistics for the Russian city, 250 miles east of Moscow, aren’t released to the public. In the days of the Soviet Union, it was closed to outsiders and left off official maps, but those in neighbouring Nizhny Novgorod joked that residents must have purple skin and second heads because of the emissions from its secretive chemical weapons plants. In recent years, however, it has gained notoriety as one of the most polluted places on the planet, with a study after the fall of the Iron Curtain reporting locals usually died in their mid-forties.
‘You can make more money here than anywhere else,’ Andrei, a local part-time taxi driver in his early twenties explained as we sped down the snow-lined highway towards the city last winter. ‘Engineers and factory workers earn the most, but everyone’s salary is better as a result.’ His dream, he explained, was to save enough cash to move to America, trading Russia’s icy roads for a job as a trucker on Route 66.
In the central square is a monument to the man who gives the city its name – Bolshevik revolutionary Felix Dzerzhinsky. As the founder of the brutal Cheka secret police, which later became the KGB, he was the architect of the Red Terror that ultimately claimed the lives of more than a million Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Tatars, and Lithuanians. ‘Iron Felix’, as he was known, signed the death warrants, convened the firing squads and helped build one of the most oppressive systems of state control ever seen, transforming the world’s largest country into an open-air prison.
And yet few Russians seem to see anything sinister in the fact mass murderers are held up as cultural icons.