Sleepy town with nuclear threat awaiting England in Russia
IF England are looking for self-reflection and meditation, the sleepy Russian town where they will train during the World Cup next summer could fit the bill. The 10-minute drive north from their modest accommodation in the village of Repino, 30 kilometres from St Petersburg, cuts through birch and pine forest, the view occasionally punctuated by a large steak restaurant or a glimpse of the Baltic Sea.
“People come here looking for total and absolute quiet,” says 61-year-old real estate agent Nadezhda, whose allotment garden touches the training complex. “The young are not interested in buying here. There’s nothing for them to do.”
Zelenogorsk, with a population of around 15,000, is one of a string of resort towns lining the Gulf of Finland and is home to a curious mix of newly-built villas and crumbling Soviet architecture. In the summer, its sandy beaches fill up with St Petersburg residents eager to flee the city. The town’s main drag, Lenin Avenue, has a limited selection of run-down shops selling Russian food staples and copious amounts of hard alcohol. Most local business owners were unaware that England will train here.
A few minutes’ walk away sits the future stadium. Encircled by a rudimentary grey, iron fence, fluorescent-clad migrant workers from Uzbekistan are busy laying down the pitch. A new, two-storey building sits on one side, its beige exterior reflects the light. Seats are yet to be installed.
Ros Stroi Montazh, the private firm building the complex, did not grant access to the grounds, but a spokeswoman said the work would be completed by the end ofyear deadline.
On a recent visit, the silence in the air was interrupted by two workers welding metal and the crow of a rooster. A man nearby, under a light spray of rain, was grilling pork kebabs in his overgrown garden.
Locals have mixed feelings about the massive construction effort under way, which replaces a Soviet-era pitch that was used primarily by children. For decades, Nadezhda, who declined to give her last name, has grown cherries, plums and blackcurrants on the plot the Soviet government gave her. She and her neighbours, who also own allotments, worry they will be flattened when England arrive. Irina, a 70-year-old former schoolteacher, disagrees. “It will do nothing but good for our small town. After the English leave, it will be returned to the Russians for us to use,” she says.
Repino, though without a town centre and much smaller with 2,000 people, is more upmarket, with a gourmet supermarket and a vast wine store, though still nowhere near the plush surroundings England teams have become accustomed to during past tournaments.
The village’s sole nightclub, Zaliv, meaning Gulf, is frequented by middle-aged people dancing to a steady stream of Russian pop music and smoking shisha pipes. Complete with a mirrored ceiling and a disco ball, Zaliv recently held strip shows and “schoolgirl outfit” nights.
The ForRestMix resort club where the team will stay is also no luxury affair. Nestled between a private school and a dilapidated cement tower block filled with construction workers, it is understated in style. The rooms’ decor is spartan, but the beds are large. They look out on to a thicket of trees, whose leaves are an autumnal yellow and red.
Gareth Southgate has defended his decision to base England in the middle of a forest, saying it would benefit the players to live quietly and with privacy.
But an invisible nuclear threat could be lurking among the tranquillity, warn scientists and researchers. Across the Gulf of Finland lies the town of Sosnovy Bor, home to the largest nuclear cluster in the Baltic Sea region. Next year, upgrades to the Leningrad nuclear power plant, as well as the completion of a new nuclear facility, are expected to go on stream. While they pose no immediate threat to residents, neither have undergone environmental impact checks, says physicist Oleg Bodrov,
“If an accident happens, it will take one and a half hours to reach Repino,” said Bodrov, adding that Russia’s staterun atomic industry has forfeited safety for economic gain. “Fifa should take this into account.”