- By Howard Amos
- Jul. 17 2011 20:17
Main Industries: gas, oil, farming, ship construction
Mayor: Sergei Bozhenov
Founded in 1558
Interesting Fact 1: Lenin’s father, Ilya Ulyanov, was born in Astrakhan. A statue of him stands under the kremlin’s walls.
Interesting Fact 2: Alexandre Dumas, the French author of “The Three Musketeers,” wrote a travel book titled “From Paris to Astrakhan.”
Sister cities: Rasht, Iran; Ahmedabad, India; Atyrau, Kazakhstan; Brest, Belarus; Grand-Popo, Benin; Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Sergei Bozhenov, Astrakhan mayor (+7 512-39-44-35;
Viktor Vinokurov, president of the Astrakhan Chamber of Commerce (+7 512-25-58-44;
Adzhimurat Temendarov, chairman of the Caspian Investment Agency (+7 512-44-35-55;
Konstantin Rogachev, deputy mayor and head of the economy and investment committee (+7 512-39-07-68;
ASTRAKHAN — While the Russian word for "tomato" may be masculine, Astrakhan natives tag an "a" on the end, switching the gender. A bizarre sound to Russian ears, perhaps, but Astrakhan's tomatoes grow to be so enormous, so red and so succulent in the sweltering summer temperatures and the plentiful fresh water of the Volga Delta that the locals cannot resist that little bit of affection.
Indeed, the surrounding region is known as "Russia's kitchen garden" for the abundance of locally grown fruit and vegetables, from watermelons to eggplants. And the city itself has long been a regional trading hub with links across the Caspian Sea to Iran, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Local authorities are keen to extend their business reach and, if they get their way, Astrakhan's 14 ports will soon be servicing ships from the Baltic Sea.
Still, Anthony Jenkinson, a 16th-century merchant sent to explore the practicalities of a land route to China by Britain's Muscovy Company, was not impressed by what he saw.
Arriving in 1558 he wrote that Astrakhan was "most destitute and barren of wood and pasture, and the ground will bear no corn: The air is … most infected, by reason (as I suppose) of much fish, and specially sturgeon, by which only the inhabitants live, having great scarcity of flesh and bread. They hang up their fish in their streets and houses to dry for their provisions, which causeth such abundance of flies."
Gazprom Extraction Astrakhan (30 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 512-31-63-51;
Electrotechnical Company (+7 512-44-55-66;
Olya International Sea Port (1 Ulitsa Kirov; +7 512-44-41-81;
Nowadays the smell is not as bad as in Jenkinson's time, at least outside the fish markets, but wander around the city's suburbs and you are still likely to spot a catch of fish drying alongside T-shirts, bedsheets and underwear — perhaps on one of the city's distinctive wrought-iron balconies.
Notoriously you'll be unlikely to see sturgeon in the same quantity as they once existed — overfishing in the search for prized black caviar has killed off the population almost entirely. Though some entrepreneurs are looking to revive the region's caviar reputation through farm-raised sturgeon, there are currently only 10, mostly family-based firms, working in this fledgling industry.
Tomatoes may be feminine in Astrakhan, but visitors to the city are usually men. Hunting and fishing in the Volga Delta, with all its great potential for male bonding, has traditionally drawn enthusiasts from across Russia.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has made no secret of his enthusiasm for fishing nor his desire to cultivate his "macho" image, is said to come on regular, unofficial trips to the area to indulge his passion.
Q: Why should investors come to Astrakhan?
A: The convenience of Astrakhan’s geographical position. The Silk Road passed through Astrakhan, and today’s transportation corridors through the city and the region — north to south and west to east — have deep historical roots. Rail transportation, road transportation, maritime and river transportation — they come together here.
There are more than 100 different nationalities in the city. Some people in Russia might be baffled by foreign visitors. But who hasn’t been to Astrakhan? Tartars, Americans, Chinese, Koreans — it doesn’t matter what nationality you are, here everyone’s their own man.
There is a green light and a positive attitude on the behalf of the governor and myself to any investor — whether it’s someone building a small stall, a drug store, a big business center or a factory producing iron or cement. Incentives offered to those doing business include tax breaks, low rents on land for industrial construction, and administration officials who provide advice and assistance to investors.
And in Astrakhan there are a lot of beautiful women. The mix of blood — Slavic and Asian — creates something special. No man could resist: you can admire, fall in love, get acquainted and, possibly, get married!
Q: What sort of problems does Astrakhan face?
A: We have an old problem in the city: There are houses that are 170 to 180 years old and have been unsuitable for a long time. Tsar Alexander I signed an order to move people from bad housing to good housing — that was 200 years ago. A hundred years later, another tsar signed a similar order. But only with the visit of Putin in 2004 did we receive the requisite support for a big resettlement of population — the biggest in 200 years. We have already resettled 7,000 families, and there are more than 20,000 more that could be resettled.
Q: How is Astrakhan placed to realize your goal of turning the city into the “Capital of the Caspian”?
A: Putin and Medvedev come to Astrakhan every year. The city is an international platform for negotiations. We have consulates from Iran and Kazakhstan here. We are both a transportation hub and have military positions — Astrakhan is on the border. There is the northern capital in St. Petersburg, the Russian capital in Moscow, and, in Astrakhan, we want to create the Caspian capital. We are investing as much strength as we can to ensure that the city looks like a capital.
Q: What would you say to investors looking at Astrakhan who have noted the recent links to terrorist activity in the city?
A: There is a black sheep in every family. That is, if there are 10 brothers and nine work, one will be lazy or a drunk. Or worse, a drug addict. But these sorts of incidents can happen in any country and in any town. And let’s look at the facts — there was no actual terrorist attack. Instead, we witnessed some excellent work by our intelligence services.
— Howard Amos
"In my personal estimation, the best fishing in the world is in the Murmansk region and in the Volga Delta, near Astrakhan," Putin told Moskovsky Komsomolets in May. Tour operators in Astrakhan said Putin particularly enjoys underwater fishing — participants are kitted out in wet suits, a mask, snorkel, fins and a speargun before being set loose to stalk their prey in the clear waters of the Volga.
But Astrakhan is not simply a one-night stop-over before an extended fishing trip. Centered on its enormous kremlin and with a smattering of mosques, the city is spread out along the banks of the Volga. International brands that have a presence in the city include McDonald's, with two outlets, and Metro Cash & Carry, while the road to and from the airport is lined with foreign car dealerships, including Toyota.
The presence of oil and gas in the Caspian has a big impact on the town's geography, with the offices of LUKoil and Gazprom occupying prominent positions. LUKoil has spent more than 40 billion rubles ($1.4 billion) in the Caspian Sea since exploration got under way in the 1990s and began pumping from the first offshore field in 2010. Experts say Caspian crude is likely to help maintain Russia's oil production levels in the face of declining West Siberian fields.
Gazprom, which employs about 5,000 Astrakhan citizens who are shuttled in and out of the city each day on distinctive company buses, has an even bigger presence — epitomized by its hulking brown and blue office in the historical center. Money from the state-owned gas giant financed the reconstruction of the waterfront in 2008 in time for the city's 450th anniversary celebrations.
On balmy summer evenings, the new embankment, which stretches 1.8 kilometers, is packed with strollers of all ages. Rollerbladers weave through the crowds that mix girls in evening dresses and boys in swimming shorts, fresh from a dip in the Volga.
At other times of the year, however, people are less in evidence on the streets. Average temperatures approach 50 degrees Celsius in the shade at the height of the summer and the leaves on the trees turn a uniform burnt yellow. Though temperatures in the winter are relatively mild with lows of minus 10 C, a biting wind often sweeps in off the Caspian. Visitors are advised to avoid a three- to four-week period in June and July when, nurtured by the swampy ground left behind by spring floodwaters, ferocious midges with legendary biting abilities appear in huge clouds.
When it comes to identifying the city's economic and social trends, what you hear depends who you talk to. There are different currents flowing through Astrakhan's history: While some see it as a peaceful trading center, others take pride in its status as a wild frontier city with little regard for authority.
The city's mayor, Sergei Bozhenov, stressed that none of 20th-century Russia's great upheavals — the 1917 Revolution or World War II — were felt particularly sharply.
Sergei Kulibaba, director of the region's state-sponsored Folk Culture Center, said the "oasis" principle has functioned in Astrakhan through the ages: In the interest of good business, traders would always lay down their arms.
Even Adolf Hitler intended to stop fighting when he reached Astrakhan, Kulibaba said. Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, was planned to have come to a halt along a line drawn from Arkhangelsk in the north to Astrakhan in the south. German forces never reached the city.
Q: What’s it like to do business in Astrakhan?
A: There is a huge difference between the opportunities for business in Astrakhan in 1995 and 2011. In 1995, what were we? Crooks, thieves, profiteers and all the rest of it — that was the mentality, and you can’t get away from it.
Now the situation has changed completely and there is even the opinion that businessmen are the heroes of our time. This tendency in popular perception is very positive, but unfortunately not everyone shares it. Many people still think businessmen are crooks. But the fact that the authorities have such a different attitude is very positive. Those in power understand that businessmen lay golden eggs, and you have to protect and cultivate them.
Q: What opportunities are there for business in Astrakhan?
A: The Iranians call Astrakhan Russia’s golden gate. Turkmenistan sees future trade with Russia through Astrakhan. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are nearby. The regional administration has very close contact with the administrations of neighboring Russian regions. It’s very profitable to enter the Caspian market through Astrakhan — not through the Russian Federation or Moscow, but through Astrakhan.
There are four natural resources in Astrakhan that you won’t find together in any other region: The highest number of sunny days in a year, a huge quantity of freshwater, a good geographical position and a large quantity of cheap gas. These attributes mean a good future for the development of greenhouse farming.
Q: What other cities in the region are competing with Astrakhan?
A: Astrakhan is behind in terms of investment in business infrastructure. But if you are talking about the social or cultural aspects, no one can touch us. In education and culture, Astrakhan is already a powerful center. We have a cardiology complex, a musical theater, sport centers and a good hotel industry for visitors. We lag behind in terms of port development — but that’s just a question of money. More important, we have brains, which will eventually yield money. Put simply, for international businesses that want to work in the Caspian, establishing their business in Astrakhan lowers the risks.
Q: What is Astrakhan’s relationship with Iran?
A: The majority of our Caspian trade is with Iran. The Caspian region includes more than 100 million Muslims, and we see good prospects for Islamic finance and the production of Halal meat here.
Q: If a visitor had a couple of free hours, what would you recommend doing in Astrakhan?
A: Astrakhan is known as an open-air museum — two world empires [the Khazar Empire and the Golden Horde] had their capitals here and there are holy places for Muslims and Christians alike. In jest, I might recommend coming here in the winter and bathing in a hole in the ice on the Volga. It purifies you!
— Howard Amos
Others emphasize Astrakhan's rebellious streak, its location on the Russian fringe and the dangerous waters of the Caspian. The editor of the local Volga newspaper, Alexander Shlyakhov, said the city was closely linked to the infamous Cossack rebellions of Stepan Razin and Yemelyan Pugachyov in the 17th and 18th centuries. The genes of the participants in these revolts remain among today's population, he said with a smile.
The city was also a place of exile. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the 19th-century radical whose most famous work, "What Is to Be Done?" inspired revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin, was banished to Astrakhan by the imperial government in the 1880s.
Though few would take any pride in it, a degree of social unrest continues to this day. In May, security services apprehended a local terrorist cell linked to recent bomb blasts in Volgograd and accused them of plotting a similar atrocity in Astrakhan. During the operation to arrest them, all the bridges across the Volga were temporarily shut down.
What to see if you have two hours
As with almost any Russian city, the first stop for visitors to Astrakhan should be the city's kremlin (Тrediakovskaya Ulitsa), which is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The green and gold domes rising above the whitewashed and crenellated walls can be glimpsed down streets and alleys from all over the city center, but only close up can their scale be properly appreciated. Built in stone at the end of the 16th century, the kremlin's walls have been assailed by the forces of Stepan Razin, troops loyal to Peter the Great and Cossack forces fighting the "Reds" in 1918. The bell tower rises 80 meters from the ground.
Inside the kremlin's walls is the enormous Cathedral of the Assumption (+7 512-22-29-39;
Another stop for time-pressured visitors is the Local Museum (15 Sovetskaya Ulitsa; +7 512-22-18-22;
Otherwise, take a stroll along the riverside with fishermen, rollerbladers, businessmen and the whole gamut of local life, starting from the statue of Peter the Great erected for Astrakhan's 450th anniversary and finishing at the blue and white wedding registration "palace" that resembles a ship and is housed next to the site of a former market that sold the best beluga and sturgeon caviar.
What to do if you have two days
Astrakhan is a mecca for fish lovers, and the local fish market (located between Ulitsa Maksakovoi and Ulitsa Dvenadtsatogo Marta to the north of the city center) is a must for those looking to get a sense of the sheer diversity of the Volga Delta. From roach and sturgeon to salmon and carp, the selection and the smell of the dried and fresh fish is likely to send you reeling.
A pleasant afternoon can also be spent soaking up the feel of old Astrakhan by wandering along some of the city's canals and through streets on the outskirts of town where beautiful, if dilapidated, carved wooden houses crowd the sidewalks and the roads are potholed and flooded. If the city's administration succeeds with an ambitious program of reconstruction, the days of this wooden architecture are numbered.
Q: What advantages does its mix of people bring to Astrakhan? Does it create any problems?
A: There are about 140 different nationalities in the Astrakhan region — the three biggest are Russian, Kazakh and Tartar. There are also Armenians, who built a big part of the city’s historical center; Azeris and a modest German diaspora that has very deep historical roots; and Central Asians: Uzbeks and Tajiks. Conflicts have always arisen around this society. Six hundred years ago, Tartars sold Russians into slavery, 400 years ago Russians sold Tartars into slavery, 200 years ago Kazakhs arrived and sold Russians, Tartars and Kalmyks into slavery. There’s nothing surprising in any of this, and there have been a lot of interethnic marriages, and some ethnic-specific festivals are celebrated by everyone.
There are, of course, problems. At the moment there is a new immigration wave of people from the Caucasus — of course, there is nothing bad in this. But if the state does not facilitate political integration, then conflicts are possible.
And when we speak about the danger of extremism, it less a danger of nationalism than a danger of religion. When they caught a six-member terrorist group recently in Astrakhan, it consisted of three ethnic Russians, one who was half Russian and half Dagestani, as well as one Chechen and one Dagestani.
Q: Why should people come to Astrakhan to do business?
A: Astrakhan is on a transportation corridor from central Russia to the south and from the west to Central Asia. Marco Polo came through the lower Volga on his way to China. Also climatic conditions — Russia is a cold country and only 5 percent of the country is to be found in the south. You can grow a huge quantity of vegetables and fruit here thanks to the sunny days — more than 200 a year — and the Volga. The region also has serious hydrocarbon reserves. There is a very big salt lake, Lake Baskunchak, from where about 1.2 million tons of salt are mined each year. Russia has a very highly educated work force, and Astrakhan is not an exception. Essentially, Astrakhan has everything.
Astrakhan’s problem compared with the rest of Russia, however, is the high level of criminalization of power. There is a clear use of power to stuff one’s own pockets. I can only compare Astrakhan to Khimki [which has witnessed a conflict over the construction of Moscow-St. Petersburg highway].
Q: What would you recommend to do in Astrakhan?
A: Both the Kremlin and the banks of the Volga are nice. Then there is the historical part of the town — lots of mosques of different styles and very interesting. There are lots of churches. There are the Armenian and German parts of the town, and there are Astrakhan’s canals. To see Astrakhan properly, you really need one or two days.
— Howard Amos
Revealing another facet of Astrakhan's cultural and religious heritage is a cluster of mosques — the black mosque, the white mosque and the red mosque — located a short walk across the Pervogo Maya canal from the kremlin and amid streets of ornate wooden houses. The oldest of the three mosques, the white mosque, was built in the 18th century. Further down the canal toward the Volga is the bustling Tartar market that sells cheap food — from fruit and vegetables to cuttings of meat — as well as other household goods.
Many visitors who have more than one day, however, will be tempted to venture out of Astrakhan and into the Volga Delta. There are hundreds of companies offering trips (mainly to hunting and fishing "bases"), and they can be most effectively accessed through the local travel guild (10/12a Ulitsa Sen-Simona; +7 512-51-21-53, +7 512-524413;
Those with an interest in history may be tempted by the archeological site of Samosdelka, 43 kilometers south of Astrakhan. Believed by some to be the lost site of Itil, the capital of the Jewish Khazar Empire that was destroyed by the expanding Rus Empire in the 10th century, it also contains remains from when the Golden Horde controlled the area in the 14th and 15th centuries.
What to do with the kids
Of all Astrakhan's museums, children may particularly enjoy the small Sturgeon Museum (13 Akhmatovskaya Ulitsa; +7 512-63-36-08), which has live sturgeon in tanks, pictures of Astrakhan's fishing industry over the centuries and, best of all, a video of a 30-year-old farm-raised sturgeon being killed and men scooping out her caviar with their bare hands and slopping it into waiting buckets.
Other activities for the kids might include feeding the swans on the city's "swan lake," which backs onto the Iranian Consulate, admiring a fountain on the city's waterfront that "dances" to music blaring out from speakers, or taking a boat trip on the Volga itself. The city also has a puppet theater (12 Ulitsa Fioletova; +7 512-52-40-25;
Unfortunately, anyone looking for a night of musical theater in Astrakhan will be disappointed because the city's colossal landmark musical theater — which will be one of the biggest in Europe — is still under construction after years of delays. The authorities now promise that it will open this year, but if you're not in time there is the Concert Hall (3 Ulitsa Molodaya Gvardia; +7 512-22-04-15) and the Drama Theater (28 Sovetskaya Ulitsa; +7 512-52-39-89;
For those so inclined, the Metro Club (235 Ulitsa Admirala Nakhimova; +7 512-99-90-90;
Where to eat
Astrakhan's cuisine unsurprisingly revolves around fish, which can be found — and should be tried — in most of the city's restaurants. If you are looking to rub shoulders with the city's business and political elite, including the mayor and the governor, Gamlet (6a Ulitsa Lenina; +7 512-51-70-25), just opposite the kremlin and with a nondescript entrance, is a good bet. A meal without alcohol starts from 500 rubles per person.
Other spots for dinner include Akvatoriya (19a Ulitsa Maxima Gorkogo; +7 512-39-12-26), with a wide selection of fish dishes, and the more traditionally European Krem Kafe (5 Ulitsa Uritskogo; +7 512 44-04-00), a stone's throw from the Volga.
Q: Why is your factory located in Astrakhan? What benefits does the city offer?
A: In terms of economics and logistics, we enjoy supremely unprofitable conditions. These sorts of factories could only have been built in the Soviet Union. There are practically no competitive advantages for my factory. Of the raw materials we use, not a single one comes from the Astrakhan region. Flour and sugar come from Krasnodar region and fat from anywhere we can find it, even from Kaliningrad. To deliver our products is also not simple — behind me is the Caspian, on one side is Kalmykia, on the other is Kazakhstan. Our nearest customers are 400 kilometers away in Volgograd. We sell our products as far away as Arkhangelsk.
Q: What sort of relationship do you have with the local government? What sort of attitude do they take toward you?
A: As I see it, we each exist for ourselves — it would be great if they didn’t interfere with us at all. They don’t touch us, and that’s good. Honestly speaking, though, I have never approached the authorities. Maybe if I approached them, they would help. I don’t know! We try and sort things out ourselves.
Q: The local government has an aspiration to make Astrakhan the “Capital of the Caspian” — is this realistic?
A: It’s realistic — but only if the economics are right. We currently send our products to Georgia. Can you imagine how complicated this is? Train cars loaded in Russia cannot be sent on to Georgia, so we get train cars from Ukraine and dispatch them to Kazakhstan, where they are cleared by customs. Then they come to Astrakhan, where we load them, and then we send them on to Georgia. Is this normal? We have political support through events like congresses, but as long as life is not economically viable, nothing will work.
Q: Why would you recommend people come to Astrakhan?
A: Catch fish! Eat watermelons! Only not in June, when it’s very hot and the midges are out. It’s difficult to say — if you look at history, Astrakhan was a place of exile. The climate is cruel. I am not from Astrakhan, and when I came here in 1983, I had but one thought — to finish university and leave. But there are interesting places and things to see. For business you must look more closely and use the competitive advantages of the area. For Astrakhan these are above all a plentiful amount of water and sun.
— Howard Amos
If you are taking a break from sightseeing for lunch, a pleasant spot is Kafe Arbuzov (4a Ulitsa Krasnaya Naberezhnaya; +7 512 70-31-61) on the waterfront and next to the city's wedding "palace."
If your aim is more networking, try the Beer House (12 Ulitsa Krasnogo Znameni; +7 512-44-48-00), which has a large, airy hall, a wide selection of beer and a business lunch menu. Unofficially it is known as the dining hall for the regional and city administration, whose offices are just around the corner.
Where to stay
As long as you can stomach the horrific damage it does to the city's skyline and the almost offensive juxtaposition of its shiny blue glass high-rise against the crumbling wooden houses across the road, the Al Pash Grand Hotel (69 Ulitsa Kuibysheva; +7 512-48-25-25;
The city offers a reasonable selection for those on business trips, but the other two major hotels frequented by businessmen are Seventh Heaven Hotel (27 Krasnaya Naberezhnaya; +7 512-64-08-10;
A Park Inn (29 Ulitsa Anri Barbusa; +7 512-29-01-20;
Fish are a sure way to get a local talking. Even those who claim to know nothing about the subject are likely to know more than visitors — while experts can wax lyrical about the best places for fishing on the Volga, the problems facing the industry and the best ukha (fish soup) recipe.
If you want to raise a wry smile, you can ask people whether they play handball. The governor of the Astrakhan region, Alexander Zhilkin, is famously keen on the sport, which, coincidentally, has a high profile in the city.
How to get there
Astrakhan's Narimanovo Airport (+7 512-39-33-17,
Daily trains run between Moscow and Astrakhan and take about 30 hours. One-way tickets start from 2,000 rubles.
Though some may be put off by the July sinking of the Bulgaria riverboat, killing more than 100 people, an alternative for reaching Astrakhan is the ferries that sail into the city. Boats go to Astrakhan from all major centers on the Volga, including Volgograd, Samara, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod and Uglich. The trip from Uglich (about 200 kilometers from Moscow) takes 16 days with tour agency Strelets-V (56 Admiralteiskaya Ulitsa; +7 512-54-09-07;