PSKOV, Russia – The governor of Pskov, an impoverished region in northwest Russia, said he was committed to rebuilding schools in an occupied part of Ukraine. His own constituents want him to fix schools closer to home.
Governor Mikhail Vedernikov, 47, who has risen rapidly through the political ranks, agreed in August to oversee the reconstruction of schools in Beryslav, a Russian-held district on the Dnieper River in Ukraine’s Kherson region.
During a carefully choreographed visit to Beryslav, which has been heavily damaged since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, Vedernikov noted that schools had no windows or doors, no heating. In a post on telegramhe told his constituents in Pskov that his team would step in to resolve the issues.
“We will do everything to give people [in Beryslav] with everything they need and help them get back to normal life,” he said in August.
Meanwhile, students and families in Pskov, which Vedernikov has ruled for five years, also want comfortable places to learn. They say the reconstruction of several schools in the region, including in the cities of Pskov and Pechory, has been delayed, creating havoc for some students and teachers returning for the new school year.
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School No. 10 in Pskov opened on September 1, like most schools across Russia. What students and parents found was not to their liking: classrooms were still being renovated, wires were hanging from the ceiling, construction waste was strewn across the floor, and construction workers lingered.
Due to the lack of renovated rooms, the school had to reduce the number of lessons per day and organize physical education lessons outside despite the bad weather. Parents worry that dust and contaminants from construction work will aggravate their children’s allergies or asthma.
In a school in the city of Kunya, children started the year without electricity in the classrooms. Parents also complained about dust, dirt and scaffolding. The issues were resolved after complaints were filed with Vedernikov’s office.
However, problems persist in Pechory. Two of the three schools are still being renovated, although the work was due to be completed by September 30.
Parents say the renovation is so overdue that schools may not fully reopen until the end of the year. Some students are forced to take breaks between lessons due to the lack of rooms.
“The children are not fed. They hang around somewhere [during their breaks]. Their routine is turned upside down,” Yelena, the mother of a student at a school in Pechory, told RFE/RL, asking that her surname be withheld.[Parents] are very unhappy.”
In the meantime, the management of the Pechory school has decided to use the available premises of a kindergarten and a cultural center for children to accommodate certain pupils and teachers. Others take distance learning courses.
Construction delays and mishaps are nothing new for Pskov, one of the country’s poorest regions, partly due to mismanagement over the past three decades.
It took Pskov seven years to turn a partially completed Soviet-era hotel project into a student dormitory with additional facilities.
Pskov began construction of a 320-room Intourist hotel on the banks of the Velikaya River in the 1980s, but the project was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Various attempts over the following years to complete the project, including as an apartment complex, failed.
Finally, at the end of 2015, it was decided to integrate the building into the campus of the Pskov State University with its opening scheduled for mid-2019.
Amid multiple contractor changes, the opening date was pushed back to 2020, 2021, and then 2022. Last month, the governor’s office said the building would open in early 2023.
It took even longer for Pskov to build a small retirement community.
social cityas the project is called, consists of five low-rise multi-unit apartment buildings and an administration building with various facilities, including a rehabilitation center.
Pskov innovated about the retirement community, which is designed to accommodate just over 100 people, in 2013. Vedernikov said he hopes the project will be completed by the end of the year.
Ivan Prishchepa, a former employee of the Pskov Regional Committee for Construction and Housing and Communal Services, said Vedernikov had no business overseeing school projects in Kherson with such a poor record at home.
“If we can’t even control what is being done in Pskov and Pechory, then I have no idea how and who will control it there [in Kherson]”, he said. “These are basic things – first you have to put things in order at home, and only then in another place.
Prishchepa said major construction delays are a nationwide problem with roots in federal law that regulates the public procurement system.
Firms that meet certain requirements are allowed to participate in construction tenders, but “nobody checks” their actual competence, he said – and as a result contractors win tenders that they have no chance of finishing in time.
Schools in Pechory as well as the social city outside Pskov are being built by Sarmat, a Kazan-based contractor.
Nina Yaroslavtseva, principal of a school in Pechory, said Sarmat met all the conditions and described it as a “reputable” company. However, some school workers say they have not been fully paid by Sarmat and are refusing to show up, resulting in a delay.
“I never received a full salary, only tiny advances,” said a worker at one of Pechorakh’s schools who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
“A lot of guys didn’t get any money and they gave up,” he said.
Vedernikov’s office tried to reassure the workers, saying they would be paid, but Olga Litsovskaya, the mother of a young construction worker, is doubtful.
She said her son and other workers were recruited via a social media post with promises of a hefty salary of 1,500 rubles a day ($25), but never received a legal contract confirming the daily rate of pay.
“What are they going to do? Go to the prosecutor’s office to file a complaint [they weren’t paid]? They don’t even have documents,” Litsovskaya said.
RFE/RL’s attempts to contact the company were unsuccessful.
Sarmat does not have a long history in the construction market, having only been registered in April 2019. But it has won a tender hostmany of them linked to the state, during its short existence.
The company seems to have a history of problems. According to Russian business records, he has already been a defendant in 16 arbitration cases.
It is unclear who founded Sarmat, and his ownership is obscured by a front company. His website gives no information on its management while its “corporate” email is a Gmail account.
Russia’s construction industry has always been opaque and seen as deeply corrupt, a situation that appears to have worsened during President Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power.
Putin’s longtime associates, including the Arkady brothers and Boris Rotenberg, have been the main beneficiaries of Russian state-building spending.
Following so-called referendums that have been widely dismissed abroad as a sham and an escalation of war, Putin and his government are now claiming that Kherson and three other partially occupied Ukrainian regions belong to Russia.
In a speech on September 30, Putin promised to rebuild the four regions – where Russian attacks have killed thousands, driven millions from their homes and destroyed towns and villages.
If Russia retains control of parts of the regions or seizes more territory – two uncertain prospects in light of recent Ukrainian gains – it would have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars it “doesn’t have” to rebuild them, according to a Russian economist. and Putin’s critic Sergei Guriyev said in a recent maintenance.
Other Kremlin critics say such a massive undertaking would likely line the pockets of the elite at the expense of ordinary Russians, who could see their living standards drop even further over the next few years as Western sanctions provoke a prolonged economic contraction.
A large-scale reconstruction effort in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine could also delay the modernization of schools and other social infrastructure in Russia due to budget cuts.
The modernization program for schools in Pskov provides for the modernization of 33 buildings at a cost of 1.5 billion rubles ($24.5 million).
Prishchepa said Putin’s new agenda to instill patriotism in pupils and students will fail if they continue to see things like water dripping from school ceilings. Everything else is “just words”, he said.
“Making repairs is patriotism for you. That’s how you have to instill [patriotism]. Students are not fooled; they understand everything perfectly,” he said.