Article by Mariya Portnyagina. Originally published in Kommersant Ogonyok. Translation by Nick Trickett.
Even on an enlarged map of Tula Oblast’s Podosinki area, there’s a tiny dot in the very center. In real life, it’s a village of some 100 houses and 400 inhabitants. From the village to the “big world” stretches the Tula highway and the city of Ryazan is all of 4 kilometers away. Unfortunately for the villagers, that distance has grown five times to 20 kilometers since 2010. While the shortest route to civilization runs over the river Shivoron, a wooden bridge built in the Soviet era has collapsed. Since then it has become clear that there is no one to carry out repairs and build a new bridge. Why? The original bridge was nobody’s.
Since the collapse, the locals’ path to civilization has been a detour. Children also face a longer road: there’s no school in the village. Ambulances and firefighters have to wait with fingers crossed. It’s an extraordinary situation and residents lament: 20 kilometers there, 20 kilometers back – what an expense for fuel! Complaints to authorities haven’t achieved anything: after all, nobody is responsible for rebuilding an ownerless bridge.
As the heat came a year after the collapse, the whole village got involved (lucky for the residents, there are enough young and middle-aged people working who can chip in) and collected more than 120,000 rubles ($2000), bought concrete and armature, brought them on their own tractors and trucks, and worked evenings almost the whole summer of 2011. The bridge was built by a common effort. Municipal authorities pitched in, allocating 100,000 rubles from a fund accumulating “voluntary donations” from local businessmen. But the crossing is temporary – and does not support vehicles. The residents of Podnosinki meanwhile haven’t lost hope of seeing a new bridge built. For 6 years, they’ve covered all their bases at every level of the administration. But the municipal administration “has no money” and bosses higher up aren’t up for the project either. The bridge is still ownerless.
“There are no proprietors of “no man’s” objects (if you follow the law). They aren’t recorded in any kind of official registers, which means that formally, they don’t exist,” explains Olga Molyarenko, a sociologist from the Khamovniki Fund and creator of the Invisible Infrastructure project, to Ogonyok. “On the whole, it’s almost impossible to estimate how much ownerless property there is in the country. Nevertheless, we’re interested in this question and our study covers 59 regions.”
The Invisible Infrastructure project was started in March of 2016 and will be completed by the end of 2018. As its creators admit, they didn’t plan to make the results of their work public before its completion, but decided to talk about their findings piecemeal – the scale of the phenomenon proved shocking. Now, fellow scientists (from sociologists to anthropologists, geographers, and economists) and the media are following the project. Kommersant Dengi magazine was one of the first to write about the issue earlier this year.
At the end of June, Invisible Infrastructure held its first presentation of summary data describing the dimensions of the no man’s economy in Russia. It turned out the problem isn’t local, but systemic – ownerless bridges, roads, water pipes, and other important objects can be found everywhere in Russia: in the provinces and large cities, from Kaliningrad in the West to Primorye in the Far East.
Roads to Nowhere
You don’t even have to go deep into the country. Right under the capitol’s nose in the outer reaches of Moscow, a recent count found 560 sections of road in need of repair. Among them, half were owned by a municipality, 20% were owned by the regional government, and 30% had no official owner.
Across Russia, one in five roads are ownerless, per data from the Khamovniki Fund. And until 2014 the situation had been even more lamentable, but since then the funding for municipal road funds was tied to their overall length. For the sake of additional money, enterprising municipalities began to register their own ownerless roads. These, however, are particular cases and don’t change the picture as a whole.
Usually, the cause of ownerless roads is their location on property borders. The typical story is an automobile crossing over railroad tracks without a decision on who is responsible for it – the railway or the local authorities. Or, for example, a small connecting road paved from a city road to a Federal perinatal center: whose is it? Or in the literal sense of a border road, the Vyborg-Svetogorsk road in the Leningrad region, which leads to the border with Finland.
This isn’t just a public problem, though. Ownerless roads in the private sector are an issue as well, particularly in Novosibirsk and Perm. Roads leading to dachas and horticultural partnerships without owners are often without a formal owner. Researchers have fixated on this problem in Moscow’s suburbs, in the Sakhalin, Astrakhan, and Omsk regions, and in Urdmurtia. “At the local level, politicians’ promises to summer residents to repair and improve these roads are a frequent move in pre-election fights since it’s an urgent question for them,” remarks Olga Molyarenko. “In truth, these promises remain promises.”
Driveways and small roads leading to apartment buildings are another big problem. Often the owners of such buildings formalize ownership of land based on their buildings – without including adjacent territory, which includes roads. Residents are certain that municipal authorities must service them. Tenants and management companies tend to agree. As a consequence, there’s no one to clean these ownerless roads – notably, during harsh winters.
Unregistered roads paved to recently-built microregions and homes concern can be ownerless, too. Municipalities frequently drag their feet with the legalization of such roads, in part because of the high cost of legal procedures formalizing ownership. Researchers cite as examples the road to Gubernia in the Moscow suburb of Chekhov and around 40 roads in the Primorskiy district in St. Petersburg.
Roads leading to free plots of land that have been allocated to large families are a special case. Frequently, these plots of land aren’t connected to any infrastructure. There is no electricity, no water supply, and no road access. Families pave roads themselves, as was the case, for example, on the territory of Petrozavodsk. However the authorities don’t include it in their records, and these roads become nobody’s.
Quite a few public yet ownerless roads are located on ministerial lands, primarily those of the Ministry of Defense. This is a misfortune for many military towns. Municipal authorities can’t incorporate them because they would have to own the plots of land on which they’re located to do so. For the Ministry owning the land, the roads aren’t core assets and it follows that they don’t need to spend on maintenance.
There are roads to ministerial facilities that are nobody’s. For example, there’s a road from Volgodonsk to the Rostov nuclear power plant located some 16 kilometers away, one that doesn’t belong to anyone and for which no one is responsible. When the plant was auctioned off, non-core property – the road included – should have been transferred to local authorities. But for reasons unknown, this never happened.
The study cites the specific example of the Lower Kama national park in Tatarstan. In the Soviet period, the roads located in the park’s territory were built and repaired by prominent truck manufacturer KamAZ. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and establishment of the national park, they turned out to have no proprietor, though they remained in operation. Today, the poor condition of these roads is often a story in the local press: the cause is usually a car accident with fatalities.
“Ownerless roads, bridges, boilerhouses, water pipes, power grids, and other infrastructure are a post-Soviet phenomenon,” stresses Simon Kordonskiy, head of the Higher School of Economics’ Local Government Department. “After the collapse of the USSR, collective farms and industrial enterprises massively went bankrupt or were reorganized. And these organizations wrote off non-core assets their balance sheets simply “to nowhere.”
Military and correctional facilities acted similarly with their non-core infrastructure. It was assumed that property “tossed from balance sheets” would transfer to municipalities, but this didn’t always happen. The procedure to register property is complex and often prohibitively expensive for municipal budgets. Furthermore, local administrations didn’t hurry in taking responsibility for these assets, especially if they’re in dire need of restoration.
The chaos of the 90s is key, but not the only cause of the no man’s economy. Researchers from the Khamovniki Fund also note that in post-Soviet Russia, the rules for property registration often change. Therefore, the ownership of an asset and, indeed, land underneath can be very difficult to ascertain. Without clarity in this matter, it’s impossible to place an asset on a property register.
Assets can become ownerless in the present day, too. For example, when unrecorded assets are placed in the State Forest Fund’s land registry with the help of satellites, they frequently miss ownerless roads, cemeteries, and children’s camps, as they can’t be seen from space. Another example: when optimizing municipalities (consolidating settled areas, reforming municipal districts into urban districts – this practice is most noticeable in the Moscow region), roads, bridges, and different assets are on municipalities’ balance sheets, but aren’t recorded in official registers. They get buried in red tape and wind up belonging to nobody.
Researchers note that there isn’t any geographic or economic correlation: ownerless infrastructure can be found everywhere – in both prosperous and subsidized regions. The range of ownerless assets is extensive: beyond the roads and bridges mentioned above, it’s also water pipes, water towers, water intakes, boiler rooms, assets in geodesic networks (used to mark territory), etc.
“Land surveys can be carried out by several means: by satellites, cartographic means, and geodesically,” Olga Molyarenko explains. “In the last case, special markers located on the given territory are used and therefore considered the most accurate. But the share of ownerless markers ranges from 30% to 70%, by region. With such indicators, it’s logical that questions arise as to quality of the property registry’s assessment.”
With these same roads, the authors of the study find that not everything’s going smoothly. According to their analysis, the annual increase in the length of Russia’s road system, reported by Rosstat, is not only connected to the construction of new roads, but also the legal registration of ownerless roads in property register. Judge for yourself: from 2003-2015, per Rosstat’s data, the length of public roads with a hard cover grew by 504,000 kilometers. Over the same period 30,300 kilometers of road were built. According to an expert assessment, ownerless roads at the regional and municipal level accounted for the remaining growth.
Sociologist Yurii Plyusin studies informal employment in Russia and frequently talks about the no man’s economy. He notes in particular the ownerless power grids he has found while on research trips around Russia’s interior: “In the country, there are entire settled areas that haven’t paid for electricity in more than 25 years, as is the case, for example, in Karelia and the Murmansk, Kostroma, and Vologda regions. Normally 200-300 people live in these settlements. There are larger ones with up to 1,000 inhabitants. This story is typical. Suppose there was a collective farm that ran a power transmission line in its time. In the 90s, the farm collapsed, the line remained, and the people continue to use it. All of it is recorded as a loss in the network and, in fact, it paid for by other consumers. Even if we assume that the inhabitants of such settlements wished to pay for electricity, there’s no one to pay, as the line has no owner.
“Similar assets don’t exist according to the law, but they’re used and, somehow, maintained,” Simon Kordonskiy adds. “It turns out ownerless assets are beneficial for many people and even help them survive. There are a number of particularly absurd cases. For example, a priest in the Bryansk region rented land for agricultural use, but in fact an unregistered cemetery was located there. So now he takes payment for burial rights there.”
Who’s Asset is it, Anyway?
More than 85% of 600,000 cemeteries are ownerless. There are officially 81,000 cemeteries registered as open for burial (data from Ministry of Construction, Housing, and Communal Services – Minstroi – for 2016).
20% of motorways don’t have a formal proprietor.
30% to 70% (depending on the region) of assets in geodesic networks are ownerless.
Almost 50% of gas distribution pipelines aren’t on anybody’s balance sheets. According to the National Energy Institute’s assessment, 22% are owned by legal entities and individuals, 18.4% are owned by regions, and 10.9% but municipal authorities.
Source: Khamovniki Fund, the Higher School of Economics, Nezavisimaya Gazeta
Cemeteries as well as military gravesites and memorials are the most common ownerless assets in Russia. In 2015, Minstroi counted 73,000 cemeteries open for burial and in 2016, according to the same department, 81,000. Why the increase?
According to the same data, the new plots include previously ownerless cemeteries in settled areas where, according to reports, things are being worked out. But if you ask the Union of Funerary Organizations and Crematoria: there are around 600,000 cemeteries in Russia. Are 85% of final resting places are ownerless? Experts clarify: precisely. First and foremost, this is due to the situation in the countryside, where no man’s churchyards are substantially located on lands for agricultural use and the State Forest Fund.
“In Russia, roughly speaking, 90% of the funeral industry operates in the shadows and ownerless cemeteries are part of the problem,” observes Sergei Mokhov, a social anthropologist who studies the ritual services market and is Editor-in-Chief for the journal Archaeology of Russian Death. “From this, a mass of collisions arises.”
Take for example the transfer of land categorized as agricultural to land suitable for housing construction (this is especially true for regions with high demand for land like the Moscow region). As a result, ownerless cemeteries on such plots of land are simply measured as land for the construction of cottage settlements. And the relatives of those buried there can’t do a thing about it.
Cemeteries in the forest are another case. Before the adoption of the new Forest Code in 2006, there was a category of forests transferred to be managed by agricultural organizations that allowed the placement of cemeteries on their territory. After 2006, the Federal Forestry Agency took over these forests and during the registration of these agricultural forests, cemeteries weren’t unaccounted for. This again creates a number of problems for the relatives of those buried in them. Say a tree falls in a cemetery and crushes some monuments onto graves. Whoever removes the tree is declared unauthorized to do so, and if the State Forest Fund estimates its loss at more than 5,000 rubles, the culprit is threatened with criminal prosecution. To avoid this, locals are forced to deal with local foresters ‘kindly’ – in other words, bribe them.
The crucial intrigue is that all these ownerless assets are only ownerless in terms of their status. In reality, they’re actively used and the money spent on their upkeep is tracked.
“We’re actually dealing with the shadow management of infrastructure in places,” remarks sociologist Olga Molyarenko. “Through various informal schemes and, above all, personal connections, many communal issues are resolved. So it proves more profitable than officially registering unaccounted property into proprietorship.”
According to an expert, a majority of municipalities simply don’t have the money to survey the territory for these assets, registering them in property registers as ownerless. After all, the procedure isn’t simple: after the legal registration of the asset, one year must pass before municipalities that lay claim to a territory can declare their right to do so. And only afterwards can the courts recognize the municipal proprietorship of unaccounted assets.
The scale of the problem of ‘ownerlessness’ is directly connected to the weakness of municipal budgets. Per statistics, 60-70% of their revenues are subsidies. Municipalities are required to pay the state for the registration of proprietorship and, at the same time, get resources from the state for their own activities – a carousel that, in experts’ estimation, is absolutely senseless. The situation generally seems hopeless: it’s expected of municipal authorities that no man’s roads, water pipes, and power grids will work properly, but the municipalities are not entitled to spend their budgets on their maintenance because it’s an inappropriate expenditure of funds by law.
The situation generally seems hopeless: it’s expected of municipal authorities that no man’s roads, water pipes, and power grids will work properly, but the municipalities are not entitled to spend their budgets on their maintenance because it’s an inappropriate expenditure of funds by law.
However, as always in Russia, there are loopholes. For example, money intended for the improvement of services does make it from municipal budgets to the maintenance of no man’s infrastructure. While technically it’s inappropriate spending, on paper municipalities are above reproach. Another illegal method is the overstatement of prices by the contracting organizations of local governments. They earn more than they should but they take on ownerless assets and maintain them. Or another approach: a contractor is given an implicit guarantee of receiving a contract in return for “social responsibility.” This happens when local businesses direct money, materials, or labor resources, for example, to clear unregistered roads, repair “no man’s” bridges, or even paint fences and monuments in “no man’s” cemeteries. The scheme works. After all, entrepreneurs have their own, not insignificant interest. The research describes such a case: a local businessman received municipal agricultural land that was overgrown after years of lying fallow to rent at a discount price for his “charity.” He set up a sawmill there and started making money on lumber. All parties to the informal contract were satisfied.
Also widespread are subbotniki (‘Saturdayers’) – people who volunteer to collectively work for free on this project or that – with the participation of local residents to improve ownerless assets. People are also willing to do this because they’re often against the formal registration of so-called resource-supply infrastructure (for example, water pipes, water towers, and power grids), as they fear a significant increase in rates after they’re legally registered.
“We must understand that everyone works in their own self-interest: municipalities plead to register ownerless properties into their proprietorship only if the assets are of value to them,” says Roman Petukhov, senior researcher for the Institute of Sociology RAS at the Higher School of Public Administration at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Although, the expert adds, ownerless property is more often a burden because, god forbid, the municipality run into a prosecutor’s inspection. On its own initiative or following a disgruntled citizen’s allegation, the prosecutor’s office very often (enough to be a major part of regional news cycles) demands that local authorities take the decrepit no man’s bridges or roads under their responsibility and repair them to a ‘proper state.’ The thing is, however, that ‘proper state’ does not at all imply resolving the status of the property. The issue is resolved by the “informal approaches” described above. With an ownerless asset, it can somehow prove easier.