By Stepan Kravchenko
MOSCOW — The last time a disaster with global impact struck Chelyabinsk, officials covered it up for three decades. This time, they’re marketing it to the world.
The meteor explosion over this former secret Soviet nuclear hub two weeks ago was recorded by scores of dashboard cameras and viewed by millions of people, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attract international tourists and their money to the Russian province on the Asian edge of the Ural Mountains.
“Space sent us a gift and we need to make use of it,” Natalia Gritsay, head of the region’s tourism department, said in an interview en route to Lake Chebarkul, where some of the biggest meteorites have been found and where officials gathered Tuesday to map a new strategy for economic development. “We need our own Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.”
The meteor was about 17 meters across and weighed more than 10,000 tons when it hit the atmosphere and exploded with the force of about 33 Hiroshima atomic bombs, according to NASA. The blast was the biggest of its kind in more than a century. It shattered windows across the regional capital, also called Chelyabinsk, wounding more than 1,400 people and damaging more than 4,000 buildings.
In 1957, an explosion at the Mayak processing facility in the region released dozens of tons of high-level radioactive waste that killed hundreds of people in what is now ranked by International Atomic Energy Agency standards as the worst atomic accident after Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan.
While the Soviets kept the Mayak leak a secret for more than 30 years, local officials are determined to capitalize on the latest apocalyptic event to hit their homeland.
Proposals proffered at the Chebarkul powwow ranged from holding an annual “cosmic music and fireworks festival” to erecting a “floating beacon-tipped pyramid” atop the lake.
One official pitched a “Meteor Disneyland” to recreate the events of Feb. 15, while another pressed for building a “Cosmic Water Park.” A third wanted to transform the look of the city by painting space landscapes on the facades of its drab and ubiquitous Soviet-era buildings.
The most detailed proposals, though, came from Chebarkul Mayor Andrei Orlov, who urged regular and intensive discussions “to keep the tourism idea alive.”
Orlov plans to build a diving center at the lake when the ice melts so tourists can search for meteorites in the 3 meters of mud that lie 11 meters below the surface.
“The first thing we need here are road signs in Russian and English, and cops who can say ‘Hello’ and ‘OK’ to foreigners,” Orlov said. “We don’t want to be like the pyramids near Cairo, where tourists come for an hour, shout, ‘Aladdin, come out,’ and leave.”
One local travel agency, Sputnik, is already organizing summer tours for two Japanese groups of as many as 10 people each, said Elena Kolesnikova, a manager of the company.
“One is a two-day tour to the impact site at Chebarkul, while the other includes city sightseeing and will last longer,” Kolesnikova said. “The price is around $800 per person, which includes the hotel but not plane tickets.”
The Chelyabinsk region, home to billionaire Victor Rashnikov’s Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel, produces more than 7 percent of Russia’s steel and 11 percent of its pipes, according to government data.
Still, disposable incomes for the region’s 3.6 million people are rising at a rate one-fifth of the national average and joblessness, at 6.5 percent of the work force, is worse than the 6 percent for the country as a whole.
The local history museum has already replaced its main attraction with a “Meteor Day” exhibit that includes a kopek- sized meteorite surrounded by the front pages of various newspapers trumpeting the city’s new claim to fame.
The meteor was a life-changing event for 26 percent of the people who lived through it, a Feb. 23-24 poll of 500 people by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation, or FOM, showed.
People who identified themselves as religious were particularly affected, reporting “significant changes to their attitude toward life twice more often than non-believers,” Grigory Kertman, senior analyst at FOM, said by phone Wednesday.
Gritsay, the regional tourism chief, thought the explosion that shook her office building at 9:20 a.m. was from a plane crash. Forty percent of the population thought the same, according to the FOM poll. Thirty-three percent said they weren’t sure it was a meteor at all, and 8 percent thought it was a missile.
Even so, hysteria was avoided because videos were posted on the Internet so fast that everyone quickly figure out that this was a “once in a millennium” event, Chelyabinsk Governor Mikhail Yurevich said in an interview. “There was no panic. The humor started quickly.”
Now that Chelyabinsk is famous and the dust has settled, it’s time to get down to business, the governor said.
“Nobody had heard about us and now all the world knows,” Yurevich said. “We can earn some dividends on that.”