The Bridge From Crimea To Russia No One Wants to Build

After its annexation of Crimea, Moscow is hoping to accelerate a long dormant project to build a bridge connecting Russia across the Kerch Strait. But there is the Sochi lesson to consider.

On the Kerch Strait
On the Kerch Strait
Anna Goldberg

MOSCOW — One way or another, Russia and Crimea will eventually be connected by a bridge. Of that there is no longer any doubt, though a number of details of the project, which will span the Kerch Strait, have yet to be ironed out.

A government official told journalists in late August that the general contractor would be the Stoytransgaz company. An announcement on the project’s website later confirmed that a general contractor would be chosen without open bidding.

Recently, however, a new rumor has surfaced: that Stroytransgaz could end up being the subcontractor and that the general contractor will be the Federal Agency for Special Construction. The new scenario, should it prove to be true, may actually work out better for Stroytransgaz. Major Russian construction companies have in large part been wary of the high-profile Kerch Strait, which they see as a potential liability.

"It's unlikely that the general contractor will make a profit on the construction of the Kerch Strait bridge. Quite the opposite," says Vitalli Kryukov, the director of an investment company called Small Letters. "The contractor won't be able to get more than the originally agreed upon price, and the chances that the construction costs will rise, considering the complexity of the project, are near 100%."

Plans as they currently stand call for the bridge to be built by 2018, with a total budget of around $5.3 billion.

A checkered past

The idea for a bridge between Crimea and Russia’s Krasnodar Krai is hardly new, having originally come from Albert Speer, Nazi Germany's minister of defense, who was convinced a bridge from occupied Crimea would facilitate a German invasion of Eurasia. He even had the necessary materials brought into Crimea. When the region was liberated by the Red army in 1944, the Soviets went ahead and built the bridge using the left-behind Nazi materials. Three months after opening, however, the bridge was washed away by an iceflow.

For decades afterwards, the Kerch Strait bridge was considered unbuildable. Eventually, though, planners revisited the idea and in 2011, Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement that aimed to construct a bridge in time for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Delays ensued and more recently, since the start of the armed conflict in southeast Ukraine, Ukrainian experts have been expressing their doubts about the competence of Russian builders. Earlier this year the Ukrainian government officially rescinded the bridge-agreement.

When it comes to bridge building, the Ukrainian experts are right to point out that Russia doesn't exactly have the best track record. There was the dancing bridge in Volgograd, which went into resonance with an oscillation and shook dramatically less than a year after opening. It had to be closed for renovations. The old Voroshilvoski Bridge was built in 1965 and got so warped over time that it too had to be closed and reconstructed. Then there was the Russky Bridge, which also ended up being misshapen — albeit stable — despite costing twice as much to build as originally anticipated.

A Ukrainian expert recently said that neither Russian nor Chinese companies would be capable of building the bridge. “No matter how much money Russia throws at the bridge, it won’t be built,” he said.

Satellite image of the Kerch strait and proposed alignments for the bridge — Source: Wikimedia Commons

Contractors in Russia disagree. “In reality, Russia has enough specialists in both project management and construction to see the project through,” says Vladimir Vlasov, the general director of a bridge-building company called Mostotrest.

Vlasov's confidence is echoed by another Russian builder, Valerii Schmit, who admits that "it is truly a very difficult and expensive project, especially because of the width of the supports," but that the bridge is "doable." The key, he says, "is a large consortium ... one company can’t do it alone."

At Stoytransgaz, top management recognizes that while the bridge could be built by 2018, as planned, but it would require mobilizing not only the company’s own reserves but also those of several partners.

All about the money

The bridge has critics in Crimea too, where several people suggest reestablishing a ferry connection and then building a tunnel across the Kerch Strait and a full port in Crimea.

"The reestablishment of ferry service is a great idea. It has been planned since the very beginning," says Aleksei Bezborodov, the director of the InfraNews analysis agency. "But everything else is doubtful. A tunnel is impossible from both a financial and geological point of view. The Crimean-Caucasian fault goes right through there, so you can’t excavate anything. And about that port: It’s not clear where Crimea is going to get enough cargo to make it worth it. The new Russian seaport is more than large enough for the current amount of cargo."

On the Kerch Strait — Photo: Артём via Instragram

Bezborodov considers a bridge to be essential and doesn’t see any technical reason that it couldn’t be built. The tricky part, he says, is money.

Finances indeed seem to be on the mind of major Russian construction firms which, given that the bridge is a matter of national pride, might be expected to jump at an opportunity to participate. And yet so far, perhaps because of lessons learned from the Sochi Olympics, few have stepped forward. Absolutely all of the builders who worked in Sochi discovered that the final cost of construction was several times greater than the original estimates.

"Of course, everyone knew that the costs would rise," says one of the government officials in charge of the Sochi contracts. "But they thought that if they could explain why they were over budget, they would be reimbursed."

Contractors involved in the Sochi Olympics have since filed suit against the State-owned company responsible for ordering the construction for hundreds of millions of dollars, demanding compensation.

"We understand that contractors are used to operating under this system," the source explains. "But if we had done that for the Olympics, we simply wouldn't have been able to get everything built."

This "new system" drove several major companies to bankruptcy, and many companies are concerned that the Kerch Strait bridge project could be similarly damaging to their bottom line.

Kruikov says that the Mostotrest firm is possibly the only Russian company that has the required experience and experts to successfully build the bridge. "But in Russia," he notes, "the longer the bridge, the more difficult it is for companies to make a profit."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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