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Drones attack a bathhouse

How residents of Izhevsk are fighting against the transformation of a local shopping and entertainment center into a factory for military drones

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On Saturday, February 4th, residents of Izhevsk came to the "Italmas" shopping and entertainment center and saw that only one of the three entrances was open. A metal detector frame had appeared near it. When asked what happened, the security guard replied, "This is a restricted area." "What? A bathhouse is a restricted area?" wondered one of the visitors, referring to the health and leisure center "Izhevskie Termy", which is located inside the shopping center.

The shopping center became a "restricted area" because of its new owner - Nikita Zakharov, son of Alexander Zakharov, a designer and the owner of a company that produces drones. Last summer, the businessmen proposed to redesign the Russian shopping centers that were empty due to the departure of foreign companies into factories for the production of military drones. The Izhevsk shopping and entertainment center "Italmas" could become a pilot project - and an experiment that other regions could duplicate if they wanted to.

The 7x7 media tells how the authorities support military manufacturers, and why the protestors’ only hope remains Vladimir Putin.

Drones instead of health

Nadezhda Zorina’s daughter is a disabled person with grave visual impairment. When she turned 18, the girl lost some of her state benefits. Nadezhda went to the management of "Izhevskie termy," a city resort, as locals call it. There, the woman was offered an unlimited subscription for 4.4 thousand rubles ($60) per month.

"This is pennies compared to the benefit we receive. Pools, hydromassages, inhalations, honey tea - lots of things are included in the cost of the visit. There is nothing similar in the region.”

Nadezhda Zorina has a daughter with a disability. The Zorins go to "Izhevskie Termy" for rehabilitation. Photo courtesy of the 7x7

Nadezhda Zorina has a daughter with a disability. The Zorins go to "Izhevskie Termy" for rehabilitation. Photo of the 7x7

"Izhevskie termy" is located in the "Italmas" shopping center, a three-story shopping complex in the most densely populated area of Izhevsk. It opened in 2015 and has never been empty since, even after foreign brands left the Russian market. In addition to the health complex, the premises are rented by restaurants and cafes, shops for equipment, clothing, cosmetics, and groceries.

In 2022, the previous owner sold the building to Nikita Zakharov, the founder of LLC "Aeroscan." The HeadHunter website says that this company provides “ready-to-wear” business solutions using unmanned technologies.

Nikita Zakharov's father, Alexander Zakharov, is a designer and the founder of "ZALA AERO GROUP Unmanned Systems." The company is part of the "Kalashnikov" concern and is engaged in the production of unmanned aerial vehicles. Russian military use drone models from Izhevsk in their military operations on the territory of Ukraine.

The 'Italmas' shopping center. Photo of the authorThe "Italmas" shopping center. Photo of the author
The 'Italmas' shopping center. Photo of the authorThe "Italmas" shopping center. Photo of the author

On December 28th, the new owner sent some of the tenants of the shopping center notifications of unilateral termination of contracts, demanding that they vacate the premises within a month.

"They haven't contacted us since then. Change of ownership is not a reason to terminate a lease agreement unilaterally. But we were strongly recommended to move out by January 31st. So we did, and now we regret it - the location was a high-traffic area," one of the entrepreneurs who rents space in the shopping center complains.

From the new owner’s representatives, tenants learned that he wants to turn "Italmas" into a factory for conveyor production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Business under pressure

Some entrepreneurs, even those who had contracts for 10-30 years of rent, moved to other shopping centers or had to close after receiving notices because the cost of retail space in Izhevsk sharply increased. The termination notice somehow avoided "Izhevskie termy.” However, the new owner didn’t forget about the complex.

On Saturday, January 21, employees and visitors had to evacuate the territory - the management arranged a fire drill. Overnight on February 3, the benches that belonged to "Izhevskie termy" disappeared from the common recreation area. The owner explained that the area had been turned into a hallway. And since February 4, of the three entrances to "Italmas" only one was open.

"This entrance has a steep staircase, making it difficult for an elderly or disabled person to go down," says Nadezhda Zorina. "Personal belongings are inspected at the entrance. A woman came to the bathhouse - what [suspicious] can be found in her things? Not only we but also other women with kids, including disabled children, and retirees visited the baths. To close such a wonderful place means to take away the health of the population. We understand: drones are needed. But not at such a cost." 

Of three entrances to the health complex open is only one. Photo of the authorOf three entrances to the health complex open is only one. Photo of the author
Of three entrances to the health complex open is only one. Photo of the authorOf three entrances to the health complex open is only one. Photo of the author

Zorina appealed to the head of Udmurtia, Alexander Brechalov, asking him not to close "Italmas" and to preserve "Izhevskie termy." The owner of the baths, Yuri Bychkov, did the same reacting to the pressure on his business:

"In Kazan, a resort will be opened in an industrial area, and in Udmurtia just the opposite."

“What kind of place Udmurtia is, and what kind of people live there if they can be treated like this?”

The other tenants, who remain in the shopping center, have pushed the “pause” button - they are waiting to see what happens with Bychkov.

 "Izhevskie Termy". Photo of the author

"Izhevskie Termy". Photo of the author

Protest of Izhevsk residents

In December, when the news spread that the shopping center would become an unmanned vehicle plant, people from nearby buildings came to the management of Izhevsky Termy with a question: "How can we help you defend the shopping center?" In fact, they are not much worried about the complex, but they do not want to live next to a military production facility, which they consider a potential target for attack.

In January, a local resident, Oleg Zhitnikov, published a petition demanding that the plant be moved to a safe location. Within a month, it was signed by 5,000 people. The petition says that "dangerous production" cannot be located within residential areas. Zhitnikov refused to speak to a journalist from the 7x7 media.

At a press conference of Izhevsky Term about the shopping center someone from the crowd said:

"If there is no 'Magnit' [a chain of grocery stores] or 'Izhevsky Termy', we will survive, but we don't need a plant strategic importance here! The news about this spread through all the media and social networks, including foreign ones. All that remains is to publish stories about how they [drones] are being assembled. None of the management of the organization that is going to build this plant thinks about the fact that there are children nearby. We are very upset that the leadership of Udmurtia does not hear us."

Maria (name changed), a resident of Izhevsk, tried to get approval for a picket against the drone factory. The authorities denied her request and advised her to be more cautious "with going public," as "all protesters and their children can be recorded in the archives of certain agencies for many years." A friend of Maria's shared with the 7x7 media a video (later it appeared on Telegram channels) in which the following dialogue is heard:

"We are not against the production of drones, we are not against the special military operations. We want the production to be located elsewhere. Please, just not in ‘Italmas', please," the woman begs.

"That's impossible. Two economic entities have agreed, how do you want... What legal levers do you have?" the man replies.

"The point of the picket is to reach out to [the head of Udmurtia Alexander] Brechalov, to have a talk with him. Let's arrange hearings, a meeting with the people," Maria says.

"And what can Brechalov do?" the response is.

None of the protestors agreed to talk to a 7x7 journalist even on the condition of anonymity.

Authorities' reaction

Katrina Selezneva, a member of the State Council of Udmurtia, noticed the protests and expressed her support for drone designer Alexander Zakharov on her VKontakte social media page. She called him "our Elon Musk" and "a true patriot of Russia and Udmurtia." A “patriot” because he decided to place a new production in his home republic, even though other regions allegedly offered him premises for free. And he was “Elon Musk” because he had been producing unmanned aerial vehicles in Udmurtia for 20 years.

People asked Selezneva to come to a meeting, but she did not show up.

On January 24, Dmitry Medvedev, a former Prime Minister and President, visited Udmurtia. On that day, Oleg Pigalov, a regular customer of "Izhevskie Termy" wrote to Medvedev on social media: "We don't have money, but we're hanging in there, Dmitry Anatolyevich. I'll show you available industrial sites for the drone plant, and you can't deprive us of 'Izhevskie Termy'."

Pigalov told the 7x7 media that Medvedev's account had read the message, but did not respond. Medvedev visited the drone facility and said that in 2023 the "Kalashnikov" concern must maintain the production of military equipment and means of destruction on a high level.

Oleg Pigalov is a regular customer at the "Izhevskie Termy" and a protest campaigner. Photo courtesy of the 7x7

Oleg Pigalov is a regular customer at the "Izhevskie Termy" and a protest campaigner. Photo of the 7x7

Konstantin Suntsov, the first deputy prime minister, was the only official in Udmurtia who publicly responded to the protests. He told journalists of the "Kommersant-Udmurtia" that it is up to the new owner of the "Italmas" shopping center what to do with the building he owns:

"We, or anyone else, have no rights to interfere in his business when it is within the law."

President as the last hope 

With no help in Udmurtia, a group of locals and employees of "Izhevskie Termy" went to the President’s administration in Moscow. They brought along 2420 signatures against the drone plant in the residential development zone.

Izhevsk residents brought signatures to the presidential administration against the closure of the "Italmas" shopping mall. Photo courtesy of the 7x7

Izhevsk residents brought signatures to the presidential administration against the closure of the "Italmas" shopping mall. Photo of the 7x7

"At personal meetings with the officials, we shared our stories. I spoke for 20 minutes and asked if it was enough. The female consultant said, 'No, tell us everything.' But I didn't have any documents to support my emotions, so I was advised to contact the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Ministry of Defense, the Prosecutor's Office, and the government. I did all of this," Oleg Pigalov said to the 7x7 media."

He is worried whether their appeal will reach the president.

During one of the meetings, a consultant from Izhevsk tried several times to call the government of Udmurtia to personally receive a comment on the future of the "Italmas" shopping center. She never received an answer.

The consultant who listened to Anastasia Araki was very surprised, according to her words. "Really? Really?" the presidential administration employee kept asking.

After the meetings, the activists took a tour around Moscow. When they were passing the "Krasny Oktyabr" chocolate factory, the tour guide said, "Of course, this is only a museum. Naturally, all production has been moved outside of Moscow."

"Chocolate cannot be produced in the center of Moscow, but unmanned aerial vehicles in the center of Izhevsk can," Araki concluded.

In her appeal to the president, she wrote, "Where do the powers of supervisory bodies end? At the point where the interests of multimillionaires begin? It feels like that's the case."

Employees of "Izhevskie Termy" say that if they don't get the expected response from the president, their faith in him will be shaken. But they are still hopeful: "Right now, the truth is on our side."


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