- By Alexandra Letkova
- Apr. 29 2015 20:03
When it comes to reputation, the Russian city of Tolyatti in the Samara region puts its money where its mouth is. Best known for housing one of the world's largest car factories, AvtoVAZ, city residents are loyal to the automaker's best known brand — Lada — with almost 60 percent of all personal vehicles on Tolyatti's roads coming from the AvtoVAZ plant.
Tolyatti was founded in 1737 as a fortress known as Stavropol with a strategic position on the banks of the Volga River. It was later referred to as Stavropol-na-Volge to avoid confusion with Stavropol in the North Caucasus. In the 1950s, the area of Stavropol-na-Volge was almost completely flooded by a reservoir when the Kuibyshev Dam and Hydroelectric Station was built, prompting the city's reconstruction on a new site. In the '60s, the new city was extensively enlarged and industrialized when AvtoVAZ's precursor VAZ (Volzhsky Avtomobilny Zavod) and chemical companies were established. The city served as an example of Soviet development and experience gained during its construction was adopted in the creation of other Russian industrial cities, such as Naberezhniye Chelny, Nizhnekamsk, Bratsk and Tobolsk.
A: It has its positive and negative sides. As a foreigner, I had to get used to new laws, new rules and the mentality of the people. It was definitely a challenge.
Q: What challenges does your business face?
A: The main challenge is to survive. The exchange rate has changed significantly since the beginning of our production and most of the components we use are imported and paid in euros. To compensate for the negative impact of the exchange rate, we try to localize production as well as export. Exporting from Russia, however, is very complicated and there is room for improvement.
Q: What sort of relationship do you have with the local government?
A: The relationship with the local government is good. They are trying to assist and help investors. On our arrival here, we had a meeting with the mayor to identify opportunities and possibilities for cooperation. Currently, we are located in Tolyatti's Special Economic Zone, which offers its residents several benefits, such as estate rental with infrastructure and a special tax regime.
Q: What advice would you give foreign businessmen who want to invest in Tolyatti?
A: Russia is not a cheap country but there are lots of new opportunities and huge potential. AvtoVAZ and Renault-Nissan are trying to localize production, which opens new investment possibilities. The current situation, however, is not very stable and many new investors are hesitant. Europe may be more stable but opportunities are not so numerous anymore and it is more difficult for business to turn a profit.
The city was renamed in 1964 to Tolyatti, after Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party. So is it Tolyatti or Togliatti? Both variations are used to spell the city's name in English based on the English transliteration from Russian or the original Italian version. There has been a discussion about changing the name back to Stavropol-na-Volge, but as time passes, it seems less and less likely.
"The name Tolyatti is more modern and better fits the spirit of the city," said Yelena Rozhdestvenskaya, director of the Tolyatti Tourist Office.
"Many people were born in Tolyatti and they like the city and its name. In addition, there is another Stavropol in Russia and it is not in our interest to be a second Stavropol," she said.
This young city has grown to become one of the most populous cities in Russia. In only 60 years, the population has skyrocketed from 12,000 to more than 700,000. The city was built by members of the Komsomol — the Soviet youth organization — who came from all over the Soviet Union to start a new life.
"They were creative and brave, making Tolyatti remarkable: In comparison with other cities, there are lots of innovative people who come up with new projects and new companies, as well as new ideas in music and art," said Rozhdestvenskaya.
However, the successful car industry and political change set the backdrop for organized crime wars in the late '90s and early 2000s. Hundreds of murders were committed in the fight for control of AvtoVAZ and the spare parts market. These dark times also saw the spread of drugs and HIV/AIDS in Tolyatti.
Nowadays, the city's criminal history seems to be behind it, but the large number of residents living with HIV are a sad legacy of the earlier time of troubles. According to the Samara Regional Center for the Prevention and Control of AIDS and Infectious Diseases, the prevalence of HIV in Tolyatti is 2,700 per 100,000 people: five times the Russian average.
The years blighted by the car industry crime gangs' conflicts left AvtoVAZ facing serious problems. In 2008, the Renault-Nissan Alliance bought shares in the company, and three years later, car models of all three brands began rolling off the production line. The vision and potential for new projects has made Tolyatti attractive for investors who can benefit from special conditions offered by national-regional cooperation projects such as the Tolyatti Special Economic Zone and the Zhiguli Valley technopark. The former allows new investors to build greenfield factories under special conditions, while the latter assists companies and projects devoted to highly innovative technologies.
As a young city built from scratch, Tolyatti does not really have a city center. There are three districts — Avtozavodsky, Tsentralny and Komsomolsky — which serve as self-sufficient centers.
"Tolyatti's location is very unusual as it is located in the forest and all three city districts have access to woodland," said Rozhdestvenskaya. Sadly, during the heat waves and ensuing forest fires of 2010, a large portion of the forest burned down. The future of the destroyed area is uncertain: Either reforestation will take place or a new commercial center will be constructed.
Tolyatti's surroundings are major assets to the city. In addition to the forest and the Volga River, the Samarskaya Luka national park is located just across the river. It is bordered by the Volga and dates back to the Devonian period (400 million years ago), which explains its small oil reserves and many paleontological finds. Nowadays, the area is a hot spot for rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing and camping.
Several eminent music festivals take place in the vicinity of Tolyatti, such as the Grushinsky Festival, Rock on the Volga and the Volga Classic Festival, attracting thousands of visitors annually.
What to See if You Have Two Hours
A: Firstly, the city of Tolyatti has always been open to international cooperation … we built the AvtoVAZ factory with support from the Italians. The residents of Tolyatti are open-minded, so communicating with them is easier than with the residents of other Russian cities. Secondly, in Tolyatti, there are many highly qualified people from the automotive industry working for AvtoVAZ and its suppliers. Last but not least, it is the quality of life. Obviously, it is not as high as many cities in Europe, but Tolyatti is a progressive city with developed infrastructure, a low unemployment rate, wide roads, modern supermarkets and a variety of leisure activities.
Q: Tolyatti used to have quite a bad reputation because of the high crime rate. What is the current situation? Should visitors be worried?
A: Unfortunately, when the city of Tolyatti is discussed, its criminal history always resurfaces. In my opinion, Tolyatti is no more dangerous than Kazan, Moscow or St. Petersburg. Currently, there is no danger for residents and visitors.
Q: What is the main priority for Tolyatti City Hall today?
A: First of all, we need to diversify the city's economy to avoid dependence on the automotive industry. We are working on developing business and industrial tourism as well. We also support international projects in the spirit of entrepreneurship, culture and education. We are involved in several exchange projects with artists, athletes, students and teachers. We have successfully set up a student exchange program between three technical colleges in Tolyatti and France in the automotive, industrial design and gastronomy fields. Our aim is to establish joint-degree study programs.
Without a doubt, the most interesting parts of Tolyatti lie on the shores of the Volga. All of Tolyatti's districts have their own river port and embankment; unfortunately, these are not connected — though development plans do exist. While the coast in the Avtozavodsky district is popular for its sandy beaches, the riverside in the Tsentralny district is more densely forested and popular for outings, bike rides and photo shoots, especially for weddings.
The Tsentralny district boasts a monument to Vasily Tatishchev, founder of Stavropol/Tolyatti, erected on the coast in 1998. The 7.5-meter tall statue made by Russian sculptor Alexander Rukavishnikov stands on a 14-meter tall pedestal. The equestrian monument of the Russian statesman and scholar quickly became a Tolyatti landmark.
Be sure to pay a visit to the Transfiguration Cathedral (19 Ulitsa Revolyutsionnaya, +7-848-232-2060, pravoslavie-tlt.ru), which was completed in 2002. It is a modern cathedral with stunning mosaic walls and a huge ornate chandelier. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox cathedral is only open on weekends and religious holidays.
From the cathedral, it's only a short walk to a small, somewhat neglected park that is home to a collection of three sculptures known as "The History of Transport." The sculptures — a steamboat, a steam locomotive and a hot air balloon — were crafted in the late '70s by Russian artist Andrei Vasnetsov.
What to See if You Have Two Days
Across the Volga is the Samarskaya Luka national park. Easily accessible via the M5 highway, this park is an unbeatable out-of-town getaway. One of the best viewpoints is from Strelnaya Gora, a rocky peak 375 meters above sea level, which makes it the highest point of the wooded Zhiguli mountain range. It offers stunning views over the hills of Samarskaya Luka, the Volga and its shores. The entrance fee to the national park and Strelnaya Gora is 500 rubles per car.
Further along the road is a lovely village called Shiryayevo, where high-quality limestone has been mined since the late 18th century. Some of the old mines are still accessible, and visitors can see the fossilized shells of sea creatures found in the limestone. But the biggest attraction in Shiryayevo is the Repin Museum (14 Ulitsa Sovietskaya, +7-960-841-3409, museum.ru/m1597). The house containing the museum was rented by Ilya Repin and his friends during the summer of 1870. They studied life on the Volga and the stay inspired Repin to create "Barge Haulers on the Volga," one of his most famous paintings.
The Sakharov Technical Museum (137 Yuzhnoye Shosse, +7-848-272-6620, museum.vaz.ru) is home to a large collection of military vehicles, tanks, airplanes, helicopters and trains, as well as lunar rovers and a submarine. Most of the exhibits are of Russian origin. Visitors are welcome to touch and even climb on the vehicles, open everything that it is possible to open, and shoot from the shotguns. The museum's ambition is to become a leisure park filled not only with big objects but also smaller ones, such as gramophones or a radio to signify the spirit of the era.
Enjoy being serenaded by the Tolyatti Philharmonic (42 Ulitsa Pobedy, +7-848-226-2081, filarman.ru) and its broad repertoire ranging from classical music to Russian folk and jazz. Numerous international guests perform regularly.
For late-night socializing, Shtany club (50b 40 Let Pobedy, +7-848-220-2888, shtany-club.ru) is popular among locals and foreigners for its live music and dance parties.
Where to Eat
A: What is fascinating about AvtoVAZ and Lada is that 50 percent of customers do not like us and 50 percent love us. No one is indifferent. A car business is relatively simple: all you need is a product that people want to buy and are proud of. Today, many people are not proud of driving a Lada. Therefore, we have to improve the quality of our products for end users and become more customer-oriented. We also need to develop and train our employees, as well as improve their working conditions. Another challenge is to decrease bureaucracy and reduce levels of management.
Q: How do you cooperate with local authorities?
A: We hold monthly meetings with Nikolai Merkushkin, governor of the Samara region, who fully supports us. Tolyatti Mayor Andreyev is also a strong supporter of AvtoVAZ. Local authorities do not always like what we do, but we do it in order to make the company healthy. We provide the governor and mayor with a business review, social issues and our plans. I told the governor that I would not surprise him. So far, I think we have an excellent working relationship. The governor has a special interest in ice hockey and especially the Lada Hockey Club. It used to be part of AvtoVAZ but we gave it to the Samara region. We are still the sponsors but the governor and his team own the hockey club. Recently, we also transferred our technical museum to the municipality, as it is not our core business. Needless to say, the Russian government with President [Vladimir] Putin and his administration have been very supportive of us.
Local gourmets enjoy the restaurant FortePiano (35 Ulitsa Marshala Zhukova, +7-848-255-5470, ресторанфортепиано.рф) as the menu is innovative and unique, and available in English and French. FortePiano offers a Russian-based fusion cuisine and the average bill for one comes to about 700 rubles ($12) without alcohol.
For a touch of the countryside atmosphere and hearty meals, the restaurant Telega (1a Ulitsa Sovietskaya, Primorsky district, +7-848-270-3333, telega-tlt.ru) is worth trying. A three-course meal without drinks costs about 1,000 rubles.
Where to Stay
Expect panoramic, breathtaking views at Hotel Vega (40 Ulitsa Yubileinaya, +7-848-273-5555, vega-tlt.ru/hotel), which stands high above its surroundings. Half of its 175 rooms offer amazing views of the Volga. Prices start at 4,500 rubles for a room with a double bed and 5,000 rubles for a room with a king-sized bed, based on single occupancy. The hotel is connected to a mall of the same name.
For a more luxurious stay, consider Park Hotel (6 Ulitsa Komzina, +7-848-248-9797, park-otel.com) located right on the shores of the Volga in a quiet area away from the downtown buzz. Rates range from 2,950 rubles for a single standard room to 10,950 rubles for a luxury double suite.
Tolyatti residents are proud of the success of their local sports teams. Many of them are called Lada as they have been sponsored by AvtoVAZ. Among the famous teams are a female handball team considered one of the best in Europe, a motorbike speedway team that is among the top European teams, and the ice hockey team, which in the 2014-15 season entered the highest league in the Kontinental Hockey League after several years of struggling.
Locals are also proud of their long and wide boulevards and green, tree-lined sidewalks. However, straight roads tempt many drivers to drive fast, therefore vigilance is recommended.
Other Helpful Hints
The Avtozavodsky district, also called the New Town, is divided into blocks (kvartaly) approximately one kilometer long. Locals regularly indicate addresses by the block number, but the numeration system often seems mysterious to newcomers.
How to get there
Tolyatti is served by Kurumoch International Airport, located 60 kilometers from the city. Driving takes about 45 minutes by taxi and prices start at 700 rubles. There are 13 flights daily from Moscow's airports and the flight is 1 1/2 hours long. A round-trip ticket comes to approximately 11,000 rubles.
By train, Tolyatti is an overnight journey from the capital. Trains leave daily from Moscow's Kazansky Station. The trip takes about 18 hours and a one-way ticket costs from 1,400 rubles.