BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan: Surrounded by the vast sand dunes of the Kazakh steppe, on satellite images the city of Baikonur looks like an oasis of glimmering lights in an otherwise dry desert.
Leased by Russia from Kazakhstan since the collapse of the USSR, the legendary launch site was for years the heart of the Soviet space program, sending both the first artificial satellite and human into space.
Russia, whose lease on the site will expire in 2050, continues to regularly use the cosmodrome to send Russian and foreign crews to the International Space Station (ISS).
But faced with aging infrastructure and limited economic prospects, Baikonur’s Russian inhabitants are slowly moving away from the once-bustling city.
“More and more Kazakhs are settling here and the Russians are leaving,” said 22-year-old Artur Faleyev, born in Baikonur.
Artur trained as a computer scientist, but in a city focused solely on the space industry, he has struggled to find a job using his skills.
There are no prospects here,” he said.
“Generally speaking, the young people who are born and go to school here then go straight to other cities in Russia… Moscow, Saint Petersburg.”
He now works as a security guard at a facility belonging to the Roscosmos space agency, but plans to move to Russia’s Chelyabinsk region with his mother.
His best friend, Alexander Ognev, 22, was also born in Baikonur but only has a Kazakh passport.
He has launched a long and costly procedure to obtain Russian citizenship.
“My grandparents came here during the Virgin Lands campaign,” he said, referring to the mass farming program launched by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the mid-1950s.
Alexander, who has a culinary diploma, is also struggling to find a decent job.
He currently works at an animal shelter on a measly salary of 20,000 rubles (about $200) a month.
‘Many are leaving’
Almost 16,000 Russian citizens still live in Baikonur, out of a total population of around 57,000.
“Many are leaving. The ones with a job are the ones who stay,” said Sarsenbek Abechev, 65, an ethnic Kazakh and fruit seller.
The city, still dotted with Soviet-era monuments to its spacefaring past, faces a myriad of problems.
Once Moscow’s main spaceport, Roscosmos has since shifted flights to Vostochny — a newly built cosmodrome in Russia’s far east that will eventually replace Baikonur.
Added to this is competition from US firm SpaceX, which offers cheap and reliable launches to the ISS, challenging the former monopoly held by Roscosmos after the US ended its Space Shuttle program.
Russia’s offensive in Ukraine has also complicated matters, plunging relations with the West to an all-time low.
Apart from crew members’ families, no Western visitors have been allowed to enter Baikonur since the start of the conflict.
International sanctions targeting Russia also threaten to hinder the few joint Russian-Kazakh projects at the cosmodrome, reports have suggested.
Faced with these problems, the Russian authorities have proposed a repatriation program for Russian citizens living in Baikonur.
At the end of 2021, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree making it easier for those wishing to leave to get housing in Russia.
Over 1,000 households, including large families, have applied to be repatriated to Russia under the scheme, according to the local administration — a sizable portion of the city’s Russian population.
“The aim (of the program) is to ensure that Russian citizens are not left with nothing,” Baikonur’s mayor Konstantin Busygin told AFP.
He believes that the city would probably not be able to survive for very long if the cosmodrome were to close.
If it is to be shuttered, the mayor wants to see measures that help the city’s remaining inhabitants prepare in advance and find other sources of income.
“We don’t have any factories here. When Roscosmos leaves, there will be 7,500 fewer jobs,” he said.