Russians on the streets, in restaurants and in shopping malls, as well as signs written in Russian alongside Bengali billboards all beg the question: “What does a slow-paced village in the Ishwardi region (called an Upazila) of Bangladesh's Pabna District have common with the world's largest country?”
The answer is that the Russian Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation is building key infrastructure for a 2.4 gigawatt nuclear power plant in Rooppur, including the installation of two VVER-1200/523 nuclear reactors. Starting in 2016, the project's rapid pace of development—along with the presence of a few thousand scientists and technical professionals, most of them from Russia—has largely propelled Rooppur's massive transformation:
— Syndrome of Atom (@Syndroma3) November 3, 2021
As a result, the landscape of the area has completely changed. The landscape now consists of high-rise buildings, new shopping malls and schools, as well as world-class hotels, restaurants, and resorts near the Padma river. Local shop owners are learning the Russian language in order to sell their products to Russian expat workers with ease, and signboards are increasingly being written in both English and Russian. Rooppur has grown to be a little Russia within Bangladesh.
The genesis of the power plant
Bangladesh needed a solution to meet rapid energy demand growth, which is linked to its GDP. In 2008, China offered to fund a nuclear power project, but just two years later, Bangladesh entered into a 12.65 billion United States dollar nuclear power deal with Russia, 90 percent of which is being funded by a loan from the Russian government to ensure cheap energy production.
The Russian state company Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM) has been financing and building reactors across many countries in order to increase Russia's geopolitical influence and generate financial profits for the country. Under the agreement, ROSATOM has been constructing the 1,062-acre plant in Rooppur under its build, own and operate (BOO) model; thus far, 40 percent of work has been completed.
Having commenced groundwork in 2016, the two power generating units are projected to become operational by 2023/24. Russia will provide nuclear fuel to run the operations. It has also agreed to train local professionals and take back the used nuclear waste for disposal.
‘Rooppur or Russpur?’
One of the first changes people noticed was a 20-storey housing development in a remote area of Notun Hat, which was completed around 2018. Travel bloggers began visiting and sharing their experiences, as seen in this vlog from Global Entertainment, posted on YouTube in 2020:
Cultures have become so integrated that the area's demographics also look very different. Approximately 4,000 employees from Russia, India, Ukraine, Belarus and other former members of the USSR have become part of the local workforce for the project. More than 20,000 people work in the plant and related infrastructure projects, and there are over 3,000 Russian-speaking workers whose presence has made a huge impact on the local population. These foreign workers often share their lives in Rooppur on social media:
In the video, Totckaia notes that in addition to the businesses located close to where the foreign workers live, many local shopkeepers in the nearby town of Ishwardi have picked up the Russian language in order to interact, prompting Ayesha Siddika to comment:
This is the most impressive video I have ever seen. I love this little Russian city. I want such a small Bengali town to be built in Russia too. Let the Russians know about the Bengali language and culture.❤️❤️❤️🇧🇩🇷🇺
A student of Dhaka University tweeted:
— Esha (@esha2509) October 22, 2021
On his blog, Anowar Nurul Islam wrote about this exchange of language and culture:
দেড় দুই বছরের ব্যবধানে বদলে গেছে অনেক কিছুই। সেখানে সেলুন থেকে সুপারশপ, ফলের দোকান কিংবা মাছ-মাংসের বাজার, সব সাইনবোর্ডেই আছে রাশিয়ান ভাষা। এমনকি আবাসিক এলাকা, রেস্টুরেন্ট কিংবা চায়ের আড্ডা সবখানে স্বতঃস্ফূর্ত উপস্থিতি রাশিয়ানদের। দোকানদারদের সাথে তারা যেমন কথা বলছেন বাংলায়, ঠিক তেমনই অনেক দোকানদারও এখন আয়ত্ত করেছেন রাশিয়ান ভাষা। স্থানীয়দের কেউ কেউ লিখতেও শিখেছেন রাশিয়ান ভাষা। তারই প্রমাণ হাতে লেখা কিছু সাইনবোর্ড।
A lot has changed in the space of two and a half years. From local saloons to super-shops or malls, fruit shops or fish and meat markets, most of them have Russian letters in the signboards. There is a spontaneous presence of Russians in the restaurants and tea-houses near the residential areas. There is also a cultural exchange happening as the foreign workers try to interact with the shopkeepers in Bengali and many shopkeepers are learning the Russian language. Some of the locals have also learned to write in Russian. Proof of this is the handwritten signboards.
It is an exchange the Russian expats are happy to be a part of. IA Tupilov, director of the Russian Atomstroyexport (ASE) in Bangladesh, told The Daily Sun that “the population treats Russian specialists quite well.”
Despite everyone's enthusiasm, certain things may be lost in translation—including the pronunciation of the town's name. In a thread on the ROSATOM South Asia Facebook page, Shoaib Nury quipped:
Rooppur or Russpur? Check again the current unofficial name. Russian expatriates gave the town a new name already. 🇧🇩❤️🇷🇺
Naturally, as part of the support system for such a large project, there has been massive infrastructural development in the surrounding areas. Several shopping malls, super shops, resorts, hospitals and quality hotels have been built in Pakshi, Sahapur, Rooppur and Ishwardi, all catering to the daily needs of foreigners—and thousands of local people, many of whom had previously been unemployed, have found jobs in many of these new businesses. A new 27-kilometre railway, a river port and 100 km of paved roads have also been constructed in the Upazila.
As Shaukat Akbar, project director of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, put it:
কোনো ওয়ার্কার এখন সাইকেলে আসে না। অধিকাংশের এখন বাইক আছে। রাশিয়ানরা বলেছিল যেদিন প্রকল্পের কাজ শেষ হবে কতিপয় ওয়ার্কারের চার চাকার গাড়িই হবে। রূপপুর দেশের প্রথম পারমাণবিক বিদ্যুৎ কেন্দ্র। এই প্রকল্প ঘিরে আবর্তিত হচ্ছে বহু মানুষের জীবন জীবিকা। উন্নত হচ্ছে জন-জীবনের মান।
Most local workers no longer come to work riding on a bicycle. They have graduated to motor-bikes. The Russians said when the project is completed, some workers would own cars. Rooppur is the first nuclear power plant in the country. This project is transforming the livelihoods of so many people. The quality of life is improving.