Inside an abandoned Siberian Soviet military factory

This thing? I found it inside an abandoned square-mile Soviet-era military factory in Siberia. It would have worn a gas mask to help illustrate to workers proper safety protocols upon nuclear war with America. Now, it's just another artifact of the USSR's once mighty military machine.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, the speed and severity of the Blitzkrieg prompted Soviet leaders to relocate much of their factories out of the populated, but close-to-Germany West and move them into the scarcely populated lands of the East where sheer distance would make them relatively safe from air and land attacks. Charged with the production of the Soviet military's workhorse sidecar, Ural was considered a strategically important company and was subsequently relocated all the way to Siberia, where it produced hundreds of thousands of the contraptions for domestic and foreign armies until the early ‘90s.

Beginning in 1991, IMZ-Ural's home since World War II was slowly abandoned. Many of the gigantic machines it once used to produce 130,000 sidecars a year were sold or stolen for scrap metal. As buildings went unheated and uncared for, snow eventually collapsed many of the gargantuan roofs. Accidental explosions caused by scavengers destroyed others.

The factory's production, now much reduced, was traded for food and other necessities to feed the 43,000 inhabitants of Irbit, a town once devoted nearly entirely to serving the motorcycle factory.

Inside an abandoned Siberian Soviet military factory

The town and factory are so inextricably linked that, when the motorcycle company was unable to pay its €500,000 heating oil bill, emergency evacuation plans were drawn up for the population. Most of their homes and businesses are heated by steam produced on factory grounds.

Last month, I flew to Siberia to visit the factory that now produces just 1,000 sidecars a year, most destined for the US market. While there, I spent an entire day crawling through the abandoned portions, snapping these photos in the process. With November temperatures hovering around a relatively balmy, for Siberia, zero degrees fahrenheit it was cold. The pervasive barking of packs of wild dogs made it eerie. Rusted catwalks and falling debris made it dangerous. But, overall, the feeling was one of sadness. Here, tens of thousands of people once toiled in an effort to make Russia mobile.

Inside an abandoned Siberian Soviet military factory

The sidecar itself is a curious device. The ones Ural produced and produces more so than most. Based on designs for a BMW R71 shared during the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Ural developed as a unique machine built to survive the harsh environs of World War II battlefields. After the war, sales expanded to Soviet civilians; it was once a common sight to see them being used to haul families or work in fields or carry produce to market, year round. Russia's planned economy dictated that they were affordable, creating a two-year waiting list for one. In Russia, you were able to afford a sidecar long before you could ever dream of owning a car.

Military sales continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The compact size, light weight and versatile nature of the sidecar, along with its low price and easy maintenance made it a hit with other Soviet Block armies and even further flung allies like Iraq and Egypt. Blown-to-pieces Urals now make popular settings for American soldiers posing for group photographs.

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The problem was, those attributes that made it a hit - price and versatility - disappeared with the fall of communism. Unsubsidized, prices skyrocketed even as cheap car imports began from Asia. Open-air product of a government that oppressed you or a roof and a heater and progress for a lower price?

Throughout the ‘90s, the factory struggled in and out of various private ownerships, never really finding its way in a newly free market world. When workers needed to eat, sidecars and their components were traded for food. The Egyptian Army once paid in bullion cubes.

That changed in 2000 when a group of investors bought the factory and brand, commencing a still-ongoing restructuring effort intended to make the company relevant and viable in the 21st century. Forced to pursue profits, improve quality (or introduce it) and function in an exponentially smaller market, most of the remaining workforce was laid off and production processes consolidated into a single building. At its peak, IMZ-Ural directly employed over 10,000 people. Now, about 150 work there. In 2000, there were 1,600 machines operating in the factory. Now there's just 800. The sprawling factory grounds, flanked by the town on one side and a river it once dumped pollution into on the other, are now mostly deserted.

The gas mask lying on a pile of iodine bottles by that mannequin? I brought it home as a souvenir.

But even amid these scenes of ruin, this factory is still producing motorcycles; the only one of four large Soviet bike brands to survive today. It does so using the old tooling and a handful of the old workers even as new processes and the idea of farming out some parts to suppliers are introduced. You can see that portion of the factory and read more about my adventures in Siberia on Hell For Leather.