They came to Rooppur for the nuclear power project. Now shopkeepers and beggars can speak to them in Russian

Against the backdrop of towering high-rises, Santu sits on the side of a road with the expectation of finding some charitable souls among the passersby.

The 55-year-old Ishwardi native, who suffers from a physical disability, can be found here on weekends.

He is not alone. Another beggar sits just a stone's throw away.

The area, now known as 'Green City', could easily be mistaken for an urban neighbourhood in Dhaka.

Even more curiously, Santu and others are not seeking alms in their native tongue, but in Russian.

Of all the places that spring to mind when thinking of a hub for cultural exchange, Rooppur in Pabna's Ishwardi is sure to rank among the unlikeliest. That is, until now.

A radical socio-economic transformation is afoot in the town on the banks of the Padma River, aided by an influx of eastern Europeans, who are working on the country's first nuclear power plant project.

“The Russians are kind-hearted. One out of every three gives us alms. They give no less than Tk 10 each. I earn Tk 400 to Tk 500 a day,” says Santu, who spends Fridays and Saturdays in Rooppur.

Each time a foreigner approaches, he utters a phrase in Russian that roughly translates to, "Friend, I want to eat."

Santu says he picked up bits and pieces of the language from other beggars.

About 2,500 officials and workers from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine are working on the nuclear power plant project.

They are housed in twenty 20-storey buildings in Green City, about 1.5 km away from the main project.

And, their impact can be felt in every aspect of life in Rooppur.

Shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, grocery shops and kitchen markets have sprung up in the area in recent years.

With the establishment of shops targeting foreign nationals, there has been a change in the way products are marketed. Most signboards, products, and prices are now written in both Russian and English along with Bangla.

Milk and bananas are the best-selling products in his grocery shop, says Md Abu Taher.

“They are fond of milk and bananas. Every time they step off the bus, they buy bananas.”

A couple of years ago, Taher’s shop was much smaller and situated a fair distance away near the Lalon Shah Bridge. There were days when he couldn’t even sell a pair of bananas, he says.

But now, things have changed.

“I sell 40-50 kg of bananas every day,” he added.

Other shops, too, are thriving.

The area was previously known as Shahpur and has been developed alongside 'Notunhaat' with power plant workers, especially the Russians, in mind.

Biswas Shopping Complex was built across from the walled Green City on a piece of land where a rice mill once stood.

Alip Biswas, managing director of the mall, said, “There was a rice mill here a couple of years ago. There were several rice mills in the adjoining areas as well.”

“But the business wasn't great, so we built a shopping mall here. There is no debt for the shopping complex,” he added.

Alip and his two brothers own the shopping complex. All the shops there bear signboards written in Bangla as well as Russian.

"The idea of naming the shops in Russian came from the shopkeepers. We had no influence in the decision,” he says.

Asked why Biswas Shopping Complex is more popular with Russians than other shopping centres, Alip said, "They usually don't want to go very far. People come here because the shopping complex is nearby.”

Kazi Farms Kitchen has a fast food shop on the first floor of the two-storey shopping complex.

Rafiqul Islam, its manager, said it is the first shop to grace the market. He has been working there since it opened over a year ago.

He, too, can exchange pleasantries in Russian.

“The menu was translated to Russian using Google Translate. Among the foreigners, people from Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia are our main customers. They mainly have fried chicken and coffee. A lot of Bengalis come to eat too.”

Sabiha Rahman, 45, owner of Sabiha Boutique and Variety Shop on the ground floor of Biswas Shopping Complex, said she set up shop here as her father was a native of Shahpur. She had lived in Ishwardi with her husband before moving here.

“I started this shop a year ago. The advance for the shop was around Tk 500,000 and the monthly rent is Tk 5,000. I have invested nearly Tk 2.5 million in a year and hope to get the returns very soon as the business is going well.”

“The Russians are sincere and very good as customers,” she said.

There is a sunglasses shop named 'RK Lifestyle Accessories' at the corner of the stairs leading up to the second floor.

Mohammad Ripon, the owner of the shop, said, “The price of sunglasses starts from Tk 1,000. However, I also sell sunglasses worth Tk 125,000."

He hesitated to reveal the daily sales figures at first, he later said the shop makes around Tk 60,000 to Tk 70,000 a month.

There was a gift and antique shop on the second floor of the mall. The seller said that he sold a brass chess worth Tk 15,000 only a few days ago.

Sumon Ali owns a clothing store named 'ARS Fashion', which opened at the same time as the mall. He said he has another shop downstairs.

"As business is going well, I decided to open another shop on the second floor," Sumon said.

"A couple of years ago, 10 of us took training as interpreters to run the super shop of Rosem Company. We had to make an advance deposit of around Tk 350,000 for the shop. But the booking fee was less this time as we already have another shop in the complex.”

'Dennis', a Belarusian working for the Russian Test Rosem Company, a subcontractor of the Rooppur nuclear power plant, offers a cursory smile while shopping at the store.

Asked about the price and quality of the products by Sumon, he said: “Good product, cheap price.”

The shopkeepers in this area are cordial. The prices of most products, except fruit, are low compared to other grocery stores. The clothes are surprisingly cheap.

According to shopkeepers, most of their products are imported from China.

English has fallen out of favour in the former Soviet Union, making it almost impossible to communicate in the language with the people of that region. The language barrier is a big reason why most of the foreigners who came to Biswas Shopping Complex smiled and avoided any conversation.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the cultural exchanges between Bangladesh and Russia had diminished along with their decline in political ties. But the Rooppur nuclear power plant project has brought these people together once more.