In Remote Kaliningrad, Russians Dream Of Ka-Ching

The Russian government shut down all casinos in the country last year but stipulated that some could be reopened - but only in four outlying areas. Can far-flung Kaliningrad become Russia's Las Vegas? Or maybe Atlantic City?

When Russia shut down all of its casinos last year, the government left open a small window. You can reopen some casinos, it told the gaming industry, but only in four outlying areas. The challenge: Start from scratch and try building a Russian Las Vegas.

Welcome to Povarovka, in Russia's far-flung Kaliningrad region.

I stopped at a roadside store here recently, trying to find one of these areas the government set aside for casinos.

Cashier Irina Kurbanova said I was in the right place. This is the closest village to the proposed gambling development.

Kurbanova had very strong feelings about the topic: Keep out the one-armed bandits, or slot machines. She said gambling would bring crime and trouble, not that she's too worried.

There is no sewage system out here, she said. How do they plan to build a casino?

That's the state of gambling in Russia. The flashing neon from casinos once lit up Russia's cities, including Moscow. But the government said the industry was tangled up in big-city corruption. So last summer, it banished gambling to the hinterlands — including Kaliningrad, a former German province seized by the Soviets after World War II.

On a map, Kaliningrad looks like a piece of Russia that somehow broke off and got lodged between Poland and Lithuania. It's on the Baltic Sea, so there are some picturesque beaches to wander. Maybe Russia's Atlantic City?

It's just hard to imagine casinos here anytime soon. I couldn't even reach the proposed development site.

Snow choked the dirt road, so my journey ended at Alexei Yutchenko's house. He pointed out the spot in the distance, over the tree line, on an undeveloped beach. The way he sees it, why not?

Yutchenko is in the construction business, so a casino could mean more work.

"There are no jobs here. People just sit around, with nothing to do. We sure have enough land. They can build anything they want. It certainly won't make things worse," he says.

Yutchenko could be the poster child for Vladimir Putin's plans. When the Russian prime minister closed the big-city casinos, thousands were thrown out of work. But he said his plan might boost the economy of depressed areas.

In January, one small casino, with 200 slot machines and just 10 gambling tables, opened in a gambling zone, deep in southern Russia.

But two other casino zones — one in Siberia, another near the North Korean border — have nothing yet. These projects might seem like a risky bet. Of course, it wouldn't be the first time a gambling city sprang up in the middle of nowhere.

The story of Las Vegas' birth and growth drives the dreams of a mother and son in the Kaliningrad region.

Larisa Danilevskaya said all that empty land I saw means "we can invent anything."

Of course, inventing things takes money, and her son, Maxim, is tackling that reality.

He has been trying to attract investors. So far, one — a South Asian casino company he didn't identify — has shown real interest. But it backed away when the global recession hit.

Still, Maxim is an optimist. He popped in the DVD he has been showing to potential investors.

There were images of future casinos, but also beach umbrellas, tennis courts — a true family resort. "All I need," he said, "is a pioneer to build something. And more will follow." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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