Emergency Situation: The Slow-Moving Tragedy of the Russian Arctic

“Businesses keep track of environmental conditions, including the permafrost, at extraction sites, and often to a high level of expertise. [But] Rosgidromet [the national environmental watchdog] doesn’t specialise in monitoring the urban environment, and towns aren’t often home to boreholes.

“There are simply no specialists and services to monitor hazardous natural phenomena, the state of the permafrost, redistributing the snow layer as a result of building works. There’s no open data or exchange of it either… We need a unified system for monitoring the state of the permafrost, especially in towns.”

Limited responsibility

Reputations aren’t as important for businesses in Russia as they are in the West – they’re not a decisive factor for either management or workers. The history of how factories in the north were built by Soviet prison labour isn’t advertised, and there’s no re-examination or distancing from Soviet-era development.

The break between town and enterprise has happened differently everywhere, and companies are usually left to decide how much social responsibility they want to shoulder. If a proper dialogue takes place, and zones of responsibility between public and private are divided properly (for urban infrastructure, housing and monitoring of and protection against hazardous natural phenomena), then a town can stay afloat. If, however, businesses reject their responsibilities, environmental and cultural degradation is inevitable and people will move away.

That said, it’s hard to make generalisations. Despite the recent catastrophe in Norilsk, the city is quite resilient – the number of people leaving it for work elsewhere is small compared to other towns – but is still perceived as a transfer hub.

There’s a similar situation in Murmansk, which, despite being an Arctic town, feels “close” to central Russia. Its proximity to Scandinavia and St Petersburg encourages people to leave, though some young people are staying (or have returned) and trying to create a new and experimental city culture – such as the Fridaymilkcollective of artists and curators.

External cultural initiatives don’t work so well; attempts by a Moscow company to revive the Murmansk village of Teriberka failed, for example, after local residents refused to work with them. A modern art residency in Noyabrsk looks more successful, but it’s a temporary project.

Government Strategy

Russia’s federal authorities are concerned by depopulation and internal migration in the Arctic area. After all, it provides 10% of the country’s GDP and 20% of exports (gas, oil and metals). Two government programmes are currently targeting Arctic monotowns, both aimed at development with the help of new investors and large companies, and stopping depopulation. To encourage this, the Russian government has proposed significant tax benefits and a range of investment programmes for “Arctic residents” – those who set up projects in the Arctic with a budget of more than a million roubles.

There’s also an official socio-economic development plan focusing on “guaranteeing national security in the Arctic” – that is, increasing Russia’s military presence in the region. As part of this, the government plans to issue million-rouble funds to create floating scientific stations, renew Russia’s inland water transport network and develop the Northern Sea Routefor both tourism and freight (freight transport is meant to triple between 2019 and 2024).

Norilsk | Image: Sofia Gavrilova

All these plans, if they are even at least partly completed, would mean a new stage of Russian colonisation (or, as they called it in Soviet times, “assimilation”) of the northern and eastern edges of the country. The government’s plans will inevitably bring new life to Russian Arctic towns – an influx of people, business and industry – and may even revive Soviet ghost towns such as Tiksi or Igarka.

These government programmes do, however, raise many questions and doubts, not least because of what is already happening to the Arctic’s complex infrastructure – some of which is already abandoned.

Indeed, experts are still fairly pessimistic about the results of these developments. “The monotown programme is ineffective. Alexey Kudrin [chairman of Russia’s Accounts Chamber, Russia’s parliamentary financial control body] has said it all: ‘We are continuing to drag these towns on our backs’,” says Maria Gunko.