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

Yves here. This is an odd piece. While the subhead leads the reader to expect this to be mainly about environmental issues in the Russian Arctic, the focus instead is on the demise of towns that revolved around single employers. The authors act as if this is novel or some sort of Soviet holdover, when company towns were not uncommon in the US. I spent more than half my childhood living in company-owned housing, for instance: five houses in four towns (my father got a promotion in one place, so we went from a very nice house to a seriously glam one).

Nevertheless, it’s not hard to see that the fallen state of these small Russian cities strongly resembles the depopulation of manufacturing towns in the Rust Belt or England’s north, and the devastation to communities that depend on coal mining. For instance, it isn’t as if Russia has a monopoly on crumbling infrastructure. We’ve featured photos years ago on the horrible state of some US roads, including pothole filled interstates in Ohio and Michigan

The Russian examples seem more dramatic due to the huge span of the Russian north and the greater physical isolation of these contracting towns, but it’s a variation on a sadly familiar theme.

By Sofia Gavrilova, a geographer who works in the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig. Originally published at openDemocracy

“The asbestos factory closed last year. The crushed stone plant is closing this year. What the hell kind of fitness club are you thinking about opening?”

This conversation, in this summer’s hit Russian TV series Chiki, takes place in southern Russia. But the description could apply to many towns in the country, and its monotowns – settlements organised around single enterprises – in particular.

With the recent disastrous diesel spillin Norilsk, attention has once again fixed on the problems facing Russia’s Arctic, and its monotowns – of which there are a dozen between Arkhangelsk, Murmansk, Komi and Krasnoyarsk – in particular. Since the collapse of the Soviet social contract – under which enterprises guaranteed conditions – towns and cities in Russia’s Arctic have had to bear a heavier load, both in terms of social services and infrastructure.

Indeed, residents of the Russian Arctic started losing the sense that they can influence how their cities are managed long ago. There are towns where this connection has long been destroyed, and in the urbanised territories of Russia’s far north this can have catastrophic consequences – for the residents, factories and the environment.

Melting Points

The Russian Arctic has appeared frequently in the media for several years. The diesel oil spill in Norilsk at the end of May was one of the largest environmental catastrophes in Russia’s recent history, but these kinds of emergencies happen regularly here. For example: the collapse of a bridgein Murmansk region, firesin Noyarbsk, the collapse of buildings in Yakutskand Kirovsk, the forced demolition of new apartmentsin Norilsk, which had begun to fall apart, and, of course, the sudden spike in radiation readings in Severodvinsk after a rocket engine explodedlast year. Most of these accidents affect infrastructure or residential buildings, which often lead to ecological impacts too.

These emergencies are often more destructive for older settlements – where roads are in poor condition, or there’s not enough public transport, or the schools, hospitals and dormitories aren’t well prepared. This is why the Arctic causes so much concern among Russian experts and researchers: the impact of global warming has arrived here, and changes to the permafrost come on top of a creaky environmental monitoring system, and ambiguous lines of responsibility between enterprises and the crumbling towns they support.

Igarka | Image: Sofia Gavrilova

“Monotowns are classic company towns, where factories controlled both the workplaces and the living areas,” says Maria Gunko, a specialist at Russia’s Academy of Sciences. “In the Soviet era, a factory or business could support nurseries, schools and hospitals and allocated housing to its staff. Now the city enterprises have been privatised and many have relinquished their responsibility for city infrastructure, although the city and factory infrastructure are closely intertwined.

“But towns often don’t have the funds or resources, or the authority, to keep the city infrastructure in good condition. The main reason is that the city authorities can’t do what they like to private property, demolition and redevelopment are quite expensive, and there’s never enough money in city budgets.”

According to the BBC, the ministry in charge of emergencies for Krasnoyark region calculated that, due to permafrost degradation, 60% of buildings in the towns of Norilsk, Dixon, Igarka and Vilyuisk had suffered damage, in Vorkuta also 60%, and in smaller towns and villages, the figure could reach 100%. Cracks appear in buildings as a result of permafrost deterioration, and foundations can’t handle their loads. This also leads to problems when adding cellars and floors to buildings, as well as relaying pipes for electricity and gas.

In the past, relationships between local authorities, industries and residents were well delineated in monotowns and their areas of responsibility clear. But after Russia’s transition from the Soviet planned economy to a market economy, these relationships began to change. Without clear definitions or any re-evaluation of these relationships, responsibilities for towns and cities pass “from hand to hand”.

“Eternal love/eternal frost”: a mural puns on the Russian word for permafrost in Norilsk | Image: Sofia Gavrilova

Now, enterprises in the Arctic are cutting back on their commitments under the old social contract, and local authorities are taking a passive role in urban development, acting merely as moderators between the interests of residents, companies and Russia’s federal authorities. In these conditions, the residents of monotowns find themselves vulnerable – they depend completely on their employer and the latter’s relationship with the city authorities.

Washington University professor Dmitry Streletsky, who has devoted many years to researching the degradation of the permafrost, says the situation is exacerbated by a lack of specialists who can monitor environmental conditions in urban areas.

Игарка | Софья Гаврилова

“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 Route for 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.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Much as I’m in favour of direct intervention to help towns which have lost their original purpose, there is, to put it mildly, little real evidence that there is any blueprint that works. Sometimes towns just die. Ten years ago I did some cycling along the Great Divide Trail in the mid-west and came across quite a few old uranium and gold mining towns. Sometimes they sensibly just trucked off all the houses, leaving just a few older structures around. There was usually a bar still open, serving passing tourists and the few old miners who were quite literally too sick to move. A few had thriving little tourism businesses and had restored the old buildings. But for many of them, accepting that their day had passed may well have been the best option.

    Recently I was in one of the more backwards and remote parts of Ireland, the border of Leitrim and Longford – pretty much the definition of the back of beyond. But reading a little history it was a very vibrant industrial area for maybe 20 years in the later 19th Century, with a small anthracite mine and clay pits serving a brick and tile industry. The Irish railway network was almost entirely constructed to bring cattle to Dublin port to send out to England, but the river network was far more connective for internal use, so this area served an important industrial role for numerous small towns along the Shannon River and its older connecting canals, providing the basis for many small local construction industries. When this industry met its demise due to cheaper imports, the remains rotted away for the best part of a century and the population decayed and declined, but now it has a new life for recreation, with the little harbours making ideal inland marinas and the old claypits are now prized for wildlife. The anthracite mines are a significant tourist attraction.

    I can’t find the link now, but many years ago I read a study on north of England coal mining villages. The government had a policy of running down some villages while concentrating resources on what seemed the most vibrant ones, building industrial estates, new colleges, etc. But the actual end result was almost the exact opposite of the plans. The communities of some of the villages to be run down were outraged, and worked hard at locally generated initiatives that frequently worked to create new business and keep their local areas alive, while many of the ‘focus’ villages simply became black holes for development money, and so added failed industrial estates to the legacy of old mines. The plans were well meaning, but simply didn’t work.

    So I’d really wonder if there is a merit to ploughing vast amounts of money into keeping remote towns alive in the remoter parts of Russia. Of course, there is geopolitics at work here, going back to the days of the Tzars it was recognised that if Russia didn’t populate its remote areas, someone else (maybe the Chinese or Japanese) would do it for them. So there was always military and geopolitical strategy at work in keeping these towns going. That ‘push’ factor is not going away.

    However, as the arctic warms, this is going to be more and more expensive. Building on permafrost is hard. Building on melting permafrost in a summer fire zone is even harder.

    1. Krystyn Podgajski

      Yes, sometimes town just die. But don’t you think predatory capitalism kills them more quickly?

      The money that could help these towns is what most people call profit, money extracted from the people and the land.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        That is true, but towns don’t arise randomly – there is almost always a reason – a mineral resource, a river crossing point, a military strategic purpose, a port. When that purpose no longer applies most urban areas can keep going – the original raison d’être for London or Paris or Berlin or Rome or Boston or so on has long since passed, but they are very resilient. Even the old Bastide towns of France still, for whatever reason, keep a population, 500 years or more after they lost their original purpose. Sometimes its very hard to see why some succeed and others don’t. In England, the neighbouring cities of Manchester and Liverpool both lost their original purposes in the mid-20th Century (port town and textile centre). One has prospered, the other has shrunk. Many a study has tried to find the magic formula to see why, I’m not sure anyone has succeeded.

        But for whatever reason, some just can’t find that additional purpose. Even in an ideal world of equality, I don’t think should necessarily throw resources at a town which has no longer any particular economic reason to exist. There is always an opportunity cost to putting resources to such use – whether that it always justified, I’m not so sure.

      2. rd

        That is the difference between sustainable and unsustainable development. Agriculture on rich farmland can keep going for millenia unless there is an exogenous shock like massive climate change and drought. Ocean, river, and lake ports can keep moving different goods over different time periods and with changing modes of transportation.

        Local economies built on a finite extractable resource are doomed to have an endpoint unless there is another reason for that location to be functional. Many areas with oil extraction that are good for farming and ranching will be good for farming and ranching afterwards and will have that base economy. Other areas, like many of the mining communities in the American West, have simply left little trace of prior thriving communities other than abandoned mines and their environmental issues.

        How much of these areas were artificially built up in the Stalin and Khrushchev eras? They were probably set up for resource extraction and industrial production back in the 30s-50s, partly to keep them out of the way of German advances in WW II and also to separate populations in order to better control them.

        An irony is that permafrost does not behave well in a warming climate. So oil and gas production in a permafrost area that then leads to global warming and climate change is going to warm and melt that permafrost, creating huge incremental costs to continued existence in that area. That is the definition of unsustainable development.

        It is up to populations and their governments to figure out if there will be safety nets in place or through relocation to address changing economic situations. Places liek the US and UK have largely said no. Otehr countries have said yes.

  2. Jesper

    The old mining towns risk becoming like the off-shore oil-riggs: The workers come to work, often long days and many days in a row to then travel to their homes and families for many days off.
    A new (for Sweden large) mine opened up in northern Sweden, the closest village/town hoped for people moving there for the work but most of the people working in the mine opted to follow the off-shore oil-rig working-model. Some people moved there to be close to nature, some people didn’t move away but all in all the permanent population did not increase much.
    Big city life isn’t for everyone, small town life isn’t for everyone. Possibly, maybe there might be a chance/possibility for the ones who prefer the small town life but have a big city type of job to move out to a small town and work remotely. If so then maybe there might be a chance for the small towns to prosper again. I believe it to be unlikely, mostly due to the drive to centralise, but maybe it can happen to a small degree.

  3. Michael

    While I appreciate very much that you are discussing this topic, I’m afraid we are all overlooking the 900 pound gorilla in the room.

    These towns are collapsing for a reason; the permafrost upon which they rest is melting and it appears no-one is attempting to solve this problem, which left unaddressed will cook us all, less perhaps ( or not) those attempting to live in bunkers for 50 years.

    These are just signposts on the way to oblivion. There are proposed solutions, but no one appears to be taking them seriously, but continue to play a real and pointless game of “Risk”.

  4. Alex

    if you compare Russia to Canada or Alaska you’d see that there are much more relatively large settlements in the Russian Arctic. Cities like Vorkuta and Norilsk have the population of around 100,000 and there is nothing remotely similar at the same latitude in the North America.

    I’ve heard that one of the reasons for this was that USSR planners, faced with a need to develop some kind of natural resource had a choice of founding a fixed settlement or bringing employees on a fly-in/fly-out. They tended to choose the former even if didn’t make sense economically because administering a new town was much more prestigious for the Soviet bureaucrat.

  5. Rod

    I’d say those living there have opinions about the Livability and Sustainability of their Homeplaces and should be defining the discussion of their future.
    Though my Translator isn’t doing its work so well, the Links in the piece highlighting–like Fridaymilk
    show engagement by some in reshaping a life and is positive in attitude.
    I look at Russia often, as the world map is adjacent to my desk and I hope to travel there before my time is done, and marvel at its expanse above 60*N and the challenges to habitation that poses.
    Modern Economics don’t define what many consider their homeplaces value, though it does define, sadly, the Value others may place on their lives.

    The Climate Crises will further control what will be compatible uses and activities in this huge area.

  6. Chauncey Gardiner

    Fascinating article. Clicked on the link to the FridayMilk artist groups in Murmansk. Where do these young people sell their art and to whom? Alternatively, what are their “day jobs” or sources of income? It appears to me on the face of this link that the arts are relatively more important to Russians, although with the pandemic’s crystallization of reduced economic opportunities, perhaps others elsewhere share a similar destination. And maybe it’s not all that bad, just different.

  7. Nicola Avery

    We started a blog last year to publicise the work of Russian climate scientists. Liobov Sulayandziga suggests benefit sharing agreements may partly work in the short term but a comprehensive regulatory framework around indigenous community rights may be more – https://russiaclimate.science.blog/2020/08/10/how-to-stop-drilling-holes-through-indigenous-rights-in-the-russian-arctic/ , original article https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1873965218301373?via%3Dihub
    To try and mitigate the effect of permafrost on infrastructure, some researchers have estimated the government will need to spend $6.63 billion for lifecycle replacement by 2059, a 27.5% increase relative to their baseline: https://russiaclimate.science.blog/2020/01/05/melting-permafrost-melting-budgets-the-wear-and-tear-of-arctic-infrastructure/

  8. Scott1

    Far as Russia and the former nations of the USSR the man who gives tourism a good name is Bald, Ben Bald or Bald and Bankrupt. He loves Belarus. His emotional intelligence is about as high as it gets.
    Sailors say that it is women and food make a town. I say that a town city or state lives or dies in direct relationship to its utility as a port. Inherent in port culture is tolerance. Seems like everyone immediately grasps how they are supposed to act in an airport.
    NYC had an original purpose. It was a seaport, manufacturing and banking center from the get go. I am not sure how many universities and colleges there are in NYC. Learning institutions will keep a flow of young and old moving in and out and discovering some way to live.
    Chicago was a slaughterhouse. To build there steel beams were laid this way and that and covered in concrete. Buildings that went up in the air were floating.
    You want your city to have good schools. It must be a port on a river by the ocean connected by major highways and railroads and an airport and airports.
    If the land is no good the buildings must float.

  9. Tomonthebeach

    The entire ex-Soviet Union is littered with dying villages as dead factories. It ain’t just Russia.

    Married to a Bulgarian, we live part of each year since 2000 in the old family house in central BG, which we have renovated as much as possible (like indoor plumbing, insulated walls, and thermal-pane windows). Throughout Bulgaria and all of East Europe, there are dying villages and dead factories. When Russia pulled the plug in 1992, many factories died overnight because they were producing crap for which there were no customers. For many years those decaying factories were used as workfare to give the illusion of prosperity.

    The dying little villages typically have some sort of marshal statue celebrating some by-gone battle or hero of the soviet. The statues might be next to the abandoned grammar school, or the empty post office or the city hall located on the buildingless overgrown town square. Roads are potholes connected by pavement. When people die, the houses remain empty and the roofs eventually collapse. The only humans one sees in these villages are old men playing checkers in front of the sole-surviving grocery or cafe, and babushkas huddled together on ubiquitous outdoor benches.

    Our town of Chirpan (about 15,000 pop.) is slowly coming back from 28 years of post-soviet hibernation. In 2018, the city center park was renovated. It is now an oasis of western luxury with concrete sidewalks, new park benches, no graffiti, functioning drinking fountains, new swing sets, and slides – even a few peripheral cafes. Alas, the half-finished Soviet stadium at the SW corner of the park across from city hall remains a 4-story overgrown and decaying solid -concrete ruin emblematic of failed communism. The city cannot afford to tear down the useless building.

    As PlutoniumKun pointed out, location (we are near the country’s East-West artery, the A1 autobahn, and we have a small rail yard near the huge abandoned bus station, the mostly-empty factories, and the thriving grain silos. Alas, many of the dying and dead little villages in the area are on dirt roads overgrown by hedges and trees.

    1. TheHoarseWhisperer

      Tom – 40 years ago most of these places – Чирпан among them – were really vibrant little towns. There was some light manufacturing underpinned by a lot of local agriculture. It was of course much poorer than Western Europe but there were a lot of happy people who went about their daily lives there. It was obviously not market based and there was no political freedom. However, the one thing that distinguished the place was that there was freedom from material deprivation. Now, the poverty is just heart-wrenching. The young moved out to pursue opportunities in the cities and the old were left behind to die alone with very little resource.

      But, hey – MARKETS! Actually, bullshit – the place got looted and there is no functioning business competition. The village where my grandparents lived had a thriving rose growing and processing operation. For the past 15 years the wholesalers would pay less than a lev for a kilo of rose petals, then turn around and sell it to the processing plan at 10x. (The growers were discouraged from selling to the processing plant directly with a help of a old fashioned stick). If you have ever held a rose, perhaps you can imagine how many rose flowers you have to pick to get to a kilo btw. Now, the rose gardens are done.

      Sorry to digress.

      What is going to happen to all of these places – Norilsk etc – is out-migration. People with initiative and the ability to do so, will move out in search of opportunity. Once you get past a certain point, the place loses critical mass – businesses succumb to lack of demand, services atrophy, schooling becomes perfunctory and that’s that.

      Our children will witness migration on a scale that has not been seen before.

  10. Olga

    I guess the author reveals her bias, when she says “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.”
    Russian colonisation? How is that? It is a land that belongs to Russia…
    I agree with Yves that this is a bit odd. The painted picture just seems to show that in a capitalist economy, some areas that were previously vibrant (even if because of subsidies) become unnecessary, unneeded – anf how easy it is to take place… kinda like Detroit. The problem is not strictly Russian.

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