The Siberian Curse: Whence Siberia?—part 2

Oct 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in May 2012]

As discussed in my previous post, Siberia is often considered too big and too cold; and as mentioned in my earlier post, it is also too polluted. Such problems made Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, the authors of The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, quip that “Siberia has been a rich and attractive delicacy for the Russian state, but one that has also been extremely hard to swallow” (p. 74). Agreeing with Victor L. Mote, they argue that “the obstacles [to the development of Siberia] are so great that one wonders why Siberia should be developed for permanent settlement at all” (p. 51). Nor would refurbishing and upgrading the existing systems of road, rail, and air transportation, or constructing new infrastructure, provide answers to the Siberian dilemma, as that would only make places more livable (at a high cost!) “where, from an economic point of view, few should live” (p. 5). Instead, their recommendation is that

“to become competitive economically and to achieve sustainable growth, Russia needs to ‘shrink.’ It must contract not its territory (its physical geography), but its economic geography” (p. 5).

In order to “downsize Siberia”, Hill and Gaddy contend, the government should encourage migration of the Siberian population—especially from large cities like Novosibirsk, Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Khabarovsk, and Irkutsk—westward on an unprecedented large scale, restricting industry east of the Urals to extractive operations. Since Hill and Gaddy are opposed to forced means of regulating the economy, this would need to be achieved by free-market tools. The government would have to stop pouring funds into economic and social development of large Siberian cities, which should eventually lead to a more natural existence for these cities, they suggest. Urban areas in the coldest and most remote areas would have to downsize. People and companies wanting to leave the region should be offered financial help from the state. Instead of supporting a huge permanent settlement, the state should encourage a system whereby natural resource mining operations are staffed on a “tour of duty” basis.


The authors of The Siberian Curse see a number of legal, logistical, and social obstacles to “downsizing Siberia”. Instituted during the Soviet time, the propiska, or residency permit, system that requires citizens to register their place of residence with the local police is still in effect in Moscow and many other cities in European Russia, although the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation has ruled it unconstitutional on several occasions. These legal restrictions, together with the absence of significant economic growth, new jobs, and housing in most towns and cities in European Russia, restrict the internal migration possibilities. Moreover, social safety nets in Russia are inadequate, and many people are either reluctant or unable to move. Hill and Gaddy use the example of the war-ravaged cities of Japan after World War II to illustrate the general resistance to downsizing even in the wake of traumatic events, like the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Another, Russia-specific problem in decreasing the population of Siberian cities is that they were not designed with flexible infrastructure and hence cannot easily adapt to changes in population size: “power and heating utilities, sanitation, apartment blocks, schools, hospitals, and so on, were all designed on a … city-wide basis” (p. 163). As a result, it is difficult or even impossible to relocate and consolidate the population of a city to a few viable districts and to demolish depopulated neighborhoods. In many cases, where massive depopulation has taken place, the remaining inhabitants simply have to assume a larger share in maintenance and utilities costs. Where this proves impossible, semi-abandoned apartment buildings are poorly maintained, leading occasionally to the bursting of pipes and the filling of empty apartments with water. As the image on the left (taken by NordRoden in Norilsk) shows, water then seeps out of the building and freezes into gigantic icicles.


But the biggest stumbling block, according to Hill and Gaddy, is not economical, legal, or technical, but ideological in nature: “Siberia… has for several centuries been synonymous with the very image of Russian and tied to conceptions about its future” (p. 72). Many politicians from various parties subscribe to the “Eurasianism” philosophy, which offers a justification for Russia’s unique geographical position between Europe and Asia. Proponents of Eurasianism include Vladimir Zhirinovsky of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party (which is neither liberal nor democratic), whose main support in the 2012 presidential election came from the Far East, especially Kamchatka and Khabarovsk krais (see The Guardian map on the left). Related to the Eurasianism mentality are demographic and geopolitical concerns about the border with China. Many Russian critics of The Siberian Curse emphasize the strategic dangers of depopulating large areas along the country’s periphery. They do not believe, as Hill and Gaddy appear to, that the resulting threats to national security and territorial integrity can be neutralized by “the creation of sensors, new rapid reaction forces, and high-tech weapons systems on Far East borders, which would replace the deployment and support of large conventional land and sea forces” (p. 210). Some pundits regard such technological approach as laughable, noting that “even the U.S. with its colossal financial and technological capabilities still cannot impose full control over its border with Mexico”. Nonetheless, despite all these obstacles on the path to downsizing Siberia, Hill and Gaddy believe that mass westward migration can be achieved by enacting certain laws and adopting financial incentives that would encourage it.

The Siberian Curse provoked with harsh criticism in Russia. Economists and political scientists quibbled about Hill and Gaddy’s choice of mean January temperature, rather than mean annual temperature or the number of days a year with temperature above freezing, as the measure of cold and its effects on human comfort.* For example, economist Yu. P. Voronov claims that this choice “demonstratively paints Siberia in a tragic light”. The focus on mean January temperature also ignores the fact that some areas, especially in southwestern Siberia, enjoy remarkably warm summers, with temperatures up to 30° C (86° F) and in some areas even 40° C (104° F), enabling gardeners to grow roses, melons, grapes, and apricots. To some extent the benefits of warm summers compensate for the costs of cold winters. In Hill and Gaddy’s defense, they point out, “it is not just the mean temperature that is important; the variance also matters” (p. 49). Other charges made against the authors of The Siberian Curse include geographic inaccuracies such as including the south Urals region in Siberia (but see the GeoCurrents discussion of the definition of Siberia) and not taking into account low humidity or the lack of wind (but as pointed out in the previous post, the straight streets and blocky buildings of many Siberian cities create artificial wind tunnels). Some pundits take offense at the fact that Hill and Gaddy blame the Soviets rather than the Tsars for placing so many people in such harsh climatic conditions. However, as discussed in my earlier post, the rate of populating—chiefly by forced labor—and industrializing Siberia during the Soviet period is incomparable to that prior to 1917. Some Russian analysts went as far as calling the book “an attempted provocation, aimed at yet another break-up of Russia”, full of “designs baneful for Russia” (translation mine). Hill and Gaddy’s formula that “Russians need to start thinking of the vast expanse east of the Urals as Russian but not as Russia” (p.199) has especially been subjected to severe criticism.

The reaction from the Kremlin has been rather frigid too, in part because Hill and Gaddy justifiably accuse the Russian government of “flirt[ing] with the shades of a leadership cult as another method of mobilization… manifested … in the publication of a series of popular books about Putin’s life, the creation of a youth movement… inspired by the president, a number of mass outdoor events such as rock concerts to rally youth behind the government, and the encouragement of a pop song—“I Want a Man Like Putin” [Takogo kak Putin] by an all-girl group—praising Putin as the ideal ‘boyfriend’” (p. 117); this song can be seen, with subtitled lyrics, in this YouTube video.

Among the few economists/politicians who agreed with some of Hill and Gaddy’s conclusions is Yegor Gaidar, who cites The Siberian Curse extensively in his 2005 book Lasting Time: Russia in the World. During the presentation of this book in Dublin, Gaidar was hospitalized with symptoms of severe poisoning. This event happened the very next day after the death of another vocal critic of Putin’s regime, Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London by radioactive polonium-210. Many analysts, including several at the BBC and Financial Times, drew a direct connection between these two events. Yegor Gaidar survived the Dublin incident and died three years later of a heart condition.


Not only was The Siberian Curse met with a frosty reception in Russia, but “downsizing Siberia” is decidedly not the current trajectory of Russia’s development. While some areas are depopulating, the overall population of Siberian urban centers is growing. From 2002 to 2010, the 26 first- and second-tier Siberian cities (population between 200,000 and 1,500,000) experienced a net growth of more than 370,000 people. Moreover, the first-tier Siberian cities (population between 600,000 and 1,500,000), which according to Zipf’s formula should not cluster together, are all growing at approximately the same pace. The largest declining Siberian city is Vladivostok in the extreme southeast, population 592,069. Many other “shrinking” cities are located in the relatively mild areas of southwestern Siberia (south Urals): Novokuznetsk, Magnitogorsk, Nizhny Tagil, Kurgan, Biysk, Prokopyevsk. It is rather the cities in the coldest areas—the Republic of Sakha and northern Krasnoyarsk Krai—that are experiencing the most pronounced growth: between 2002 and 2010, Yakutsk has grown by 28% and Norilsk by 30%. In part, the growth of Siberian cities has to do with the depopulation of the rural areas, as people move from the economically futureless villages to the cities. A related development is significant industrial growth, experienced in most of Siberia, and especially its colder northern regions.  As can be seen from the map on the left, major increases in the share of industry as a percentage of the total GRP between 1997 and 2001 have been experienced in most areas, with the notable exceptions of southern Siberia and in Chukotka).

So if Siberia is too big, too cold, and too polluted, why is it not “downsizing”? My next post will focus on the issues that have been unnoticed, purposefully ignored, or misrepresented by Hill and Gaddy and which may explain why Russians continue to view Siberia as a blessing rather than a curse.



*It is indeed strange that they have chosen mean January temperature, as the February temperatures are lower in many areas.

Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: