The Siberian Curse: Whence Siberia?—part 3

Oct 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in May 2012]

As discussed in my previous posts, Siberia is often considered too big, too cold, and too polluted to be of much value. In order to remedy the impact of these factors on Siberia’s—and more generally, Russia’s—development, Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, the authors of The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, recommend that Russia shrinks its economic geography by encouraging massive migration from Siberia to European Russia and manning extractive operations east of the Ural Mountains on the “tour of duty” basis. But as noted in the preceding post, the overall trajectory of Russia’s development continues to deviate markedly from Hill and Gaddy’s suggestions. As noted there, part of the problem lies with Russia’s policymakers, many of whom subscribe to the Eurasinist ideology. Also, as Hill and Gaddy point out, many Russian business leaders and would-be politicians, such as Roman Abramovich, use remote and resource-rich areas of Siberia as their personal treasure chests and “frontier of opportunity” (p. 172). The remainder of this article focuses on the issues that have been unnoticed, purposefully ignored, or misrepresented by Hill and Gaddy, thus helping to explain why Russians in general continue to view Siberia as a blessing rather than a curse.


Hill and Gaddy repeatedly emphasize the difference in economic geography between Russia and Canada: one section in chapter 3 is titled “What if Russians Had Behaved like Canadians?” and a section in chapter 10 “Turning Russians into Canadians”. Unlike that of Russia, the population of Canada—which too is vast and cold—is distributed mostly in the warmer areas along the southern border. However, the contrast between Russia and Canada in this respect is greatly exaggerated in The Siberian Curse. It is indeed true that more Russians than Canadians live in areas of harsh climate, but the Russian population remains concentrated in the European part of the country, and within Siberia it is focused in the warmer southwestern and coastal southeastern regions (see map).


Since most Siberians live in cities, their locations are crucial for Hill and Gaddy’s argument. However, Siberian cities constitute just over a quarter of Russia’s mid-level urban centers. The ten largest Siberian cities—Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Chelyabinsk, Krasnoyarsk, Barnaul, Vladivostok, Irkutsk, Tyumen, and Khabarovsk—are all located in the relatively milder (by Siberian standards!) climatic belt, with a mean January temperature between -12°C (10°F) and -20°C (‑4°F). The only two sizeable cities located in the very harsh climatic zone are Norilsk and Yakutsk, with the mean January temperature of -38°C (‑36°F). As discussed in my earlier posts, Norilsk was built in conjunction with a neighboring Gulag camp, and both cities grew to their present size as major natural resource mining, processing, and shipping centers. Moreover, contrary to what Hill and Gaddy advocate, in the recent years both cities have experienced significant growth: from 2002 to 2010, Yakutsk has grown by 28% and Norilsk by 30%. Overall, this means that the distribution of Siberia’s population, the growth of Yakutsk and Norilsk aside, is not as irrational as Hill and Gaddy argue.


While Siberia is subject to extremely cold winters, most of the region also features warm summers, with temerarure rising up 30° C (86° F) and in some areas even 40° C (104° F), enabling gardeners to grow roses, melons, watermelons, grapes, and apricots. In fact, agriculture is well developed in southern Siberia and yields remain high. Siberia has very favorable conditions in some other respects as well. Fresh water is abundant and the earthquake danger is minimal; Mr. Kazantsev, the chief editor of a Russian journal Economics and Organization, tongue-in-cheek proposed an urgent relocation to Siberia of the population of seismic risk zones in California. Many Siberian residents value the beauty of the landscape and the relatively free frontier atmosphere. To them, Siberia is the homeland that their ancestors settled voluntarily; even if was not always the case, the myth is perpetuated regardless. But those who do remember the scale of forcible migration to Siberia often view Hill and Gaddy’s proposed westward migration as no less coercive.

Many Siberians feel pride in their region as “patriots of the North”, delighting in the natural beauty and rich resources of the area. Commonly held beliefs about the social conditions in Siberia, which—whether true or not—remain strong motivators to stay. Many locals believe that Siberians are kinder and more courteous than people of other regions. This belief has some basis, as the residents of Siberia—more than other Russians—relying on their family, friends, and neighbors for help in difficult circumstances. It is not uncommon for poor Siberians to share their winter stock of potato or cabbage with neighbors who have run out of food or had it stolen. In a survey of Magadan residents, when asked “On which authorities can you count in the largest degree when you need assistance?”, 67.5% of respondents answered “none”, and quite a few remarked that the most helpful are not authorities but parents or friends.

Among other perceived benefits of living in Siberia are higher wages, cheap and plentiful housing, and secure employment. Yet in actuality, wages are often delayed; housing is cheap in both senses of the word; and in smaller mining towns the only source of employment in the community can be, and often is, shut down with no notice after the mineral deposits have been exhausted. On the other hand, many Siberian residents do enjoy access to private garden plots, where produce can be grown for family consumption. That this factor is high on many people’s priority list indicates the difficulties with the centralized system of providing reasonably priced, good quality foodstuffs, especially in more remote areas. Many Siberians also believe that the cold climate is good for the health and slows the development of disease. The most adamant believers are known for their enjoyment of ice swimming, called morzhevanie in Russian, from the word for ‘walrus’. Events such as the one reported in my earlier post, where hundreds of people took a plunge in near-freezing Lake Baikal with air temperatures dropping down to -25° C (-13° F), are not uncommon. In actuality, there is no scientific support for this belief, and the levels of pollution in many parts of Siberia are severe enough to negate whatever positive effects the climate might have.

But while environmental issues associated with permanent settlement and extractive industries are serious, the ecological costs of abandoning or downsizing large cities, as proposed by Hill and Gaddy, could be even more catastrophic. Under such a scenario, much toxic waste would be left with minimal monitoring and remediation at best, especially at abandoned industrial sites. Substances such as asbestos and lead would be leaking from both industrial and residential structures. Fires, which often break out in vacant buildings and structures as a result of arson or because of poor maintenance, faulty wiring, or debris, may spread from the abandoned cities to the countryside and thus pose a serious threat to the wildlife. Fighting such fires proves a difficult and dangerous task, as vacant buildings often contain open shafts, pits, and holes that can be an invisible threat to firefighters,. To the extent that massive westward migration will result in downsizing rather than abandoning cities, the vacant structures or districts would also pose environmental problems, such as buildup of trash, illegal dumping, and rodent infestations, for the remaining districts.


Social costs, in the sense of disrupting communities, would also result in significant harm for those who stay behind. Studies conducted in the U.S. have shown that living in a neighborhood with many vacant and abandoned properties exacts many costs on the remaining residents. While American studies focus mostly on financial damage, such as a decrease in property value and property taxes, other consequences, such as higher rates of criminal activity, have been noted as well. For example, a study conducted by the City of Richmond, VA, which analyzed citywide crime data from the mid-90s, found that of all the economic and demographic variables tested, vacant/abandoned properties had the highest correlation with crime. Less easily measured, psychological costs of urban abandonment involve social fragmentation: individuals who live in communities with a critical mass of vacant buildings begin to feel isolated, weakening the community as a whole. The aesthetic impact of abandoned sites, while not easily quantified in dollars, is another cost; pictures such as the one on the left, speak for themselves.

Fire and explosionin San Bruno

For me, the issue of urban abandonment hits close to home, literally. On September 9, 2010, a 30-inch diameter natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric exploded in flames just 800 feet from our home in San Bruno, CA (at the top middle of the picture), sending a fireball over 1,000 feet into the darkening sky. The resulting fire, which lasted until the wee hours of the morning, killed eight people and injured dozens more. Thirty-eight homes were destroyed and over a hundred more were badly damaged. Understandably, not all residents have decided to return to the neighborhood. Subsequently, PG&E and the city of San Bruno purchased several of the empty lots and damaged properties. While the reconstruction of the neighborhood has started, the fate of over a dozen lots remains in limbo. In the meantime, waist-high grass and weeds reclaim the lots behind chain-link fences, trash builds up, rodents have become more common, break-ins are reported with increasing frequency, and mature trees that once lined the streets are gone. San_Bruno_Before_AfterNearly two years after the explosion and fire, this once beautiful neighborhood remains an eyesore.

While it is not easy (or perhaps not even possible) to extrapolate from studies and incidents from the United States, such U.S.-derived data is the best we have because—as noted in my earlier post—no permanent urban downsizing on the scale proposed by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy has ever happened in any modern cities. Even Japanese, European, and Russian cities largely destroyed during World War II essentially recovered in a very short period of time.  But no such recovery is planned for the Siberian cities; instead, Hill and Gaddy suggest that extractive industries in Siberia should be manned on the “tour of duty” basis, which they claim to be “more cost effective” (p. 205). But what would be the economic and social costs of such an arrangement? The issue is much more controversial than what Hill and Gaddy would have one believe. As reported in a February 2012 GeoCurrents post, the “fly in; fly out” model of employment has been adopted in the Pilbara district of northwestern Australia. This region, noted for its gargantuan reserves of iron-ore and other minerals, is not unlike a mini-Siberia, although its climate is brutally hot rather than brutally cold. Most of the employees in the booming mining sector are transient workers, typically residing in the metropolitan Perth area and flying up to the mining country for working stints of a week or two. However, the government of Western Australia recently decided that the “tour of duty” model of employment is inefficient, and that more workers should reside permanently in the region. Whether anything will come out of this decision remains to be seen, but the lessons of the existing “fly in; fly out” model must be learned.


Russia Sex Ratio Map

As one of our readers pointed out in his comments on the Pilbara story, “fly-in fly-out takes a toll on families”. If all or most Siberia extractive industries switch to this model, it would create a large population living in such “separated families”. The toll of such “part-time single parenthood” on mothers and children “on the mainland” is not easy to estimate, but it cannot be positive. As the experience of Soviet-era geological expeditions and other “tour of duty” arrangements shows, such employment models often wreak havoc not only on the families of the workers left behind but also on the Siberian indigenous communities, which have already been profoundly and negatively affected by extractive industries. For example, mixed marriages, typically between Russian men and indigenous women, which James Forsyth describes in terms of “temporary wives” or “provisional concubinage”, become common. Since mining is an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry, massive westward migration would effectively mean resettling more women than men into areas that already have very low sex ratios (that is, many more females than males), thus exacerbating an already existing problem in European Russia.

All in all, these issues show that Siberia is not a dead-weight on Russia’s economy but rather its anchor. The proposed “downsizing” of Siberian cities on a massive scale would more likely generate an apocalyptic dystopia rather than provide a magical solution to all that ills Russia today.

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