Ice-Box and El Dorado
Siberia is a word that conjures up a number of stereotypical images in the minds of Russians and non-Russians alike. And the images are seldom complimentary. It is almost invariably conceived of, and perceived as, a vast wilderness of ice and snow, a land of perpetual winter, sub-zero temperatures and blinding blizzards set on a gigantic, continent-sized subterranean iceberg of permanently frozen ground – the permafrost or, in Russian, merzlota. For a majority of people it is equally notorious as a place of banishment, exile, forced labour and imprisonment, a forbidding, barren land dotted with prison camps denizened by millions of the wretched victims of Russian central authoritarianism – convicts, criminals, enemies of the state, enemies of the people, forced labourers and zeks (prison slang for zaklyuchënnyi, a prisoner). Siberia has become a byword, an almost proverbial touchstone, for extremes of cold, incarceration and sheer human suffering. In the evocative words of an early twentieth-century British traveller, John Foster Fraser: ‘The very word Siberia is one to make the blood run chill. It smells of fetters in the snow.’1 This grim mental picture is sometimes supplemented by vague notions of dense interminable forests, salt mines, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, big, brown bears, woolly mammoths, reindeer, mystic shamans and a few Eskimos.
In fact, most of these hackneyed images are pretty well justified, but they are only part – if a significant part – of the total picture. Siberia does contain some of the coldest spots on planet earth; it does have long, cruel and bitter winters; and since the end of the sixteenth century right until the present day it has been used by Russia's rulers as a place of punishment and exile. The frozen mammoths, bears, reindeer, shamans, Eskimos and the Trans-Siberian Railroad are all real – though the salt mines are a bit of a myth.
It is also a land which possesses literally immeasurable natural resources – animal, vegetable and especially mineral – which has earned it such epithets as ‘a treasure trove on ice’ and ‘Russia's El Dorado’. From early Muscovite times, that is, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when a substantial portion the state's economy was dependent on the Siberian fur trade, right through to the twenty-first century when a considerable amount of the Russian Federation's income now relies on the export of huge quantities of oil and natural gas to other parts of the world, Siberia has been consistently exploited as a resource-rich frontier on which the metropolitan powers have always depended. Indeed, the great eighteenth-century Russian polymath, Mikhail Vasilevich Lomonosov (1711–65) – among his other talents a student of Russia's Arctic north – accurately predicted that: ‘Through Siberia and the Northern Ocean shall the might (moguchestvo) of Russia grow.’2 This observation became something of a mantra adorning the walls of Soviet science schoolrooms until the 1980s. However, the vast distances, the often vicious climate and the harsh terrain have posed – and still pose – tremendous problems in the acquisition, extraction and exploitation of these fabulous riches, as will be seen.
In contrast to the punitive image of Siberia as ‘a land of damnation and chains’ or ‘a vast roofless prison’ (see Chapter Six), it has at the same time also been regarded paradoxically as a land of freedom and opportunity for those wishing to escape centralized officialdom, religious persecution or serfdom, or simply seek their fortune. Over the centuries literally millions of voluntary settlers or fugitives flocked to take advantage of Siberia's boundless vistas, comparatively free from the stifling bureaucratism and oppression of Moscow or St Petersburg. Apart from the fur hunters, merchants, religious dissidents, service personnel (both civil and military) and others in the early decades of Muscovy's penetration of Siberia – whose story will be addressed in the following chapters – in more recent times, the tsarist government, under the Prime Ministership of Pëtr Arkadeevich Stolypin (1862–1911; Prime Minister 1906–11) offered massive financial and other incentives for Russian and Ukrainian peasants to migrate beyond the Urals. This turned southern Siberia into one of the empire's most productive and lucrative agricultural regions (see Chapter Seven). Moving on, in the post-Second World War period, Siberia became a major focus for scientific exploration and development as new, prestigious research centres – such as Akademgorodok near Novosibirsk – were established. These young academic institutions attracted hundreds of the country's leading scientists and scholars to Siberia, where they contributed enthusiastically to the further investigation, discovery and exploitation of the territory's vast resources, in particular oil and natural gas, which are still today such a crucial factor in the whole nation's economy.3 This process, along with other cultural and industrial developments, has been described as the ‘Third Discovery of Siberia’.4
Also, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, thousands of young Soviet men and women from European Russia were lured to live and work in the booming economic development of Siberia, attracted by various inducements such as the so-called ‘northern increment’, which guaranteed them far higher wages and both vocational and vacational perks in comparison with employment in their original localities to the west of the Urals. However, as will be argued in Chapter Ten, the huge costs of building the required infrastructure – transport, housing, heating, utilities, social amenities, etc. – for the new generation of mainly youthful immigrants meant in fact that attempts to develop Siberia's industrial base (in both the extractive and manufacturing sectors) to the benefit of the entire USSR proved to be an overall burden on the total Soviet economy, and have left a somewhat negative legacy to the Soviet Union's successor state.5
All of these themes will be investigated in the following pages, but this initial chapter concerns itself with Siberia's physical, geographical environment, beginning with a discussion of its size and its notorious climate.
Siberia is the name historically given to the huge territory of northern Asia stretching from the low-lying Ural Mountains in the west (the conventional dividing line between European and Asiatic Russia) to the Pacific littoral in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the borders of Central Asia, Mongolia and China in the south. In the Arctic seas (the Kara, Laptev, East-Siberian and Chukotka) it includes the islands of Novaya Zemlya (New Land), Novosibirskie (New Siberian) and Wrangel Island; and in the Far East, the island of Sakhalin lying north of Japan, and the Aleutian and Kurile archipelagos. During the centuries of Moscow's and St Petersburg's dominance over the territory, it has undergone a number of different administrative appellations and designations.
Unfortunately, in recent times the traditional historical, geographical and political boundaries of Siberia have been bureaucratically muddled by a redefinition of the region's sub-units which took place in the year 2000. These changes – including the amalgamation of some of the most westerly areas of Siberia into what is nowadays classified as the Urals Federal District – rather complicates the issue of just what actually constitutes Siberia. Boundaries have shifted, names have been changed and the governance of the so-called ‘federal subjects’ (i.e. political-administrative sub-units of the Russian Federation) has altered. Since May 2000, the whole territory (now including the Urals) has been divided into the three administrative entities officially known as the Urals Federal District (Ural'skii federal'nyi okrug), the Siberian Federal District (Sibirskii federal'nyi okrug) and the Far Eastern Federal District (Dal'nevostochnyi federal'nyi okrug). However, for the purposes of the present study, in strictly geographical terms what follows throughout this chapter adheres to the administrative boundaries of what – pre-2000 – were called West Siberia, East Siberia and the Far East, as described in the 22-volume geographical encyclopaedia of the Soviet Union published between 1969 and 1971.6
Excluding the Urals provinces, historical Siberia is one-and-a-half times larger than the United States of America and one-and-a-third times larger than Canada. It covers an area of over 13 million square kilometres (5 million square miles) and accounts for more than one-twelfth of the planet's entire land surface. The Russian Far Eastern District alone is bigger than the continent of Australia, and all three territories sprawl over eight different time zones. From Moscow to Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Railroad is a distance of 9,000 kilometres (5,592 miles) and takes more than a week to travel even when the trains are running on time.7 North-south, the distance between the Arctic coastline to the borderlands of Kazakhstan and Mongolia is over 3,000 kilometres (c.1,860 miles).
These enormous distances over difficult terrain, and the consequent problems of transport, communication and supply, have naturally had palpable effects on the human settlement and economic exploitation of the region, and still cause problems which, despite the development of air transport, fuel pipelines and other modern technological advances, have not been fully overcome to the present day. These topics will be returned to in later chapters. As recently as the 1940s, enclaves of tiny communities of religious schismatics (Old Believers) were discovered living in the remote depths of the Siberian forests – the mighty taiga (forest – see below) – people whose existence was previously unknown, and who had dwelt there since the seventeenth century in a kind of time-warp, and in total ignorance of events in the wider world. (It is not recorded whether the Soviet authorities extracted from them any tax arrears.) Extensive forest-fires – not infrequent occurrences – which can destroy huge areas of timberland as large as, say, Wales or Belgium, though obviously massively destructive, do not necessarily have a terminally disastrous impact on the total woodland ecology. Such is the sheer enormousness of this vast landmass that it has been estimated that a detailed aerial photographic survey of the territory covering 1,500 square kilometres (580 square miles) a day would take 15 years to complete.8 East Siberia also boasts the world's deepest and – in liquid volume – largest lake, Baikal, which has a unique ecosystem and contains no less than one-fifth of the planet's fresh water supply (around 23,000 cubic kilometres/5,500 cubic miles). It is fed by over 300 rivers and streams, but emptied by only one outlet, the great Angara river at the lake's southern tip, near the city of Irkutsk. In a fanciful, hypothetical calculation, it has been estimated that, if all current water supplies dried up or were cut off, and the Angara continued to empty at its present hourly volume, to drain the entire lake would take over 300 years. These are no hyperborean hyperboles: simply statistical facts of the geography of Russia's huge frozen frontier. Further information on Baikal is given in the section on East Siberia, below.
Apart from its size, the other two major distinguishing features of the Siberian physical environment are its extremes of climate and the great diversity of its landscape and natural features. Despite the fact that large areas of tundra, swampland or seemingly endless forests are marked by a monotonous uniformity, it is inconceivable that such a large slice of the earth's land surface should display any kind of topographical homogeneity. The subject of regional geographical, geological and vegetational variety will be dealt with below. But first, the climate.
All three geographical regions of Siberia, as defined above, are marked by extreme continentality of climate, of which the most notorious features are the long, harsh winters and the intense cold.9 The two obvious reasons for this are Siberia's location in the high northern latitudes – much of it beyond 60 degrees north, including a huge portion above the Arctic Circle – and the vastness of its landmass, which means that many regions are too remote to benefit from the moderating influences of the oceans to the west, east and south. Strong, icy gales blowing along and inland from the almost permanently ice-bound Arctic coast also increase the wind-chill factor, and in the south high mountain ranges prevent warm air flowing in from the Indian Ocean and adjacent seas. On the other hand, large parts of Siberia's southern regions lie on the same degree of latitude as more temperate European cities. Irkutsk, for instance, near the southern end of Lake Baikal, lies roughly on the same latitude as Birmingham, UK, while the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok is approximately on that of Marseille, on the Mediterranean coast of France, and Rome.
In general, the degree of continentality and the severity of the climate increase the further east and north one travels. Indeed, there are meteorological data that demonstrate that eastwards progression is as important in accounting for temperature reduction as northwards. For instance, journeying east along a line from Yekaterinburg in the Urals to the Sea of Okhotsk, without deviating to the north, one would pass through a series of isotherms (longitudinal belts of equal temperature) representing a progressive drop in temperature of around 20°C.10 In Yakutia (now known as Sakha) in the far north-east, for instance, winter regularly lasts for up to eight months a year, with an average January temperature of 243°C and over 205 days of annual snow cover. Further north, beyond the Arctic Circle, the town of Verkhoyansk records a mean (a really mean) January temperature of almost 250°C, with an annual snow cover of 223 days, and only 69 frost-free days per year. But the prize for extreme frigidity must go to the small settlement of Oimyakon, situated in a depression on the Indigirka river, many kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, where temperatures of below 270°C are not uncommon, even without taking the wind-chill factor into account, hence its designation as the northern hemisphere's ‘pole of cold’. In other words, outside Antarctica, it is the coldest spot on earth. However, if one does take in the wind-chill element, around the far northern coastal areas, where air conditions are less stable than deep inland, the freezing Arctic winds can produce temperature equivalents of as low as 2130°C in the eastern parts. Even in western Siberia, where actual temperatures are significantly higher (Surgut, for example, centre of the oil and gas industry, has an average January temperature of a balmy −22°C), the added-on effects of wind-chill make working and living conditions extremely unpleasant and perilous. Also multiplying the climatic hazards of life in Siberia are such natural phenomena as freezing fog, monsoons on the Pacific coast, ferocious blizzards (purgi), gale-force winds and airborne ice crystals caused by rising moisture from inhabited localities meeting the extremely cold air layers. Breath freezes, eyelids gelate, frostbite attacks the extremities, and, not surprisingly, urinating and defecating in the open can be quite a nasty experience. In the words of the Afghani novelist, Khaled Hosseini: ‘if you fling snot in Siberia, it's a green icicle before it hits the ground’.11
Things are rather different during the short, hot summers, and the range in differences between winter and summer temperatures is often quite dramatic. Even Verkhoyansk, at a latitude way north of the Arctic Circle and almost a thousand kilometres (620 miles) due north-east of Yakutsk, has a median July temperature of around 16°C, and in the southern steppelands of west Siberia, summer temperatures average out at 23°C. On the borders of south-west Siberia and Kazakhstan, periods of severe aridity and drought are not uncommon. The greatest extremes are to be found in the Far East, where the climate differs according to elevation, latitude and the effects of the Pacific Ocean air currents. Rates of annual precipitation in its coastal regions are far higher than elsewhere in the Russian Federation, mainly as a result of the heavy monsoon rains, which offset the clemency of the relatively mild summers. In this most easterly region of Russia, temperatures vary from the freezing winter colds of Yakutia/Sakha to the congenial summer and even autumnal warmth of the seaside resorts of the southern maritime region, where people regularly swim and sunbathe in the sea and on the sands close to Vladivostok as late as September and early October, and where even grapevines grow. Indeed, such are the climatic attractions of the region that since the collapse of the Soviet Union the increased costs of long-haul internal travel has led to a boom in so-called ‘rogue tourism’ in the Primorskii district – i.e. campers and picnickers from the local population spending their weekends and holidays around the nearby beaches with a significantly deleterious effect on the environment. For example, the number of local holidaymakers visiting Vostok Bay (a secondary bay of Peter the Great Bay in the Sea of Japan) rose from 20,000 in the summer of 2001 to 45,000 in 2003, with a consequent growth in the incidence of pollution in the temperate coastal waters due to the effects on the marine ecology of non-disposed rubbish, non-biodegradable waste and human sewage.12 Elsewhere, the high temperatures of the brief Siberian summers – particularly around rivers, swamps and waterfalls – also bring their own particular torments in the shape of plagues of mosquitoes, midges and other morbific flying insects and arachnids, including the often deadly tick (kleshch).
Both ice and snow are obviously major features of Siberia's winter climate and landscape. From the Arctic Ocean down to Lake Baikal and along the territory's mighty river system, the water surfaces are frozen for most of the year. It is only in the last half-century or so that the Northern Sea Route from north European Russia, say, Murmansk or Arkhangelsk, eastwards along the coastline and through the Bering Strait to the ports of the Far East, has been kept open throughout the year by powerful ice-breakers, some of them nuclear-powered, such as the prototype Lenin, commissioned in 1959.13
Siberia's great rivers, such as the Ob, the Yenisei and the Lena are ice-bound for six or seven months per year, and longer in their lower, northern reaches than the upper. The lower Ob, for instance, which together with its tributary, the Irtysh, is the fifth longest river system in the world and the longest in Russia, freezes over in mid-October and stays frozen for an average of 220 days. On the upper stretches the period is around 150 days – the consequent two-month time-lag causing the melt waters of the southern Ob to flood the adjacent lowlands. A largely similar pattern of freeze and thaw applies to the other Siberian rivers, which during the winter are turned into long ice-roads which can support heavy motorized vehicles, and form an important part of the internal transport and communication system.
Lake Baikal, in south-eastern Siberia, does not freeze over until mid-December, but remains so until May in the southern parts, and June in the north. The thickness of the ice varies from 0.7 metres to almost 2 metres (27 to 79 inches), and, like the rivers, can carry heavy vehicles. In fact, during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), in order to expedite the transportation of military equipment to the battlefronts, a railway track was built across the ice, as the lake was not navigable, even using ice-breakers, and the road around Baikal's southern tip was too treacherous to negotiate.
The track was 42 versts (44.5 kilometres; 1 versta = 1.06 kilometres) in length, had telegraph wires and electric lights running parallel to it, and was even served by a station half-way across, appropriately named ‘Seredina’ (Middle), with first-, second-, and third-class buffet bars! During the brief period of its operation, five trains per day with carriages containing in total 16,000 passengers and 500,000 puds (8,190,000 kilograms; 1 pud = 16.38 kilograms or 36.1 pounds) of freight were hauled across the frozen waters of Baikal by teams of horses numbering 3,000 in all.14 The reason for the use of draft horsepower was that the ice had shattered under the weight of the first locomotive engine to be tested on the frozen surface. Other engines were thereafter dismantled and transported in pieces to the other side on the horse-drawn wagons and then reassembled to continue the journey to the front. As the American scholar, Victor Mote – one of the West's leading experts on Siberia – has remarked: ‘What a way to win a war! (Needless to say, they did not.)’15 In fact Russia's enormous hinterland has worked both to the country's advantage and disadvantage in times of war. Both Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in Russia's ‘Great Fatherland War’ between 1941 and 1945 were defeated as much by insurmountable problems of climate and distance as by the dogged fighting power of the country's armed forces. On the other hand, a major contributing factor to Russia's defeat in both the Crimean War (1853–5) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) was the logistical difficulty of transporting men and military equipment to the scene of battle over such huge distances and daunting terrain of their own territory.
Almost all of Siberia is covered in snow from around October to April or May, though the depth and length of cover varies from region to region. The greatest depths (over 80 centimetres/32 inches) are found in the central Yenisei valley, and the longest cover (around 280 days per year) is along the Arctic coast. By contrast, Vladivostok in the south averages only about 80 days of snow a year. While facilitating limited travel by sledge, dog-sleigh or motorized ‘snowmobile’, very deep drifts can seriously impede mobility, totally cut off communities for weeks on end, and even add to mortality rates with people dying after losing their way, being ‘marooned’ and succumbing to hypothermia, their frozen bodies being buried beneath further snowfalls, only to emerge during the spring thaws. These emerging cadavers are engagingly known locally as ‘snowdrops’ (podsnezhniki).
It really goes without saying that the sub-zero temperatures and Siberia's legendary extremes of cold create a very inhospitable, fierce, debilitating and dangerous environment in which to attempt to live, settle and survive. Indeed, one may speculate why anyone would want to go there in the first place. This thought is articulated by Victor Mote who, in an article enumerating ‘the geographic extent of problematic environments [and] the physical constraints to the development of Siberia’, concludes that: ‘The obstacles are so great that one wonders why Siberia should be developed for any permanent settlement at all.’ Among the obstacles described by Professor Mote are the literally steel-shattering effects on machinery, engines and vehicles; frozen fuel; the greatly reduced efficiency and productivity of the human body and its capacity – or incapacity – to work under such atrocious conditions; the enormous costs of maintaining and repairing equipment; the difficulties in obtaining spares; the necessity of using special building materials; loss of working time due to illness, inebriation and the need to take regular breaks in order to warm up; and the greatly enhanced prices of even subsistence living. Mote calculates that: ‘In an average year, total losses to cold comprise 33 per cent of all possible working time in the Soviet North.’16 Of course, it is not only the desperately low temperatures, but also the effects of snow-storms and freezing gale-force winds that make outdoor, manual work almost impossible at times. Readers familiar with Alexander Solzhenitsyn's celebrated, but overrated, novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, will remember the harrowing description of a brigade of convict labourers struggling against the elements to build a power-station in sub-zero temperatures with frozen sand, frozen water and frozen mortar.17
In the final analysis, because of the use of differing indices, the application of complex, algebraic calculating aids such as the ‘temperature per capita’ (TPC) factor, regional variations and fluctuating government policies, it is almost impossible to arrive at any kind of accurate, sustainable, overall estimate of the total ‘cost of cold’ to Siberia's economy and society – indeed to that of Russia as a whole.18 What is certain is that the stark, icy, awesome reality of Siberia's winter climate lives up to its infamous, bone-chilling reputation.
The Regions Of Siberia
The most westerly former administrative unit of Siberia, though the smallest of the three, nevertheless covers an area of 2.5 million square kilometres, or 1 million square miles, from the Yamal Peninsula in the north to the mountainous Altai in the south, and from the Urals in the west to the river Yenisei at its eastern edge. Around 80 per cent of the region is taken up by the Great West Siberian Plain, one of the largest flatland expanses in the world, which drains into the Arctic Ocean via the great Ob-Irtysh river system. In the far north, the tundra zone stretches for hundreds of kilometres south from the Kara Sea. Vegetation here is confined to primitive lichens and mosses, and sparsely scattered dwarf bushes. Agricultural production is virtually impossible. Reindeer husbandry, hunting and fishing were, and for some still are, the traditional pursuits of the indigenous peoples of this region – predominantly the Khanty, Mansi and Nentsy (formerly known by Russians as the Ostyaks, Voguls and Samoeds – see Chapter Five). The discovery and exploitation of huge natural gas and oil deposits since the 1950s and 1960s has transformed north-western Siberia into one of the most important economic areas of the former Soviet Union and has led to a massive influx of population, the growth of new urban settlements, and the construction of communications and delivery networks. The town of Surgut, one of the first Russian settlements in western Siberia, founded in 1594 as a fortress close to the banks of the Ob, is now the virtual capital of the local oil industry with a population in 2002 of 285,000.
The oil and gas fields reach further south into the immense swamp-and-forest zone of the taiga, which covers roughly two-thirds of western Siberia. Here, thin top-soil, geological concavity caused by pre-historic glacial movement and poor drainage have created huge areas of bogland, such as the great Vasyugan swamp in the Ob basin, where the establishment of drilling stations, transport and pipeline networks – not to mention living and working conditions – are fraught with major difficulties. Apart from the principal waterways, the basin is criss-crossed by thousands of small rivers and streams, and drenched with the waters of around 50,000 lakes. Needless to say, it suffers from severe annual flooding. In the 1950s and 1960s the Soviet planning authorities came up with ambitious, futuristic schemes to divert some of west Siberia's superabundance of water southwards in order to irrigate the arid regions of Central Asia. These plans were eventually abandoned for practical and ecological reasons, though the idea occasionally resurfaces in the press and technical literature.
The southern half of the West Siberian Plain is covered by three extensive areas of fertile lowland known as the Ishim, the Baraba and the Kulunda steppes. In contrast to the grimmer northern climes, the rich black-earth soil (chernozem) makes this an extremely productive agricultural area. Livestock production, dairying and arable farming account for the bulk of Siberia's home-grown agricultural output. In the early years of the twentieth century it was the major destination for the millions of peasant migrants who settled beyond the Urals, turning it very rapidly into one of the empire's most productive agricultural regions (see Chapter Seven). Nowadays, it contains the bulk of western Siberia's population, most of it concentrated in the cities and major industrial centres of Novosibirsk (population in 2005, c.1.5 million), Omsk (1.2 million), Barnaul (631,221), Novokuznetsk (563,260), Kemerovo (523,000) and Tyumen (510,000), all of them lying along or within easy access to the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Kemerovo is also the centre of the famous Kuzbass (Kuznets Basin) coal industry, which played such a major role in the Soviet five-year plans and is still an important, though reduced, factor in the region's economy (see below).
Finally, at the south-easternmost tip of western Siberia, occupying about 10 per cent of the whole territory, is the region of the Altai, sometimes described as Siberia's ‘little Switzerland’. The use of the epithet ‘little’ is rather odd, considering the fact that the Altai administrative district stretches over an area of 262,000 square kilometres (101 square miles), in comparison with Switzerland's 41,228 (15,918 square miles). However, in terms of its breathtaking mountain scenery in the south and the relatively verdant pasturelands in the northern half of the territory, the comparison is perhaps not so far-fetched. The northern, non-mountainous, sector, with its capital at Barnaul – now administratively part of the Siberian Federal District – has a diverse, mixed agricultural/industrial economy which includes machine-building, chemical, textile and food industries along with cereal production, horticulture (fruit and vegetables) animal husbandry and the cultivation of industrial crops (sunflowers, sugar-beet, flax, hemp, etc.). It also produces superb vodka. The mountain ranges in the south – the Gornyi Altai (highest point, Mount Belukha, at 4,506 metres/14,783 feet) – now a semi-autonomous republic, boast a fair variety of extractable minerals, including gold, mercury, iron and manganese. Although in the past the discovery of these deposits led to the appellation of Altai's mountains as ‘a mineralogical museum’, they are not found in sufficient quantities to make them commercially or industrially significant, although in tsarist times, the personal coffers of the Romanovs benefited considerably from the gold- and silver-workings on the so-called ‘Cabinet Lands’, i.e. territory owned directly by the royal family, or, more exactly, by the emperor himself and administered on his behalf by the ‘Cabinet of his Imperial Majesty’. They were, quite properly, nationalized in 1917.
Before 1963, when the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Republic was incorporated into the Russian Far East, East Siberia was the largest administrative-territorial unit in the USSR. That prime position in the present Russian Federation is now held by the Far Eastern Federal District (see below).
The geographical area comprising eastern Siberia lies between the Yenisei and Lena rivers and stretches eastwards in the south beyond Lake Baikal, covering a landmass of some 4.2 million square kilometres (1.6 million square miles). It is marked by a much more rugged terrain, with more permafrost (underlying around 90 per cent of the region), tundra, forest and mountain areas than western Siberia. Its central feature is the great Central Siberian Plateau, a vast irregular upland averaging some 600 metres (1,968 feet) in height and rising in the north to 1,700 metres (5,577 feet). It is traversed, both north-south and east-west, by many rivers rushing through deep, steep-sided gorges and covered by the seemingly limitless, mostly coniferous, taiga. The most ubiquitous tree is the larch, which because of its shallow root system is well adapted to growing over permafrost. This gigantic central massif with its dense forest cover occupies over three-quarters of the entire territory of eastern Siberia and supports very little human population (averaging less than 1 person per square kilometre). It is, however, the home of a wide variety of fur-bearing mammals, e.g. brown bear, glutton, lynx, elk, fox, polecat, squirrel, badger, various species of deer and, of course, the fabled sable. The pursuit of these animals’ valuable pelts was the major lure attracting the early Russian pioneers across Siberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see Chapter Two).
To the north, beyond the Arctic Circle, the North Siberian Lowland presents a landscape of mixed forest and tundra that forms a broad intermontane east-west corridor between the northern slopes of the Central Siberian Plateau and the Byrranga mountain range, which dominates the Taimyr Peninsula, the northernmost part of the Siberian landmass, thrusting out into the Arctic Ocean and spreading over an area of c.400,000 square kilometres (150,000 square miles). In addition to the fauna mentioned above, the sea waters here are inhabited by seals, walruses and white whales, while the frozen littoral zones, islands and glaciers are roamed by the polar bear. The acclimatized musk-ox also grazes on the sparse vegetation. The traditional, largely nomadic, occupations of the aboriginal Samoed peoples inhabiting these northern zones were hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. These activities are still continued by the present-day population of the numerically ‘small peoples (malye narody) of the north’ – the Dolgany, Nentsy and Nganasany (see Chapter Five) – though now augmented by silver-fox farming and small-scale milk and meat production.
Since the 1930s, the area's economy has also been supplemented – to both good and bad effect – by industrial developments connected with the intensive mining of nickel, cobalt and platinum-group metals in the region of Norilsk, a settlement founded by geologists in 1921 and elevated to town status in 1953. It is still one of the five most northerly urban centres in the world, but has gained an ugly reputation over the years as one of the most deadly locations of the Stalinist forced labour camp system, the notorious GULag (see Chapter Nine). The number of prisoners – both common criminal and political – working in literally lethal conditions in what was known as ‘Noril'lag’ rose from c.1,250 in 1936 to 72,500 in 1951. According to Noril'lag's archives, during the period of the camp's existence (1935–56) around 17,000 forced labourers died of cold, exhaustion and starvation. Ironically, one of the thousands of inmates at one time was Nikolai Nikolaevich Urvantsev (1893–1985), honoured geographer, geologist and explorer, who first discovered the rich strata of copper-nickel-platinum ores in the Norilsk region.19 Today the city of Norilsk has a population of 142,500, and is still a thriving industrial centre, but also has one of the most heavily polluted local atmospheres in the world. In 2007, the New York-based Blacksmith Institute calculated that the mineral processing industries in the Norilsk region belch out 4 million tons of cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, selenium and zinc particles into the atmosphere every year, and an article in the British newspaper The Guardian earlier reported that: ‘This is the most polluted place in Russia – where the snow is black, the air tastes of sulphur and the life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average.’20
Other research estimates that toxic emissions from the largest industrial plant in the Taimyr region, the Norilsk Nickel Mining and Metallurgical Combine (NNMMC), were responsible for such widespread devastation of the surrounding tundra and taiga that: ‘there was not a single living tree within 48 km of the nickel smelter’.21 The knock-on effects of this include a massive reduction of the grazing lands for the local reindeer herds and a significant loss of stock and weight reduction in the surviving animals. Also, the level of chemical pollutants in Taimyr's rivers and lakes has led specialist environmentalists to advise people not to eat fish caught in lakes Lama, Glubokoe and Pyasino.22 These two facts obviously create a very serious problem, given the importance of venison and fish in the local diet. In February 2008 the Russian Federation's environmental watchdog, Rosprirodnadzor, filed a lawsuit against NNMMC claiming 4.35 billion rubles (US$178 million) compensation for the company's pollution of the region's waterways. This is only one of a number of legal actions – for instance in Sakhalin and in the Kemerovo Region – against multibillion dollar industrial companies for the devastating effects of their activities on the Siberian environment.
Around 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles) to the south, Lake Baikal – the famed ‘pearl of Siberia’ – was the scene of another environmental battle between conservationists and industrialists during the 1960s and 1970s. Brief mention of this limnological wonder has already been made above, but such is its marvellous uniqueness that it is worth devoting a few extra words to it. It is without challenge the most outstanding geophysical feature of south-eastern Siberia, indeed, some might say, of the entire Russian Federation. This huge inland sea – first described in vivid literary terms by the great seventeenth-century rebel priest and exile, Archpriest Avvakum (see Chapter Two) – has a surface area in excess of 31,500 square kilometres (12,162 square miles) and is the deepest and one of the oldest lakes in the world. A few more statistics are in order at this point: length – 636 kilometres (395 miles); width – 79.5 kilometres (49.4 miles) at its widest, 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) at its narrowest; shoreline – over 2,000 kilometres (1,243 miles); average depth – 730 metres (2,395 feet), plunging to 1,637 metres (5,370 feet) at its lowest point; liquid volume – 23,000 cubic kilometres (5,518 cubic miles), that is 80 per cent of the total fresh-water supply in Russia, and 20 per cent of the entire planet earth. However, Baikal's impressive dimensions and geographical data are constantly changing, as it lies in a region of high seismic activity. Sub-aquatic earthquakes measuring as much as 10 to 11 on the Richter scale are not uncommon. In August 1959 the underwater epicentre of a quake registering 9 on the Richter scale caused a rift making the lake 20 metres (66 feet) deeper.
The lake is also renowned for the purity and clarity of its water, and even when the surface is frozen to a thickness of 1 to 2 metres (3.2 to 6.5 feet) it is possible to gaze through the crystal-clear ice and plainly identify saucer-sized objects at a depth of around 50 metres (164 feet). One of the reasons for the lake's remarkable limpidity is to be found in the voracious eating habits of the almost microscopic, shrimp-like Epischura baikalensis, a tiny crustacean unique to Baikal, trillions upon trillions of which permanently sweep, scour, filter and devour algae, bacteria and other living, or dead, animal matter in Baikal's waters. As one writer has put it: ‘During a year, the armada of insatiable crustaceans can purify the upper fifty-metre-deep layer of water three times over … These little scavengers toil away, safeguarding the purity of their legendary lake.’23 These and other slightly larger endemic crustaceans can strip to the bare bones the flesh of a drowned man in a matter of hours. Another contributing factor to the lake-water's purity is that most of the rivers feeding Baikal flow over hard, impermeable rock, thus creating what in limnological terms is technically known as an ‘oligotrophic’ lake, i.e. one having low levels of mineral content and dissolved salts, a high oxygen level and low organic content.
It was in fact partly due to the purity of Baikal water that it became the centre of a public campaign against industrial pollution during the mid- and late 1960s, a campaign in large part orchestrated by the celebrated Siberian writer and environmentalist, Valentin Rasputin (b.1937). The problem was caused by the central Soviet economic planning authorities’ decision to construct a large cellulose processing plant near the town of Baikalsk at the extreme southern tip of the lake. The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, completed in 1966, was responsible for discharging thousands of gallons of wastewater contaminated with pollutants from the industrial process. A much publicized campaign from scientists, scholars, writers, journalists and others was unsuccessful in having the factory closed down, but more stringent controls over the levels of effluents were introduced, and constant scientific monitoring of the water's quality continues, as does the debate between ecologists and industrial developers.
However, it is not just the paper mill itself that causes the problem. Other human activities have also had an impact on Baikal's environment, including intensive logging along the rivers and the floating of huge rafts of logs across the lake to feed the plant. Industrial and civil construction projects have spread, the human population has expanded, and there has been an increased use of chemicals in agricultural production in the surrounding area, residues of which ultimately seep into the lake. The rapid growth of tourism and the building of ski resorts have also impacted on the lakeside environment. Finally, the building of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), a railroad running parallel to – and hundreds of kilometres north of – the Trans-Siberian, starting from Taishet at the northern end of the lake and terminating at the Pacific coast, has created a wide range of negative environmental consequences. (The whole controversial issue of the BAM is dealt with in Chapter Ten.)
It is impossible to leave Baikal without mention of the fantastic diversity and uniqueness of its flora and fauna, hundreds of species of which are not to be found anywhere else on earth. For instance, there are over 1,500 different species of animal life, two-thirds of which are exclusively endemic to the lake and its shores. Of these, perhaps the most celebrated is the famous fresh-water seal (nerpa) – only to be found in Baikal. Today there is an estimated seal population of c.70,000. These enchanting creatures share the waters of the lake with – and feed on – the large variety and huge quantity of fish. Of the 52 varieties of fish, the most abundant, and the biggest in body weight, is the golomyanka (Comephorus baicalensis), while Arctic omul, a type of salmon, is the most commercially important. The high fat content of Baikal's sturgeon was even remarked on in the writings of the seventeenth-century Archpriest Avvakum, mentioned above. In his famous autobiography he comments on Baikal's abundant fowl and fish as follows:
Great multitudes of birds live there as well, geese and swans which cover the lake like snow. And the lake is full of fish – sturgeon, salmon, sterlet and trout and many other kinds. The water is fresh, but there are huge seals and sea-lions, bigger than anything I saw in the great ocean-sea when I was living on the Mezen. And the fish are very fatty, especially the great sturgeon and the salmon – impossible to fry them, there would be nothing but grease.24
The geographical area of eastern Siberia, now part of the central Siberian Federal District, also contains the Buryat Republic lying to the east of Lake Baikal, and further south the tiny Tyva (formerly Tuva) Republic bordering on the north-west corner of Mongolia. In Kyzyl, the capital of this little-known country, there stands an obelisk marking the putative geographical centre of Asia. The Buryat people living around Baikal engage in extensive sheep-farming on the relatively lush grasslands.25
As the BAM moves steadily eastwards from its starting point at Taishet, it leaves eastern Siberia and enters the vast territory of the Russian Far East, to which we now turn.
The Russian Far East
Now administratively known as the Far Eastern Federal District (FEFD), this is the largest of the federal districts of Russia, covering an area of 6,215,900 square kilometres (2,400,000 square miles). Though it is the largest in area, with a population of 6.7 million it is the least densely populated federal district of Russia, averaging roughly 1 person per square kilometre. It is divided into 8 administrative areas – republics, regions and territories (respublika, oblast', krai) – each of which enjoys a good deal of autonomy on local issues and policies.
In geophysical terms, despite the fact that 80 per cent of its territory lies on permafrost (some of it 1.5 kilometres/0.9 miles deep), and 75 per cent of it is covered by mountains and forest, its topography nevertheless offers great diversity and contrast. From the frozen Bering Strait in the extreme Arctic north it stretches roughly 4,500 kilometres (2,800 miles) south to the paddy fields on the Korean border; at its widest point it is 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles). Including Sakha/Yakutia, which was incorporated into the Far East in the 1960s, it sprawls in total over more than a quarter of the Russian Federation's landmass, but contains less than 3 per cent of its population. Its landscape includes low, swampy marshland and extensive forests, where, in the south, the magnificent, but endangered, Siberian tiger prowls, On the Kamchatka Peninsula sits the highest volcano in Eurasia, Mount Klyuchevskaya. From its peak at 4,750 metres (15,580 feet) above sea-level to the bottom of the Kurilo-Kamchatka ravine in the Pacific Ocean is a vertical distance of 15 kilometres (9.3 miles). Its last major eruption was in 1972–4. Apart from Klyuchevskaya itself, the peninsula is highly volcanic and also contains an abundance of hot-water geysers and thermal pools. In 2007 a huge, spectacular hot mudslide in the Kronotskii national park, a UNESCO world heritage site lying about 200 kilometres (124 miles) north of Kamchatka's capital, Petropavlovsk, destroyed a whole valleyful of geysers and springs. About two-thirds of the valley was buried under millions of cubic tons of rock and mud in a matter of minutes.26
The northernmost part of Russia's Far East is a mixture of high mountainous terrain (the Verkhoyansk and Cherskii fold mountains and the peaks of the Chukotskii Peninsula) and the flat lowland tundra plains of the Kolyma-Indigirka basin and coastline. Much further south, the Aldan, Stanovoi and Dzhugdzhur ranges give way to the Amur River valley, which, together with the Zeya-Bureya lowland and the region around Lake Khanka, are the only areas in which any successful agricultural activity is possible. Traditional cereals as well as vegetables, soya beans and rice are cultivated, but despite fertile soils and a relatively long growing season, yields are often reduced by the effects of monsoon rains and widespread flooding. Despite measures to alleviate this situation, it seems that for the foreseeable future the region's position as a net importer of foodstuffs will not alter significantly. On the other hand, the Far East is the Russian Federation's largest producer of fish and other seafood. The region has a 27,000-kilometre (16,777-mile) coastline with direct access to five seas and the Pacific Ocean. The great port-city of Vladivostok, capital of Primorskii administrative territory, is the centre of the Russian Far East's fishing industry, and the region as whole supplies 30 to 40 per cent of the entire country's fish and other marine and aquatic food products, including the Amur salmon, the world-famous Kamchatka crab and huge quantities of edible, highly nutritious kelp (morskaya kapusta).
The Far East's agricultural deficiency is offset by its great mineral wealth and other natural resources. A whole alphabetic gamut of valuable deposits – from antimony to zinc – is hidden beneath its formidable terrain, including gold, diamond, mercury, tungsten, tin, copper, boron, other non-ferrous metals, and also oil and natural gas. The coalfields of Sakha are among the largest in the Russian Federation, while diamond mining at Myrnyi and Udachnyi has turned the republic into one of the world's most prolific diamond producers. Indeed, according to recent estimates, diamonds are considered to be Russia's third-largest earner of foreign exchange after oil and natural gas. It was, in fact, the desire to improve the extraction, exploitation and transportation of the natural mineral resources that was one of the major driving forces behind the building of the Baikal-Amur Mainline and the formation of the so-called Territorial-Industrial Complexes (TPKs) along its route.
urther information concerning the natural resources and mineral wealth of Siberia as a whole is given in the following section.
Throughout Siberia's history – at least since Russia's original conquest and assimilation of the territory in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – its natural resources have always been exploited by the central, metropolitan authorities, whether Muscovite, imperial, Soviet or post-Soviet, as what is usually described as a ‘resource frontier’. That is to say, from the trapping of the first sable to the sinking of the latest oil-well, the territory's great natural resources – animal, vegetable and mineral – have been hunted, mined, extracted, despoiled, transported west or exported on world markets to the advantage of the central exchequer, and often to the degradation, detriment and destruction not only of the natural environment, but also of the original human inhabitants of the territory. (The impact of Russia's subjugation of the indigenous peoples of Siberia is discussed at length in Chapter Five.) Historically this has caused a clash of interests, a tension and often a good deal of resentment in what can be described as a perpetual ‘core-periphery’ conflict: the ‘core’ in this case being the heartland of ‘European’ Russia with its capital in either Moscow or St Petersburg; the ‘periphery’ being the lands and riches of Siberia – over which Russian military, political and commercial control marched inexorably eastwards, steadily expanding the limits of Russia's ‘frozen frontier’. It was a typically ‘colonial’ situation. That is, in the same way as the great maritime empires of Europe invaded and penetrated overseas territories in Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas – exploiting the labour of the native peoples, sometimes exterminating them, and pillaging the local lands and resources in order to enrich the economies of the metropolitan power – so did successive Russian governments occupy, subdue and despoil the lands, forests, rivers and subterranean and sub-glacial wealth of Siberia. One of the most cogently articulated indictments of Russia's colonial policies and ruthless exploitation of its northern empire still remains the seminal work of the great nineteenth-century Siberian regionalist scholar and activist, Nikolai Mikhailovich Yadrintsev (1842–94), Siberia as a Colony.27 This splendid book, at the same time erudite and passionate, but unfortunately not available in English translation, will be referred to often in the following chapters.
The fact of the matter is that, whereas most of what eventually became the Russian Empire's resources lay east of the Urals, the majority of the population lived to the west, in the central European part of the country. This led to a situation whereby the successive Muscovite, imperial and Soviet authorities exercised what they believed to be their right to batten on the natural wealth of the northern lands that they had invaded, occupied and settled, regardless of the interests of the indigenous peoples or the impact on the natural environment. So, what exactly were, and are, the much sought-after treasures of Russia's ‘ice-box and El Dorado'? This book is not intended to be a treatise in economic geography, of which a good number are available (see ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’). What follows in the rest of this chapter, therefore, is merely a brief thumbnail indication, unburdened by too much statistical data, of the diversity, richness, past, present and potential value of Russia's vast ‘resource frontier’.
The Soviet Union was, and the Russian Federation still is, the world's largest producer of all three major fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – and it has been estimated that as much as 80 per cent of its potential oil reserves, 90 per cent of its gas and 90 per cent of its coal lies within Siberia and the Far East. Much of this is located in extremely remote and barely accessible parts of the country and its provable and probable deposits have yet to be exploited to their full potential. That fact notwithstanding, Siberia and the Far East still continue to provide the lion's share of the entire country's domestic fuel needs and her export revenue.
The largest centre of coal production is the Kuznetsk Basin (Kuzbass), which as early as the 1930s was fuelling the iron and steel industry and local electric power stations in the Urals. This led to the formation of the huge Urals-Kuznetsk Coal and Metallurgical Combine, a major enterprise in the pre-Second World War and postwar Soviet five-year economic plans. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent loss to Russia of the equally productive Donbass coalfields in now independent Ukraine, the Kuznetsk coal basin has taken on a renewed significance. Another major centre of the coal industry is the Kansk-Achinsk basin further east, but because of the lower-grade lignite coal's propensity to spontaneous combustion during transportation, most of the output is used for purely local needs. However, the overall energy output derived from Kansk-Achinsk brown coal ultimately feeds into the national electricity grid by virtue of its use in fuelling coal-fired electric power stations built during the 1980s and 1990s, the electricity generated being transmitted westward along high-voltage power lines. Another major coalfield has more recently been developed at the new town (founded in 1975) of Nerungri in southern Sakha/Yakutia. This coal town is linked to the BAM by a northern spur (the ‘little BAM’) to facilitate transportation and export of Siberian coal to China and Japan.
Russia's major oil reserves are concentrated in the northern regions of Siberia which in 2002 accounted for three-quarters of the country's total oil and gas condensate production.28 Of these, the vast bulk is situated in the Tyumen region in western Siberia – in particular the giant Samotlor field near Nizhnevartovsk, now part of the Urals Federal District. During the 1980s, some American commentators suggested that the Soviet oil boom was over and that an energy crisis was in the offing. However, these (arguably) politically motivated prognostications were soon shown to have been misplaced; in the 1990s output began to soar and new world records in barrel-per-day production were established.29 New fields further north on the Yamal Peninsula and in the Kara Sea region, in addition to recent developments in eastern Siberia and the Far East, including the exploitation of huge deposits in the Sakha Republic and off the coast of Sakhalin, will ensure Siberia's predominant role in Russia's oil production for the foreseeable future.
Natural gas was discovered in western Siberia during the 1960s. Major developments during the next two decades at the Medvezhe and Urengoi fields boosted total Soviet production of natural gas from 194 billion cubic metres (6,850 cubic feet) in 1970 to almost 900 billion (31,783 cubic feet) in 1990. With an area of almost 6,000 square kilometres (2,320 square miles) by far the largest of the gas fields is at Urengoi, which prompted the construction of the new town of Novyi Urengoi, founded in 1980 and with a population in 2002 of around 95,000. While production here still continues on a massive scale, attention shifted during the late Soviet period to the Taz and Yamal Peninsulas.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, north-west Siberian gas accounted for around 75 per cent of the former USSR's total. Recent estimates suggest that total natural gas production throughout the northern area of western Siberia will increase from 524 billion cubic metres (18,500 cubic feet) in 2002 to 550 billion (19,400 cubic feet) in 2010. Moving further eastwards, discovery and development of gas fields in north-eastern Siberia, Sakha and the Sakhalin shelf has underpinned Russia's (or rather Siberia's and the Russian Far East's) role as the world's leading producer of this important energy resource, over one-third of which is annually exported via giant pipeline networks to customers outside the Russian Federation, both to the ‘near abroad’ (i.e. former republics of the USSR) and to countries in eastern and western Europe. This continuing outflow of the territory's valuable resources reinforces the notion of Siberia as a colony or resource frontier of the ‘motherland’, since on the whole the Russian north consumes only about 9 per cent of Siberian gas utilized for the economic needs of the entire country. This can obviously be explained with reference to low population density in the north and east, but, ironically, some areas – and their residents – of the gas-producing regions are not even connected to the supply network!
As already mentioned above, apart from its highly lucrative subterranean energy resources, Siberia is also lavishly endowed with a whole variety of mineral deposits. Iron is an ore with which Siberia is not overly provisioned, but in the production of non-ferrous metals, Siberia and the Far East still play a pre-eminent role in Russia's economy. The former USSR was, for instance, the largest producer of gold after South Africa, though its global output position fell from second to fifth place during Russia's economic crisis of the 1990s. Three-quarters of the Russian Federation's gold reserves, however, still lie within Siberia and the Far East, and, given the high cost of the metal on the world's commodity markets (US$1,000 an ounce at the time of writing) it goes without saying that Siberian gold is still a significant factor in not only the Russian but also the global economy.
In addition to gold, Siberia also has a monopoly in the production of tin within the Russian Federation, and during the 1960s became the world's number two producer after Malaysia. Much of this was concentrated at the Solnechnyi tin mines in the Far East, which also produced – and still produces – a wide range of other materials including tungsten, copper, lead and zinc. Nickel production at Norilsk has already been mentioned above, and this region maintains its position as one of the world's major suppliers, despite the appalling effects on the local environment. Siberia also makes a significant contribution to Russia's output of non-metallic minerals such as boron, lithium, fluorspar, mica, asbestos, apatite and, of course, the precious diamonds. Other geologically proven, but hitherto untapped, natural resources of enormous size and potential locked within Siberia's frozen ground suggest that the territory will maintain and even enhance its position as one of the world's principal mineral storehouses for a considerable time to come. Indeed, the still hidden riches of perhaps as much as 85 per cent of the territory of Siberia and the Russian Far East remain to be fully established by professional geologists and mineralogists.
Two other traditional Siberian resources also make a contribution, though less than in the past, to the Russian economy – namely, timber and fur. Russia contains the world's most extensive forestlands and timber stands, most of which are located east of the Urals. It has been argued that the woods, forests and the taiga are the Russians’ natural habitat. From wooden cradle to wooden cross, Russia's arboreal expanses have for centuries provided fuel, building material, shelter, the source of food and fur, and other essentials of human existence in these northern climes. Unfortunately, and despite references made above about the seeming inexhaustibility of Siberia's forest resources, recent developments in both legal and, more worryingly, illegal logging activities have created grave cause for concern among both Russian and foreign environmentalists. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, domestic demand for timber has declined at the same time as foreign, particularly Asian, demand has increased. The Siberian and Russian Far East's timber industry is now almost entirely export-driven and therefore at the mercy, according to a recent report, of the fluctuating largely Chinese and Japanese markets. In May 2000, Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, signed a decree abolishing the country's Environmental Protection Committee including the Russian Federal Forest Service (Rosleskhoz) which until then had kept a watching brief over the whole country's huge woodland and forest areas. The result has been a significant growth in criminal lumbering activities, which were in any case thriving with the connivance of corrupt local officials, and the decidedly dodgy activities of illegal Chinese entrepreneurs greedy to exploit Siberia's timber resources for their own constantly expanding construction programmes. Russian law enforcement agencies have proved ineffectual in combating small private and illegal Russian and Chinese logging gangs from despoiling the Far East's taiga of its riches.30
On the other hand, and on the ‘right side’ of the law, more diversified and more or less efficient use of forest resources has been made over the last few decades with the establishment of wood-processing industrial plants and pulp mills, such as the huge Bratsk Wood Production Complex (BLPK) fuelled by the Bratsk hydroelectrical station, producing paper, cellulose, plywood, chipboard and a range of chemical byproducts.31 However, the legality of its operations does not prevent the BLPK from creating a huge pall of stinking chemical pollutants hovering over the environs of Bratsk for many kilometres in all directions.
Finally, a few words should be said about the fur trade, which was, after all, the major imperative in medieval Muscovy's original conquest of Siberia. Whereas in earlier times Siberian peltry was the largest trading commodity in Russia's internal and external marketing, today it plays a minimal role in the country's overall economy. However, fur hunting and, increasingly, fur-farming, is still widespread in Russia's northern regions. In the tundra zone the principal quarry is the arctic fox, while further south in the taiga regions the main objects of the chase are squirrel (between 5 and 10 million pelts per year), sable (1 to 2 million), red fox, ermine, marten and hare. Although a pair of rampant sables surrounded by crossed arrows was one of Siberia's traditional heraldic emblems, it is today no more than a metaphor for the region's fabulously rich natural resources. In the modern world, Siberia's illustrious ‘soft gold’ (as pelts came to be known) has been replaced by harder – or, in terms of national revenue, oleaginous and gaseous – exploitable and exportable commodities.
It should be clear from the preceding sections of this introductory chapter that both historical and modern Siberia – including the Far East – have played a pivotal, though often under-appreciated, role in the Russian nation's economic and social development, despite the tremendous climatic, communications and geophysical problems posed by its intimidating natural features. However, it is equally clear that this frozen colonial frontier, both ‘ice-box and El Dorado’, has suffered in both human and ecological terms for the benefit and fluctuating prosperity of Russia's rulers in the Winter Palace or the Kremlin from the sixteenth century to the present day. How the early Muscovite tsars originally established their military, political and commercial authority over their gigantic northern empire is the subject of the following chapter.
Russia's Frozen Frontier - Notes and Bibliography:
1. Fraser 1911, p. 4.
3. On Akademgorodok, see Josephson 1997.
5. See Hill 2003.
6. "Sovetskii Soyuz : Geograficheskoe opisanie v 22 tomakh. Vostochnaya Sibir’." Moscow, 1969 "Sovetskii Soyuz : Geograficheskoe opisanie v 22 tomakh. Zapadnaya Sibir’." Moscow, 1971 "Sovetskii Soyuz : Geograficheskoe opisanie v 22 tomakh. Dal'nii Vostok." Moscow, 1971
9. Climatic data are from Baranov A.N., ed. "Atlas SSSR." 2 Moscow, 1969 Lydolph, Paul E., "Climates of the Soviet Union : World Survey of Climatology." 7 Amsterdam, 1977 Shaw, Denis, "Geographical Background." Wood 1987. 23–9 pp.
12. Kozhenkova S., "How Tourism Development in Primorskii Krai can Influence Marine Ecosystems : The Example of Vostok Bay." , paper presented at the 25th Jubilee Conference of the British Universities Siberian Studies Seminar, Vladivostok, September 2006.
13. The Lenin was laid down at the Admiralty Yard, Leningrad, in 1956, launched in 1959 and commissioned on 3 December 1959. Powered by three nuclear reactors it was capable of maintaining a speed of 2.4 knots across a 2.5 metre-thick ice field. It was deactivated in 1989, and now rests at anchor in the port of Murmansk, where it is being transformed into a museum.
14. Information from Marks 1991, pp. 202–03.
15. Mote 1998, p. 23.
19. N.N. Urvantsev survived the camps, was formally rehabilitated in 1955 after Stalin's death, declared an ‘honorary citizen’ of Norilsk and awarded the Gold Medal of the Russian Geographical Society in 1959. He died in Leningrad in 1985, aged 92.
21. ‘The World's Most Polluted Places 2007’, Blacksmith Institute, CNN report (September 2007), retrieved 14 September 2007. Quoted in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norilsk [accessed 16 November 2010].
25. On the Buryats’ economic and social life see: Humphrey 1983.
28. Statistics in this section are taken from Golubchikova 2005.
29. In the 1980s a British expert on Siberian fuel production who publicly challenged American official predictions was refused an entry visa to the United States to attend a conference on the subject.
30. http://www.forest.ru/eng/publications/wildeast/02.htm [accessed 16 November 2010].