Reasons to be Miserable

James Meek

  • The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia out in the Cold by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy
    Brookings, 303 pp, £13.50, December 2003, ISBN 0 8157 3645 2

Head north from San Francisco on Highway 101, across the Golden Gate Bridge. If you leave the downtown area at around 7.30 in the morning, even with sea fog moving in, you’ll make it to Sebastopol in time for a breakfast stop around 9. Press on west towards the coast and by mid-morning, not far from the lonely petrol station where Alfred Hitchcock filmed the most famous sequence in The Birds, you’ll be at Fort Ross. It sounds, and looks, American enough: a timber stockade close to the heaving Pacific. Ross. A Scottish name. It seems so, yet it is not. The fort was originally built as Fort Rus, by the Russians, in 1812.

It is well known that there was a Russian Alaska. It is less known that there was a Russian toehold in northern California until, in 1841, the land was sold to a German immigrant for $30,000. What is now a lovely place for mainly American visitors, within comfortable driving distance of the wealth of Marin and Napa counties and Silicon Valley, was once seen from St Petersburg (when it was thought of at all) as the most remote, God-forsaken hellhole in the empire. It was beyond Siberia. It was beyond Alaska! It was fit only for the damned and the insane.

It takes more than endurance and greed to make an empire. It requires imagination, and the more centralised an empire, the more imagination is required: not just to visualise what might be made of a newly acquired territory, but to believe that the very remotest fringes exist as real places. If anyone in St Petersburg thought of Fort Ross as a jumping-off point for an effort to colonise the west coast of North America, they did not act on it. Alaska was an adjunct to Siberia, and Fort Ross was a perilous adjunct to Alaska, only occupied in the first place because the Russians thought it might provide crops for the Alaskan settlement. This project failed. Even before the US began to make its power felt, Fort Ross was encircled by settlers from Mexico.

Russia lost California. It narrowly failed to win Hawaii. It has reluctantly shed the Transcaucasus, Central Asia, Ukraine, Bessarabia. What remains of five centuries of territorial expansion, apart from the north Caucasus and some southern steppe, is extremely cold. Siberia; the Russian Far East; and a swathe of Arctic territory, stretching from Murmansk in the west to Chukotka (next to Alaska) in the east.

A desire to make money from furs took Russian conquistadors all the way to the Pacific. The need for land and the tsarist regime’s wish to exile people it didn’t like consolidated Russia’s hold on southern Siberia. Military insecurity, a socialist ideology of human supremacy over nature and a policy of using slave labour to exploit natural resources led the USSR to colonise the Arctic and expand the south Siberian cities. Post-Soviet Russia is left to pick up the pieces: the consequences of having almost a third of its citizens living in regions where the average January temperature is between –15° and –45°C, in badly built housing, with district heating systems always on the verge of failure, dependent on subsidised deliveries of food and fuel, many working in jobs that shouldn’t be where they are, or not working at all, but with nowhere else to go.

Thus far, the thesis in Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s book is right. Anyone who’s visited a Russian government office will have seen one of those gigantic, boastful maps of the country, covering an entire wall. It is only after a while that you realise how misleading the maps are. Most of the space is occupied by the cartographically distorted bulge of two largely barren provinces, Krasnoyarsk Territory and Yakutia. The space is just that: empty space. The populated reality of Russia is much smaller: a tadpole-shaped entity, with the main concentration west of the Urals and a long tail wriggling east through southern Siberia, with those unfortunate Arctic cities dotted along the northern coast. The population, which is shrinking, is not particularly large – smaller than Brazil’s, or about the same as Britain and Germany’s combined. As Hill and Gaddy point out, however, this is not necessarily a problem for Russia. The problem is where people have been left by Soviet misplanning.

‘Unfortunately, Russian leaders continue to cling to the idea that Russia has its weight on the international stage by virtue of its territorial size,’ they argue.

Russia’s vast territory has been its fatal flaw since the days of the tsars. It cursed the Bolsheviks and the Communists and now casts a pall over post-Soviet Russia. Russia needs to stop fixating on territory and start concentrating on its people. It especially needs to stop trying to find sufficient people to ‘fill up’ and develop the territory of Siberia – a territory that simply should not have been developed in the manner it was in the first place.

I’ve been to northern Siberia and the Russian Arctic half a dozen times, and can remember meeting very few people who did not express a desire to leave. Often there’ll be a token ‘Come and visit us in the summer, the country’s beautiful, we’ll go fishing,’ but generally they love the climate only as far as they can frighten visitors with it: ‘Sometimes with the blizzards the planes can’t fly for two weeks at a time.’ Whether it is the miners in Vorkuta being paid in sandwiches (it was snowing when I landed, on 21 June), or the former slave-labour camp inmates, now pensioners, who are still economic prisoners in the Arctic city of Norilsk sixty years after the Soviets kidnapped them from western Ukraine, or the alcoholism and tuberculosis among the native Evenks in the forest town of Tura, there are too many reasons to be miserable in the Russian north. If the heating hasn’t broken down and they have the right clothes, Russians won’t actually feel the cold, but that doesn’t mean they like it, and the inhabitants of cities such as Norilsk (average January temperature: –35°C) live like residents of a community in outer space, ever conscious of the mercilessness of the environment outside their triple-glazed rooms.

A few years ago, in Yeltsin’s last year in office, I was invited on a tour of Chukotka by the then governor Alexander Nazarov (subsequently replaced by Roman Abramovich). It was December. We arrived in the principal town, Anadyr, after a ten-hour flight from Moscow. It was relatively warm, about –15°C. The houses in the grubby streets, built on concrete stilts, were sagging. Pasted to the walls were scores of handwritten ads from people trying to sell their flats. A two-room apartment was being offered for about $100.

We accompanied the governor, who normally lived in Moscow, on a stately progress across his realm. He travelled like a medieval king: at each stop, a delegation would come out to meet him, and we would be feasted at obligatory banquets where, alongside the usual sliced sausage and soup, frozen raw fish pieces would be served, curled like wood shavings in the bowl. Bottles of vodka stood on the table in place of wine and water. For palanquins, there was a twin-engine Antonov aircraft, designed for extremely low temperatures; on board, the boss of the local airline dispensed his own snacks and liquid hospitality from cardboard boxes lying on the empty seats.

The further north we flew, and the darker and colder it got (till, within the Arctic Circle, it was never brighter than twilight), the less fawning the welcomes, and the less generous the treatment. By the time we reached Pevek, on the Arctic coast, the greeting delegation was frankly curt. It turned out that the heating workers at the airport settlement hadn’t been paid for three years and were on hunger strike after their rations of rice and peas were cut.

The stop before Pevek was Bilibino. The climate there was still mild enough for trees to grow but it was, by the thermometer, the coldest I experienced in eight years in the former Soviet Union: –49°C. We were surprised to see the local police chief waiting at the airport wearing nothing but a thigh-length coat over his uniform. He entertained us by lifting up his trouser leg to show his bare ankle. Bilibino is well heated because it has a full-sized nuclear power station, built to supply electricity to the loss-making local gold industry. Before the banquet we were, as usual, invited to swim in the local indoor pool, to show how pleasant and ordinary life was in Bilibino. Since it was December in the Arctic, none of us had thought to bring swimming trunks, so we swam in our pants and, afterwards, risked the short walk back to our hotel. At a mere –37°C, Hill and Gaddy report, ‘standard steel structures rupture on a mass scale,’ though nothing was rupturing in Bilibino at –49°C. I suggested we take out our wet pants and wave them in the air to see how long they would take to freeze solid, which we did. This was gratifying. In less than a minute, they had frozen harder than a standard steel structure. The hotel was for a short time adorned with what looked like porcelain ornaments in the shape of upside-down pants.

It is terrible to contemplate the cost, human and financial, of safely dismantling Bilibino, but for the time being it seemed reasonably comfortable. Pevek was nasty, a one-time slave-labour entrepot now looking like a Spanish seaside resort on the Day of Judgment: cheap apartment blocks on a barren hillside in the darkness, overlooking a frozen sea across which polar bears have been known to travel. Three of us walked along the wharves that evening, with the temperature around –35°C and a light breeze blowing. As we passed an elderly woman, she made what we at first took for a strange local greeting: she smiled and put her hand to her nose. We soon realised that, from a distance of a good ten yards and in the darkness, she had seen that a tall American in our party had a large white spot on his nose, signifying the beginnings of frostbite. We went back to the hotel. Within a few minutes, the white spot had become an angry, painful red mark. A few minutes more and his nose would have required surgery.

We had hoped, from Pevek, to reach Cape Schmidt, another loss-making gold town to the east. What could be sadder than a subsidised gold mine? A subsidised gold mine which doesn’t receive its subsidies, for one. Cape Schmidt was on the brink of emergency evacuation – indeed, according to some reports, the evacuation had already begun – because the heating oil which should have been delivered in summer, to fill the storage tanks carved out of the permafrost, hadn’t been despatched. I was particularly keen to go there because the town was named after Otto Schmidt, the Russian explorer whose apparently genuine belief that the Arctic could be made to bloom, that tens of millions of people could live well there, fitted conveniently with the Stalinist decision to use slave labour to open up the Russian far north. ‘People believe that the Arctic is a wasteland, useless to mankind,’ he told the journalist H.P. Smolka for his 1937 book, Forty Thousand against the Arctic. ‘They are utterly wrong. The cold is no obstacle against human habitation . . . We get larger cabbage leaves in the Arctic than on the Volga.’

I never made it to Cape Schmidt, but a wonderful, terrible article by Yevgeny Rozhkov in Nezavisimaya Gazeta from April 2001 fills in the detail. By the end of Nazarov’s reign, the heating and electricity crisis had become chronic, as ancient diesel turbines broke down and supplies failed to arrive. Trucks would fight their way along three hundred kilometres of ice roads from the southern port of Egvekinot with fuel, but power cuts and heating cuts were so frequent that many people had resorted to candles and stoves that they’d made by hand from safes the departing military had left behind. The head of the district’s energy system, Vladimir Chuvelyov, died when his daughter fell asleep during a power cut and a candle set fire to their flat. Chuvelyov managed to save his wife and daughter before he was overcome. The fire brigade was unable to get past snow drifts to reach the apartment in time.

Hill and Gaddy’s conclusion – that the coldest and most remote parts of Russia, as currently developed, are a constraint on the country’s prosperity and happiness – is correct. Some of their insights are useful. Yet their tone is condescending, their methodology flawed and their central recommendation to the Russian government smacks of the same callous social engineering that made Siberia such a mess in the first place.

‘The government should place a priority on relocating Siberia’s youth,’ Hill and Gaddy declare. ‘While it may seem harsh, the challenge of maintaining the stranded elderly population of Siberia is something of a finite proposition.’ Well, it does seem harsh. To subsidise the young to flee Siberia, leaving their parents and grandparents behind to die off in the land of ice and snow? When Hill and Gaddy know perfectly well that the Russian bureaucracy is not yet capable of exercising a proper duty of care to the weakest members of society, and that the elderly are often dependent on their families for support? What if there had been a team from the Brookings Institution on board the Titanic? ‘Young, able-bodied males and females first! The rest of you finite propositions, carry on dancing.’

Beneath the surface of a book bursting with brisk, no-nonsense, fact-based advice to the Russians from smart American academics (it contains ‘path-breaking analysis that should be of considerable utility to the people who govern Russia today’, Brookings president Strobe Talbott writes; spasibo, Strobe!) there are contradictions. The Soviet colonisation of the Arctic was an act of extreme folly and cruelty. But for that very reason it would be generous, and fair, for experts from a rich and successful country handing out unsolicited advice to a poor, pride-wounded one to acknowledge, with more than a passing reference on page 201, that Russia is not alone in burdening its taxpayers by having people doing the wrong thing in the wrong place. It is the US, after all, which in one recent year paid out more in subsidies to its cotton farmers than the value of the cotton they produced. The Cold War militarisation that was responsible for so much of the absurd scattering of defence plants and bases throughout Siberia also saw an absurd scattering of defence plants and bases throughout the US.

The most misleading passages in Hill and Gaddy occur towards the beginning, when they rhapsodise about something called ‘Zipf’s law’, which declares that ‘across all countries and across time . . . a country’s largest city is approximately twice as large as the second-largest city, three times as big as the third city, four times as large as the fourth, and so on.’ Put aside the fact that Mr Zipf has devised something that, even if it was correct (it isn’t), would be an observation, not a law. What is misleading is that Hill and Gaddy brazenly treat Russia and the Soviet Union as if they were the same thing. They argue that Russia ‘breaks’ Zipf’s ‘law’ because Soviet planners put too many people in big cold cities in Siberia and not enough in big warm cities in the west. They disregard the fact that Soviet central planning ceased to operate in January 1991, when the USSR ceased to exist, and that when it did operate, the planners placed Russians in big, relatively warm cities which are no longer in Russia: places like Kiev, Tashkent, Almaty and Minsk. Hill and Gaddy pretend that the warmer non-Russian parts of the USSR, with their combined population of 147.5 million – uncannily, almost exactly the same as that of present-day Russia – never existed.

This would matter less if Hill and Gaddy did not base so much of their case on maths. Their other big excursion into numbers is with the invention of the ‘Temperature Per Capita’ concept, or ‘TPC’ – a figure produced by multiplying each region’s population by its average January temperature, then adding the ‘person-degrees’ for all regions together and dividing the sum by the total population of the whole country. Russia’s TPC, unsurprisingly, is not only colder than the nearest equivalent country – Canada, whose population is clustered along the relatively warm US border – but went down by about a degree between the early Soviet years and 1989, while Canada’s went up by about a degree in the same time.

This is interesting, but demonstrates nothing about the economic wellbeing of Siberia or the Russian Arctic. The issue is not how extreme the weather is in a particular place, but whether the economic activity in a particular place makes it worth paying to deal with those extremes. Hill and Gaddy come up with figures to show how each degree of cold negatively affects a country’s GDP. But anyone can play this game. You could look at average temperatures in August, rather than January, and work out how much of an economic burden it is to keep the air conditioning running in hot, humid cities like Houston and Washington DC. Los Angeles and London would score badly on water per capita; San Francisco and Tokyo on earthquakes per capita. If we took into account only how expensive it was to live on an island, it might make economic sense for us to transfer the whole UK operation to Afghanistan.

Houston, of course, can for the time being afford the burden of its location, mainly because the free market is working in its favour, though government contracts also play their part. It may be that Hill and Gaddy’s assessment of the excess population of Siberia is right, and that the cities of southern Siberia – places like Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Omsk and Khabarovsk – need to downsize drastically now that Russia is operating under market conditions. But the authors have not done the spadework to prove that this is the case. ‘The goal is not to empty Siberia,’ they write, ‘but to bring its population in line with reality.’ Unfortunately, they have failed to show us what ‘reality’ is: what level of population is appropriate for Siberia’s unarguably rich resources of oil, gas, metals, timber and – it should not be forgotten – agricultural land, universities and laboratories?

Hill and Gaddy describe Moscow as Russia’s only economic success story. Yet they are forced to acknowledge that the riches on which Moscow’s success is founded have their source in Siberian raw materials. How do they get around this? With the following formula: ‘There is nothing in economic thought that suggests that a region is entitled to make a major claim on revenues because the resources that generate them are physically located within its territory.’ Perhaps. But I have an economic thought. Perhaps if I had invested decades of my life building and working in an oil refinery for very little pay on the understanding that I was working for the good of my country, and then that investment, and the investment of thousands of my friends, was handed over for practically nothing to individuals who proceeded to spend much of the return on that investment on villas in the South of France, private jets and English football clubs, I might feel entitled to be resentful. Perhaps, I might think, if that money had instead been invested in renovating my city’s heating system, building good housing and giving former gulag inmates a decent retirement somewhere warm, it would be harder now for American academics to write books describing my city as an ‘offender’ against Russian prosperity.

Not the least of the attractions of The Siberian Curse is that it shows how little US academia has learned from its clumsy interventions in Russian economic policy in the early 1990s, when a flood of America-knows-best advisers introduced unscrupulous Russians to the Pandora’s box of shareholder capitalism without taking any real interest in the checks and balances – trade unions, subsidies, lobby groups, public transport, welfare – which enable the ‘free’ market to work without complete brutality, even in the US.