A Slice of Canada in Northern Siberia

Canadian-style houses brings a new look and a few modern comforts to Russia's frozen tundra

RESIDENTS of Yakutsk watched in fascination as a group of Canadians built a village on this bleak tundra in northern Siberia last summer.

Using materials imported from their homeland, more than 100 workers constructed three-dozen houses and several public buildings in five months, finishing in late September just as the harsh Siberian winter began to sweep across this unforgiving land.

The idea of the village came from Mikhail Nikolayevich, the popular president of the vast region known as Sakha-Yakutia, one of several semi-autonomous republics in the Russian Federation. The purpose was to provide an alternative model to traditional Siberian architecture, which consists mostly of log houses.

Rich with diamond and gold mines as well as other natural resources, Sakha-Yakutia is one of Russia's wealthiest regions. And a recent agreement with Moscow grants the republic more control over this wealth, allowing the reform-minded president to promote his own development strategy.

``He came on a fact-finding trip visiting indigenous settlements located in our far north,'' says Peter Ferguson, who directed the project. ``The village looks just like any number of northern communities, adapted to the same harsh conditions that exist in the Canadian Arctic.''

The local government paid $25.8 million to have the village built, including the transport of 4,000 tons of material from Vancouver through the Bering Strait, along the Arctic coast during summer and finally down the Lena River on barges to this remote part of Siberia.

The village looks like a sliver of Canada set in Siberian surroundings, on the edge of a birch and evergreen forest. Each dwelling has modern plumbing and sewage facilities, as well as a furnace. This is quite a departure from tradition in Siberia, where centralized heating has not been the norm, especially in nearby Yakutsk, capital of the region.

A city of 200,000, Yakutsk consists mostly of large Soviet-era apartment buildings. All structures must be built on concrete piles stuck deep into the ground, which is permanently frozen. If buildings are not raised off the ground, the pressure would melt the permafrost and cause them to collapse.

Most buildings in Yakutsk were built by prison laborers from the infamous gulags (prisons). Hundreds of thousands of prisoners are estimated to have died over the decades because of the hard prison conditions and severe weather.

Yet Sakha-Yakutia has come a long way from this grim past. In addition to the gold and diamonds, the republic is famous for its furs and even ivory from the tusks of ancient mammoths that once roamed the northern tundra. The region is called Yakutia, after the largest ethnic group here, the Yakuts. Other groups live along the Arctic coast and are related to the Inuits, or Eskimos.

Despite the relative prosperity, most people still live in small villages that have never had running water or indoor toilets. This was one reason for the decision to promote alternative technology, now that relations with the West allow for increased contact. Similarities in climate and its large indigenous population made Canada the logical choice for seeking alternatives.

``The Canadian village was a good way to show people here just how fast something like this can be accomplished,'' says Galina Sergeyvna, a political commentator with the local newspaper Sakha Republic. ``In the past, building a village would have taken years to complete.''

Project director Ferguson says the project generated a huge amount of interest, with people coming each day to watch and inquire about the building techniques.

``We held seminars and were constantly showing groups through,'' he says. ``It got to the point where we had to set aside certain days for tours to avoid having the work be interrupted.'' Ferguson was speaking inside the new health center, a modern facility set in the middle of the village.

One of those who helped with the construction now lives in the village with his family. Innokenty Pakhomov serves as the on-site director. His house is brightly lit and has such Western conveniences as an electric stove and wall-to-wall carpeting.

Inside, it is difficult to remember that this is Siberia; Mr. Pakhomov says his friends are having a hard time realizing this too.

``Many people still doubt that the house could possibly be warm enough, because the walls are so thin,'' the slight, soft-spoken man says, sitting in his kitchen. ``But most of all, people were amazed at how fast the Canadians worked. They just couldn't believe that all these houses were put up in a single season.''

As he speaks, Pakhomov's young daughter washes dishes in the stainless-steel sink as his two-year-old son scampers about in the spacious living room.

Outside, street lamps glow through the ``ice fog,'' the dense mist that usually forms when the temperature plunges below minus 40, as it normally does throughout the Siberian winter.

This fog coats trees, power lines and everything else in a thick white frost. It also means that the daily flight from Moscow must arrive and depart in the middle of the night, so pilots can see the runway landing lights.

The Siberian cold is the kind where ``if you spit it'll freeze before it hits the ground,'' in the words of Jim Pierce, a Canadian living temporarily in the village to train local residents how to maintain and repair machinery and equipment.

For now, only a handful of people live in the village. Intended by the government only as a model, it will be used as a music camp and school for gifted youngsters from around the republic.

Eventually, the plan is to build factories that can produce the materials needed to construct other villages, according to Ferguson. This includes dry wall, the kind of insulated wall construction commonly used in the United States and Canada.

The village was the second Siberian project for his contracting firm, Ferguson, Simik and Clark, based in Canada's Northwest Territories. The first was a hotel built as a joint venture with Russians.

Not all locals believe the plan will work. Just outside Yakutsk is a world-famous permafrost institute, a think-tank where scientists conduct research in a series of tunnels dug into the permafrost. Institute member Mark Shats says the new Canadian village is a waste of money, built for political reasons and economically impractical.

``This was an enormous use of money that could have been better invested in other ways, employing more local workers,'' Mr. Shats says in his office. ``We have our own technology to deal with the climate, and we can meet our needs without importing foreigners.''

But such criticism has had little impact on plans for Sakha-Yakutia. Another group of Canadians will be back this spring to build a new airport terminal for the Yakutsk city airport.

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