MOSCOW — Czars started it. They exiled convicts to remote territories in the Russian north, where winters last nine months and medium-size lakes freeze into solid blocks of ice.
The trickle became a flood during the rule of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, whose regime built a vast network of labor camps - described by writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn as the "Gulag Archipelago" - across the country's vast and trackless wilderness.
At its peak in the 1930s and '40s, the system held millions of people. "Political prisoners built towns, industries, mines, and railroads throughout the north," says Otto Latsis, an expert on Soviet economics.
But the grand Soviet plan to industrialize the Arctic and make the tundra bloom is a fading memory. A World Bank-supported project seeks to relocate thousands of people stranded in collapsing Arctic cities to new homes in Russia's southern "mainland."
Now the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, is seeking help to expand a poorly funded two-year-old plan to offer housing credits and other aid to those who wish to relocate. The World Bank is supporting the project this year with an $80 million loan that could be increased later.
"There is a creeping catastrophe which can only be averted by regularizing and stabilizing supplies to northern communities and by withdrawing masses of people from those places," says Mkrtych Kazaryan, chief of staff of the Duma's northern-affairs committee.
Under the plan, several thousand families in three regions will receive certificates worth $2,400 - enough to purchase an apartment in many central-Russian cities, though not in the relatively prosperous centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Special bonuses will be offered to families who agree to migrate to sparsely-populated regions of southern Siberia and the Russian Far East, where there is a crushing labor shortage.
More than 10-million people now live in Russia's north, and there are 11 cities of more than 200,000 located above 60 degrees latitude. After the Gulag network was dismantled in the 1950s, the Soviet government continued the policy of northern development, but using economic incentives in place of coercion. "People were enticed to go north with big pay bonuses and propaganda," says Arkady Cherkassov, an Arctic specialist with the Institute of Canada-USA Studies in Moscow.
As a result of decades of misdirected development, population density in Russia's Arctic is 50 times greater than in Canada, the second-largest northern country. "In Canada, teams of workers go in shifts to work mines, oilfields, or timber industries, then return to their homes in more viable southern places," says Mr. Cherkassov. "In the USSR, they tried to build cities around natural resources. Thus we have inherited many large urban concentrations on the permafrost, having no roads or railways connecting them with civilization."
In permafrost zones, Soviet planners built cities of multistoried apartment blocks atop concrete stilts driven into the frozen earth, as in Yakutsk, Noril'sk, and Vorkuta. Sometimes heat from the buildings causes the permafrost to melt and the ground to shift, cracking open homes or toppling them into the street.
"In Soviet times, everything was fine. People here were prosperous and the city was booming," says Igor Shpektr, mayor of Vorkuta, coal-mining center of 180,000 people above the Arctic Circle and an area given priority under the relocation plan. "Today, after market reforms, Vorkuta's coal production is just 2 percent of what it was a decade ago, and our municipal budget deficit is 100 percent. At least 70,000 elderly, infirm, and unemployed people desperately need to leave here." Mr. Shpektr says power blackouts and shortages of heating fuel are common, and that municipal services such as hospitals, public transportation, and schools are barely functioning.
After the Soviet Union dissolved, many northern industries began to die while prices for food, fuel, and other supplies went through the roof. The Russian government continued the Soviet-era policy of heavily subsidizing Arctic communities, but the system has been greatly strained by cash shortages and infrastructure decay.
Experts say that even some areas of great natural wealth simply cannot sustain their present populations. For example, Yakutsk, a city of a quarter million situated amid some of the world's largest reserves of diamonds, gold, and oil, must be entirely provisioned by river barge during the three-month summer, or expensive tractor-trains along the frozen Lena River during winter. Noril'sk, a city of 200,000 that produces about 20 percent of global nickel and platinum output, needs to reduce its population by at least half in order to balance its municipal budget.
Hopes that people would migrate on their own from the stricken north have not materialized. "A decade ago the population of the Russian north was 12 million, now it's 11.5 million," says Valery Kournishev, an Arctic expert with the government-connected Council on Human Resources Research in Moscow. "Those who could afford to go or had relatives in the south left long ago. The rest saw their savings eliminated in post-Soviet inflation and cannot afford to establish themselves anywhere else. They are trapped in those dying communities. There is no alternative to massive state intervention to solve this problem."
Some argue the fate of Russia's stranded millions is a key moral issue for the country as well.
"Huge numbers of elderly people gave their youth and energy to the dream of building socialism in the Arctic," says Viktor Vononkov, a migration specialist with the Center for Independent Research in St. Petersburg. "Now they are alone, isolated in remote places, penniless and threatened by cold and hunger. They are not just the victims of history, they were sacrificed on the altar of our state's misguided dreams.
"It is a very good thing if the Russian government has finally understood that it has a priority obligation to save those people."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society