Russian Arctic is losing people. Will free land bring them back?

Fred Weir
A skeleton prop from the 2014 film "Leviathan" sits in front of the Teribersky Bereg restaurant on the Kola Peninsula on the shores of the Barents Sea in Teriberka, Russia, on Aug. 26, 2021.

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Murmansk, a region that features Russia’s only ice-free port with open ocean access, has lost about half its population in the past three decades as people head for southern climes and better opportunities. Now, to try and stem the outflow, the government is offering free land to people in return for the promise to build something on it.

The first government program is for individuals, who can choose a plot from an online map. If they build something within five years, it becomes their legal property. The second program is for groups who want land for some entrepreneurial purpose, and they can expect support from the government.

Why We Wrote This

Russia’s European Arctic has been searching for economic purpose since the USSR’s demise. Could giving the land to those willing to use it stabilize the region’s population and industry?

Many people are understandably skeptical of the government’s land offer – which, after all, is basically for a piece of tundra that’s frozen in winter and marshland during the brief summer. But there are quite a few takers, most of whom are thinking of building a dacha, or country house. Some hope to create some kind of tourist facility.

“This is going to stimulate economic development in a lot of ways,” says regional legislator Maxim Belov. “If people had their own homes it would transform life up here, and strengthen peoples’ connection to the place.”

The Teribersky Bereg is, almost literally, a restaurant at the end of the world. From its deck you can look out upon the frigid Barents Sea, with little but the North Pole in the far distance. Inside you can order steaming hot borscht, salmon steak, and even something called cod liver salad.

Outside, the restaurant, its associated camping grounds, and several new hotels sit amid tumbledown buildings and the rotting hulks of sunken fishing vessels.

The new construction amid the ruins appears to be built on the principle that “if you build it, people will come.”

Why We Wrote This

Russia’s European Arctic has been searching for economic purpose since the USSR’s demise. Could giving the land to those willing to use it stabilize the region’s population and industry?

Teriberka was once a prosperous collective fishing and dairy farm. But the end of the Soviet planned economy condemned it to economic irrelevance. Most of the people fled, leaving behind a scene so desolate that Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev chose it as the setting for his Oscar-nominated film “Leviathan,” a tale of unrelenting despair and hopelessness in contemporary Russia.

Now, to try and stem the post-Soviet outflow of people from Russia’s economically stagnant far north, the government is offering free land to people in return for the promise to build something on it within five years, and special tax benefits for anyone with what looks like a viable business plan. Teriberka might serve as a metaphor for the predicament facing the sprawling Arctic regions, which have been searching for economic purpose since the USSR’s demise. Murmansk, a region that features Russia’s only ice-free port with open ocean access, has lost about half its population in the past three decades as people head for southern climes and better opportunities.

Giveaway plans

Outside Murmansk, a port city of 300,000, the land is mostly empty, vast, and wild, with rocky hills and a multitude of lakes, streams, and, in late summer, bogs. There’s a surprising riot of vegetation, including flowers, shrubs, and Arctic dwarf birch trees. They say that in winter, the vast stretches of frozen tundra are a snowmobiling paradise. Due to the underlying rocky shield in this part of northern Russia, the problems of melting permafrost that beset Siberian infrastructure don’t figure here, since buildings, roads, and pipelines can be solidly anchored.

The two government programs that have gotten underway in recent months are called Arctic Hectare and Arctic Zone. The first is for individuals, who can choose a hectare (about 2.5 acres) from an online map showing about 3,000 square miles (around 2 million acres) of state-owned lands on offer. The deal is that if a person builds something, anything, within five years, it becomes their legal property. The second plan is for groups who want land for some entrepreneurial purpose, and they can expect a tax holiday and legal support from the government.

Maxim Belov, a member of the regional legislature and head of the private business group OPORA, says that the government has swept away most bureaucratic obstacles, put almost all procedures online, and is otherwise serious about making these plans work.

“This is going to stimulate economic development in a lot of ways,” he says. “First, it will give people the chance to build their own house. Everyone in the city lives in Soviet-era apartment blocks that are depressing beyond words. If people had their own homes it would transform life up here, and strengthen peoples’ connection to the place.”

He says people are already banding together to choose adjacent pieces of land, so that they can share the costs of roads, power, and other infrastructure. “It’s absolutely feasible,” says Mr. Belov. “It will take some time to get off the ground, but the governor [of Murmansk Region] says he already has 2,000 applications” in late August, after a month of the Arctic Hectare program.

Many people are understandably skeptical of the government’s land offer – which, after all, is basically for a piece of tundra, probably far from roads and other infrastructure, that’s frozen solid in winter and marshland during the brief Arctic summer.

But there are quite a few takers, most of whom are thinking of building a dacha, or country house. Some hope to create some kind of tourist facility, such as a hotel, a fishing camp, or a winter sports center.

Anton Vaganov/Reuters
An abandoned ship rusts on a beach in the village of Teriberka in Russia's Murmansk Region on July 16, 2021.

Tapping into tourism

In Teriberka, the upbeat trend was already underway even before the new land incentives were announced. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, hundreds of Asian tourists were flocking here, attracted by the sheer Arctic exotica of the place; amazing hunting, fishing, and hiking possibilities; and, in winter, the chance to see the northern lights, or aurora borealis, which are reputedly quite spectacular. Though the surge of Asian tourism has stopped due to pandemic restrictions, significant numbers of Russians have started coming, partly due to the cutoff in international travel, but also spurred by the compelling portrayals of their own country’s far north in films like “Leviathan.”

“The only fresh destiny this village could possibly have is tourism,” says Protas Bardakhanov, a local guide and hostel owner. “Murmansk is quite accessible to big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg by air. The drive out here to Teriberka is actually longer, but it’s tolerable.

“People were coming before the pandemic, and the reputation of this place has spread. If the borders open again we can expect the Asian tourists to return and, meanwhile, lots of Russians have been coming. The number one reason in winter is to see the northern lights ... and there is plenty more to do and see up here.”

Valery Lebedev and his business partner Maxim Kukushkin have applied for benefits under the Arctic Zone business plan, and are in the early construction phase of the first of what they hope will be a chain of roadside cafes and charging stations. It’s a leap of faith, since there are presently only two electric cars in all of Murmansk region – a Tesla and a Porsche – and just two public charging stations.

“Lots of people want to buy an electric car, but they are discouraged by the lack of charging facilities,” says Mr. Lebedev. “We will provide a range of services for drivers, but the core idea is charging stations. When the borders open again, we expect the road to Finland to be heavily traveled, and we want to send the message to people to come in their electric cars, because there is an infrastructure in place. If it works, we will expand.”

Mr. Kukushkin is also applying for a slice of personal land under the Arctic Hectare program.

“I’m still deciding, but I want a place with a view,” he says. “There seems to be plenty of good land on offer, not too far from civilization. First, I’ll build a dacha for me and my family. But then, maybe, a small business. Something connected with tourism, like a fishing camp.”

In Teriberka, Mr. Bardakhanov, the guide and hostel owner, is also eying the possibilities. “I like this idea, and I could really use it,” he says. He won’t be eligible to apply until early next year due to residency requirements, but he says there seem to be several suitable locations near the village on offer.

“Obviously something to do with tourism, that’s the coming thing around here,” he says. “Maybe a small hotel, or a base camp for my northern lights tours. I’ve met a lot of people since I came up here,” says Mr. Bardakhanov, who is originally from Buryatia in Siberia. “It’s the end of the world, but it’s becoming more international than some big cities.”

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