Friday, January 22, 2021

Russia Must Radically Expand Infrastructure in North if It is to Keep Population from Fleeing, Yaskorsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 20 – In the past, Moscow has used both sticks – the dispatch of prisoners to places they would never have moved voluntarily – and carrots – subsidies for those willing to live and work in the Far North to attract and then hold people there to develop natural resources and protect Russia’s security.

            But there is little stomach even in Putin’s Moscow for the mass incarceration of people to populate the area or money to provide subsidies – those mostly ended under Mikhail Gorbachev – and so the population of most regions and cities in Russia’s North is declining with people from there fleeing to warmer climes and better jobs.

            If Russia is to prevent this from becoming a disaster, limiting Moscow’s ability to extract natural resources from the region and to support Russian dominance of the Northern Sea Route, the country must find a new means of attracting and retaining people, according to Dmitry Yaskorsky (

            The former chief architect of Arkhangelsk Oblast who now works in a similar capacity for the cathedral there says that people in the North cannot reasonably expect Moscow to find enough money to restart subsidies and solve the region’s problems that way. Instead, they need to focus on the development of infrastructure -- roads, rail lines, and public institutions.

            If the region is better connected with the rest of Russia, it will be able to operate its mines, oil fields and factories more efficiently, pay workers more, and thus attract and hold people in northern cities. But doing so will require a sea change in attitudes and above all a differentiated approach because the Russian North is so varied.

            Much has been achieved in the last 20 years, Yaskorsky says. A gas pipeline now links Arkhangelsk with the south, the M8 highway has been extended and modernized, but the construction of a rail line from Perm Kray to Arkhangelsk remains a project that remains “on paper.”

            Some of the region’s cities will survive; others won’t, he continues. “For the major cities of the Arctic, the number one task is the creation of conditions for the shutting down of mass outflow of population to more attractive regions.” Doing that will require the combined acitons of all regional and federal officials.

            But they must stop assuming that a one-size-fits-all approach will work. What will succeed in some places will fail in others; and unless that is recognized, Moscow and the regions will spend too much in places where no progress can be achieved and not enough in other places which are more promising.

            Although the architect doesn’t say so, his words appear to be an appeal for a triage approach to the North, one in which Moscow working with regional officials would decide in the near future what cities are going to be saved and which ones are going to be allowed to die. That the situation has come to such a state may prove to be serious for Russia in at least three ways.

            First, as already mentioned, if much of the population of the North leaves, Moscow’s ability to extract resources and promote the Northern Sea Route will be much reduced. Second, the ethnic balance in these regions will shift dramatically away from ethnic Russians to the indigenous non-Russian population, leading to new political challenges from the latter.

            And third, and Yaskorsky does note this, if Russians aren’t populating the area, the activities of outside powers like China will become increasingly important, with regional officials perhaps looking more to them than to Moscow to try to save the situation in what will be an ever less Russian North.

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