Staunton, Apr. 26 – Following the Soviet practice and building company towns around sources of raw materials is no longer a reasonable practice, Nadezha Zamyatina says. Eventually these sources will run out and the residents will be left in a vulnerable position and the state with the need to find enormous financial resources to bail them out.
The urban geographer at the Higher School of Economics and Moscow State University reaches that conclusion on the basis of her research on cities in the Russian north, many of which were company towns and now face the inevitable problems when the resources they were built to exploit run out (iq.hse.ru/news/830148678.html).
Zamyatina notes that the general view about urban development in the Russian North has obscured this because most observers assume that people went to the North under compulsion and to make money and left as soon as the compulsion was reduced or the amount of money to be made there declined.
But in fact, the situation is much more complicated than that, she says. “From the mid-1990s, many cities of the Russian Arctic did suffer from depopulation … but this wasn’t the complete flight from the North which was often predicted then” and which is still predicted by some now.
“In the final decade of the Soviet period,” Zamyatina says, “there was ‘a carousel’ of migrants in the Arctic and North: thousands arrived to work, but at the same time thousands left.” As long as there were slightly more of the former than the latter, the population of the region grew.
But after 1991, the higher incomes offered by jobs in the North ceased to be able to compete with jobs in Moscow; and as a result, despite the need to continue to exploit natural resources in the North, the population began to decline and has continued to do so, with more people leaving than arriving.
This decline in population led to “urban shrinkage,” with the environment of cities degrading and many sites abandoned. This is not a unique Russian problem, the geographer says. It is also characteristic of Detroit in the United States and Leipzig in Germany. But in Russia, it was more dramatic.
That is because the decline in most Russian cities in the North reflected the fact that they were at the end of the boom-and-bust pattern of development. Between 1989 and 2002, for example, most cities in the Russian Arctic contracted and became compressed, a trend that in many places has fed on itself.
“Today,” Zamyatina says, “the Russian Arctic is an economically heterogeneous region where actively developing oil and gas regions and empty spaces coexist. But those that are doing well now are doomed to decline when the resources run out; and that means Moscow must adopt a case-by-case approach rather than a one-size-fits-all policy as it did earlier.
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