In many ways Russia is an unlucky country. Throughout its history it has had political and dynastic problems, like many other nations, but Russia has regularly had these problems compounded and intensified by the freakish nature of its weather. During its most famous “Time of the Troubles” – Smuta (Smutnoe vremya) 1598-1613, a weakened Russia was battered and divided by several successional wars with domestic and foreign enemies. There was a Polish occupation led by Polish and German mercenaries and later Swedish troops. Riots and disturbances continued until the installation of the Romanov dynasty in 1613. These political crises were engendered by weak leaders and a weak and starving nation.
One root of this weakness was the weather. In 1601 the weather had changed in Russia. Russia experienced a Little Ice Age, with temperatures dropping below freezing even in the summer months. The sudden drop in temperature caused a massive famine for over two years. In those two years Russia lost to starvation over two million people: about a third of its population. As the population fled from rural Russia to the major cities in the East, large tracts of Siberia, the Altai and the Far East became depopulated, adding to the inability of the government to rule efficiently. Establishing effective policies in Moscow and St. Petersburg for the whole of Russia was hampered by the extremes of temperature and the famine it engendered.
Today Russia is facing a similar crisis of governance as the economic problems of the nation are magnified and distorted by the freakish heating of the Russian climate, especially in Siberia and the far North of the country. The permafrost is melting, and the region is beset with fires which have been burning for almost two years, unchecked. This record heat, driven by climate change, led to wildfires erupting across Siberia, melting the permafrost layer even faster and generating a massive release of methane into the air as a result. This, along with the large amounts of carbon dioxide in the air from the burning has generated an important health risk for those in the region as the carbon dioxide and the released methane poison the air, especially when combined with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Things are only getting worse as the Siberian fires continue to burn and the climate is hotter than ever before. A few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, the small town of Boguchany in Siberia, Russia, had its hottest April on record. On April 25, 2020, the temperature soared to 31° Celsius (87.8° Fahrenheit), even though it should be much cooler at this time of the year. Other parts of Siberia, and the greater continent of Asia, also experienced record heat. On April 27, the temperature in Tokmak, Kyrgyzstan, reached 35.1°C (95.2°F), while at Ayding Lake, China, the temperature peaked at 43.5°C (110.3°F). [i]
Both forests and permafrost store enormous amounts of carbon. So, when they burn or thaw, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, which then causes further warming. While the immediate threats of these rising temperatures and large fires are to the people and ecosystems of Siberia, in the long term, people and ecosystems worldwide are affected by what happens in Siberia.
The Importance of Siberia
Until the ravages of global warming in Siberia, the problems were with extreme cold. Until the end of the 19th century there were very few people to be found in the vast emptiness of Siberia. Siberia can be described as naturally divided into three distinct climatic zones; the tundra, the taiga, and the steppe. In the far North is the tundra. This is an area above the timberline with a climate which is one of the harshest on Earth. It is a vast expanse of frozen marshes, whose only vegetation is lichens, mosses, dwarf trees, shrubs, and coarse grasses. The ground is permanently frozen ('permafrost') which makes any working of the soil impossible. In the short summer's slight thaw, the melting snow and ice create giant swamps where huge and voracious insects breed in vast numbers. In the winter this freezes again and is covered by a thick blanket of crusted snow.
To the south of the tundra can be found the area of the taiga. This zone of taiga comprises about 4.6 million square miles of Siberia and extends about 4,600 miles from east to west and between 600 to 1,200 miles north and south. This area is covered primarily by enormous tracts of virgin timber interspersed with huge swamps. In the transitional zone between the tundra and the taiga the land is mostly frozen all year long and is covered by widely spaced trees. In the north these trees are primarily pine, larch, cedar, birch, and cherry while in the southern reaches of the taiga the trees are mostly elm, aspen, poplar, and maple. In the winter, the taiga is frozen solid and covered with a thick blanket of snow. In the late Spring and Summer, it is a vast swampy marshland in which scores of insects breed. Temperatures in the taiga, although generally less cold than in the tundra, often reach -50o C and have been known to reach an all-time low of -90o C. Travel is only possible in the winter when the ground is frozen.
The most southern area of Siberia is the steppe. There the northern ranges of the steppe, vast rolling grasslands, are interspersed with heavy stands of timber which disappear as one goes further south. Although a very cold winter dominates the steppe for six or seven months a year it is comparatively free of snow. Normally, the weather of Siberia is essentially cold and dry. Because of the mountain ranges in the south (Sayan and Yablonevy Ranges), the warmer southern air never reaches Siberia and the north-south pattern of mountain ranges in the north (Verkhoyansk and Chervsky Ranges) channel cold Arctic air down into Siberia. The Urals of the West and the range of mountains which border the Pacific virtually enclose Siberia in a ring of mountains. Enclosed in this wilderness of taiga is the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Baikal, covering over 12,000 square miles of water, stretching some 395 miles north to south and about 18 to 50 miles in width.
Siberia first came into the hands of the Muscovy tsars after the defeat of the khan, Kuchum, in 1582 by the Cossack, Yermak. Despite the incursions of Russian explorers like Beketon who founded the city of Yakutsk in 1632; Moskvitin, who travelled to the Sea of Okhostk in 1639 to found the first Russian city on the Pacific in 1640, there was little actual settlement of Siberia. Gradually forts were built across Siberia and fort towns like Tomsk and Tyumen became major trading cities. In the late 1600's a great walled trading town, Mangazeya, was established in the Arctic Sea to which England and Holland regularly sent merchant vessels to trade in the summer months when the water was free of ice. This arrival of foreign merchants soon frightened the Tsar who closed the port and the town and trade died. This town also traded with China through smaller vessels which plied the river route of the Yenisei; trade with Moscow was by ship from Archangelsk and the Kara Sea.
Under Ivan IV (1533-1584) a thirst for scientific exploration led the tsars to encourage travellers to Siberia to write up tales of their travels and by 1629 there were detailed sea maps prepared. In 1643 Vasily Poyarkov crossed Siberia overland from the west, reaching the Pacific via the Amur River. In 1648 Semyen Dezchev sailed from the west through the Bering Straits proving that there was a sea route direct to the warm water ports of the Pacific, Eight years later, Vitus Bering sailed to make detailed charts of this region, The next year, the intrepid Yerofei Khabarov led an expedition down the Amur to where the city of Khabarovsk is now located. Under Peter the Great (1682-1725) more expeditions were sent, and the settlement of Siberia was encouraged. The large bulk of those who settled Siberia were convicts and political prisoners who were sent out to establish villages in Siberia. These were joined by escaped serfs and the occasional Cossack seeking free land in the East. In 1861, with the freeing of the serfs by Alexander II, settlement of Siberia was accelerated by the offer of free crown land to all settlers.
A mass resettlement of serfs in Siberia began in 1862. Then large migrations from the Ukraine and from central Russia trekked across Siberia, attracted to this 'Green Land' by three benefits: exemption from the poll-taxes, exemption from billeting soldiers and exemption from recruitment for military service for ten years. Soon the Russian State offered free travel to settlers. Arriving by sea each year from Odessa were 2,000 families setting up home in new cities like Vladivostok, Blagovochensk and Khabarovsk. In addition, penal settlements on Sakhalin Island and the Kamchatka Peninsula were established using criminals and political prisoners. These settlers began to carve out farmlands from the steppe. They were joined by fur trappers in the taiga whose depredations virtually wiped out most of the fur-bearing animals of the region. The discovery of gold in the North led to a Gold Rush in Siberia and the introduction of steam and packet boat traffic on the major rivers and on Lake Baikal.
The problem of working in Siberia was that there was no good means of internal transport. Roads barely existed and those that did were frozen in winter and covered in huge drifts of snow or deep rivers of mud when the thaw came. The last 1,200-mile-long section of the Trans-Siberian railroad was completed in 1913 only with great difficulty as the climate only allowed about four months of the year as possible work periods. In those four months of the year when the earth was soft enough to work, the workmen were plagued by swarms of hungry insects which bred in the permafrost pools. Many of those who survived the ravages and disease spread by the insects suffered from malnutrition. About 75% of the workmen suffered from scurvy and other dietary diseases. The work was completed in 1913 with the completion of the 22-span bridge over the Amur River near Khabarovsk. In that year it was finally possible to take a train from Moscow to Vladivostok.
The Trans-Siberian was the sole line across Siberia until the building of the Baikal-Amur Railway (‘BAM’) which was started in 1933. About 112 miles of the BAM were built, linking the BAM station on the Amur through a line running northwards to the town of Tynda. However, events overtook this endeavour. When the Germans threatened the Soviet State at Stalingrad in 1942 the government ordered the dismantling of the BAM. Its steel rails were transported westwards where they were melted down into armaments for the war effort in the West.
Construction of the BAM was recommenced in 1974 and completed ten years later. It runs at a distance of about 250 to 400 miles north of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and extends from the Sea of Okhotsk town of Sovetskaya Gavan and its nearby seaport Vanino 2,700 miles westward to its terminus at Taishei in Eastern Siberia. It has links with the Trans-Siberian Railroad at several points with north-south branches. The BAM was built in atrocious conditions. Almost 40% of the BAM runs across permafrost whose frozen grip on the earth reaches down some 20 metres. In winter, the temperatures dropped to -50o to -60o C. The workers were harassed by blood-sucking insects and malnutrition. The builders had to construct over 3,000 earthworks in this snow-covered frozen stretch of permafrost. Virtually all the work done on this railroad was completed by prisoners and convicts. No one knows how many people died in the construction of this line but there are reliable estimates that the human cost of constructing Siberian railroads claimed the lives of about sixty-five people for every mile of track laid. Even more died during the prisoner transport through the Russian Far East to Magadan, Kolyma and Sakhalin and north to Vorkuta and Norilsk. In the forced settlement and construction of the Siberian region there were several million deaths of labourers.
Global Warming and The Challenges to Russian Business
The first signs of the effects of global warming on the economy were the large numbers of explosions in Siberian mines due to the release of methane gas due to global warming after 2017. An explosion in the Severnaya coal mine, in Vorkuta, left four people dead and twenty-six stranded some eight hundred meters below the surface; another explosion, three days later, killed six rescue workers and condemned to death the miners in the inaccessible shaft. A Russian government commission investigating the disaster said that they would authorise the flooding of the mine to extinguish the methane-induced fire. They agreed to flooding it with water and figured that it would take sixty to eighty days to extinguish.
The explosion at the Severnaya mine was not unique in mine disasters. There is a long history of mines exploding due to sudden increases in the amount of methane in the air underground. That is why miners have traditionally carried canaries into the mines in the knowledge that poisonous gases like methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide would kill the canaries first; thus giving the miners’ some chance of escape before they too were poisoned.
However, the volume of the methane released in the Severnaya mine was so intense that no canary would have given the miners sufficient warning to escape. Safety procedures in Russian mines have never been adequate or comprehensive. For seven decades at least most of the miners were zeks; prisoners in forced-labour camps. They were expendable. The Russian mineworkers’ unions which were allowed to form outside the closed circle of the ‘official union’ structure have campaigned hard for improvements in mine safety with little governmental or corporate support.
However, the increase in the amount of methane in Russian mines, especially in Western Siberia, is not entirely the result of the adequacy of mine safety provisions, although these are desperately needed. There is a dangerous climactic phenomenon which is releasing subterranean gasses at a prodigious rate.
As a result of global warming vast swathes of marshland in Siberia are starting to emit greenhouse gases thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The threat comes from permafrost bogs around the size of mainland France which absorbed carbon dioxide over thousands of years before freezing over during the last Ice Age. Now for the first time in 11,000 years, the thick permafrost under these bogs is beginning to thaw rapidly and form lakes. Temperatures are rising at twice the global rate in Russia’s coldest region because of warming, and this is likely to continue in the future,
This continues to threaten the viability of the mining industry in Siberia as there is no way to control or redirect the melting of the vast frozen permafrost lakes. The important Russian mineral export business is threatened. The exploitation of minerals, oil and gas is a fundamental component of the Russian economy.
The mines, especially those deep mines which operate at 700 to 900 metres underground are right near the point of conversion of methane from a solid to a gaseous state. Without an effective response to climate change this process will continue to accelerate.
This is equally true for the oil and gas industries which operate in the same regions.
With the melting of the permafrost, oil rigs become unstable as the ground shifts. Oil and gas pipelines are distorted, torqued, and damaged by shifts in the ground. A massive stabilisation program will have to be undertaken to maintain the oil and gas flows; an enormous cost whose costs come off the bottom line. The costs of stabilisation of existing wells and pipelines will require heavy investment.
Russia’s Climate Crisis:
The Russia climate crisis has been known to the authorities for several years. In 2017 the Russian state weather and environment service Roshydromet experts issued a comprehensive report on the effects of climate change and the risks such changes posed to the nation. Much of the infrastructure for extracting the resources that drive the country’s economy sits atop the permafrost that covers two-thirds of the country. In that study, researchers found that the value of buildings and infrastructure located on Russian permafrost amounted to $300 billion. Russian researchers found that the heating of Siberia by climate change was drying up the ground and accelerating the degradation of the infrastructure across the region. The climatic warming led to innumerable fires which agglomerated into giant forest and peat fires.
Even when these fires were 'put out' they continued to burn underground in the peat and popped up again as 'zombie fires' which repeated the previous conflagrations. In April and May 2020, North-central Siberia experienced a record heat, after a record-setting [ii]warm winter. Several stations in north-central Siberia, including areas near or above the Arctic Circle, saw temperatures climb well into the 80s. On May 22, the Siberian town of Khatanga, located well north of the Arctic Circle, recorded a temperature of 78 degrees, about 46 degrees above normal. The typical maximum temperature for that day at that location is 32 degrees.
The temperature departures from average in Siberia this year are some of the highest of any area on Earth. Since January, the region has been running at least 5.4 degrees (3 Celsius) above the long-term average, according to a recent report from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth, which monitors global temperature trends, Russia averaged a temperature anomaly of nearly 11 degrees (6 Celsius) above average for the January-to-April period. Such warmth has dramatic repercussions for the landscape, primarily through evapotranspiration, the process by which plants and soils release moisture into the atmosphere. As temperatures increase, so too does the moisture exchanged between the soils and the air. When temperatures warm up, the air is much more efficient at sucking the moisture out of the fuel, and causes causing the drying of soils, including peatlands, that would have been more resistant to burning under wetter conditions. It becomes a tinder box.[iii]
The effects of this heating and burning are increasingly apparent. In mid-June 2019, the melting of the permafrost caused major flooding in Irkutsk. Twenty-five people died and almost three thousand people were affected. A few days later there was a second flood. TASS reported that the water level in the Iya river reached 14 metres in the town of Tulun. These floods also created ancillary ecological problems as the flood waters pushed untreated toxic waste from a pulp and paper mill in Baykalsk, into Lake Baikal.
In June 2020, the effects of the climate change weakened the support of a fuel storage tank in the northern city of Norilsk which released about 21,000 tons of petroleum. President Putin declared a state of emergency in Norilsk after a collapsing storage tank leaked 21,000 tons of diesel fuel into the Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers and 6,000 tons into the surrounding soil. The size of the disaster has been compared to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The operator, Nornickel, said that it was caused by a sudden sinking of supporting posts in the basement of the storage tank as the permafrost below the tanks melted and collapsed. It turned the rivers bright red.
In early June 2020, in Murmansk, the foundations of the bridge across the River Kola were washed away by rapidly melting snow and strong flows of water. On 3 June, the bridge gave way. This bridge is the only bridge into the port city so the shipping of coal from Murmansk has been halted, as has rail traffic from Murmansk to the rest of Russia. It will take months to repair the bridge.
These problems of flooding, collapse of buildings and infrastructure and giant forest fires have been occurring with great regularity as global warming continues. There is no ending of these environmental disasters in sight.
Russia’s Coronavirus Challenge:
The deadly spread of the coronavirus has not missed Russia. As of 6 June 2020, the Russians report that there have been 458,689 cases of coronavirus infections reported in Russia so far and 5,725 deaths. Russia has been under heavy lock-down measures in response and has only just begun to relax the restrictions, at least in certain areas. In Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has announced that all non-food shops and some service sector businesses will be able to re-open, he said. The city will also test lifting restrictions on walks outside using a schedule system for apartment buildings and all parks except for Zaryadye Park will re-open.
There has been less success in controlling the virus in the regions and the Army has set up a number of ‘pop-up’ hospitals across the country to try and deal with the crisis. Medical care has been declining in Russia, especially in the regions, for several years owing to a lack of funds and investment and a drastic drop in population numbers.
When the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union had a total population of nearly 290 million, and a Gross National Product estimated at about $2.5 trillion. At that time, the United States had a total population of nearly 250 million, with a Gross Domestic Product of about $5.2 trillion. That is, the population of the United States was smaller than that of the Soviet Union, with an economy that was only twice that of the Soviet Union. Two decades later, Russia's population is about 140 million, with a GDP of about $1.3 trillion, while the population of the United States is over 300 million, with a GDP of $13 trillion. Today, the population of the United States is twice that of Russia, and the US economy is ten times as large.
Global tables of male life expectancy put Russia in about the 160th place, below Bangladesh. Russia has the highest rate of absolute population loss in the world. The Russian population is aging, and Russia remains in the throes of a catastrophic demographic collapse. The population is expected to fall to 139 million by 2031 and could shrink 34 per cent to 107 million by 2050.
Whole regions are being stripped of people. Since the 1998 crash there has been a mass depopulation of Siberia and the Russian Far East. This development not only changes the balance of ethnic groups living there—few non-Russians are leaving, and many have higher fertility rates than the Russians—but also shifts the region’s broader geopolitical balance, given the size of China’s population and the increasing involvement of Chinese firms in Siberia and the Russian Far East.
The total population of Russia east of Lake Baikal grew throughout much of the Soviet period, sometimes as a result of forced movements of people—via resettlement and the GULAG—and later as the result of special premiums paid to those who agreed to work there. Both forces increased the share of ethnic Russians in the region as well. In 1991, the total population of the region was 8.1 million, a greater share of whom were ethnic Russians. But with the collapse of both coercion and subsidies, ethnic Russians began to leave the regions in massive numbers. This has made it exceedingly difficult to attract skilled labour as those with skills have already moved to the large industrial centres of Russia’s West.
There were fewer people, companies, and service personnel in the regions, other than in the mineral extraction business which has meant a much lower tax base in the regions and less money for social services. Hospitals were among these institutions which have been less funded. The attempts to forge a powerful trade union presence to speak for these regional workers was thwarted by the ‘official’ unions who took their orders from Moscow, not from the workers. This was true despite frequent and protracted strikes.
Russia has been facing a serious problem with its cash flows as a result of the drop in the price of oil and gas (its major income earners), international sanctions and the determination to maintain and upgrade a modern military presence. That has left little money for social programs. The coronavirus attacked Russia at its period of financial weakness and Russia is having to carry on with the improvement of social welfare and health programs at a time when there are many demands on the diminishing resources of the nation.
Russians' real disposable incomes have been diminished by the 2020 coronavirus recession and will fall according to the quarterly report of the Institute of Economic Forecasting with the Russian Academy of Sciences. This is the biggest decrease in income since Russia's 1998 meltdown, when the plunge reached 16%. The real disposable income of the population will decrease by 6.5-10%, taking into account the changes in the nominal monetary income of citizens and the level of inflation based on the outcome of the current year, Anton Pokatovich, an economist with BCS Premier wrote, “The main drop will be observed in the second and third quarters by 15% and 6% compared to the corresponding periods of 2019. In this period, wages and income from entrepreneurial activities will go down significantly. The decrease in those key components will be caused by the lockdown, the exit from the market of many small and medium-sized enterprises and a jump in the level of unemployment in the country."[iv]
The New Time of the Troubles
The emergence of freakish weather patterns in Russia and the uncontrollable outbreak of the corona virus has posed a great challenge to the leadership of the nation. As the Russian state has been struggling to adjust its programs to the reality of a diminished price for its key resource exports and a general worldwide depression in Covid-19 financial markets it has been faced with having deal with systemic social costs of problems caused by global warming and the virus. Many of its military expenditures on new equipment (especially in the navy) have not been going well. The daily costs of adventures in the war in the Donbas; the crisis in Syria; new military projects in Libya, inter alia, have been draining the state coffers with little positive returns. Plans for the control of the Arctic and the Northern Sea Route have had to be cut back and the political vacuum there being filled by China, Japan, and Korea. These are all continuing problems which will not go away.
Perhaps the most important effect of this new Time of the Troubles is the average Russian’s perception of the Russian system of governance in the wake of the Covid-19 changes to their personal lives. “The pandemic has changed Russians more fundamentally than any past revolution. In particular, the government’s response and the changes in day-to-day life for the average Russian has destroyed traditional widespread faith in society that Russia’s authorities are omnipotent while the people lack political power. That important shift, which lies behind President Vladimir Putin’s falling ratings and what some now call “coronavirus federalism,” will almost certainly outlast the pandemic”[v]
It is highly unlikely that adapting to the demands of the new Troubles will materially change Russia or its leadership, but it will spur many to question the direction of those policies and their impact on Russian society. In retrospect, perhaps Russia is not unlucky after all.