There are devastating fires burning across Siberia. These are having an important effect on Russia’s economy; accelerating the worldwide problems of dealing with climate change and global warming; and increasing the political instability of the current government. These fires are both the result of global warming and serve as an accelerator of climate change. They also have a major effect on Russia’s ambition of expanding its military presence and power in the Arctic as many of the most important defence industries lie within the region. It exposes, in detail, the relative impotence of the Putin government in facing these challenges because the country is running out of money. The central government has not provided funds to the regions to fight these fires and the regions are broke. The fires are burning because, other than where urban centres are involved, the fires are being left to burn. Several governors in the region have recognised that many of the fires were man-made, set to prevent discovery of the widespread illegal harvesting of trees that has pervaded the region.
Background to Siberia:
Siberia is a special area of the world. Two-thirds of Russia's landmass lies within a permafrost zone and warming and thawing of the frozen ground causes problems for infrastructure, such as roads, pipelines, and buildings in the cities. 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. During 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. The insects are trapped in the ice for around nine months of the year and, with the thaw, they forage voraciously for sustenance which will keep them alive during their dormant state. It is a small window of predation and they waste no time.
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. Temperatures in the taiga, although generally less cold than in the tundra, often reach -50 C and have reached an all-time low of -90C. Land travel is only possible in the winter when the ground is frozen; the thaw brings deep mud.
Much of Siberia is formed by a deep layer of permafrost on top of which are frozen bogs. As the weather changes the ability of the Arctic to remain cold is diminished. The contraction of the Arctic ice cap is accelerating. Average temperatures in the Arctic region are rising twice as fast as they are elsewhere in the world. Arctic ice is getting thinner, melting and rupturing. Snow and ice usually form a protective, cooling layer over the Arctic. When that covering melts, the earth absorbs more sunlight and gets hotter. And the latest scientific data confirm the far-reaching effects of climbing global temperatures and the Arctic magnification of that change as the snow and ice melt.
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 it is comparatively free of snow. 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 Chersky 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.
There are three major rivers running through Siberia. The largest is the Yenisei (which divides Eastern from Western Siberia); It has a length of 2,132 miles and flows from Mongolia through Krasnoyarsk to the Kara Sea in the north. Along its course, the river is joined by the Angara, Tuba, Podkamennaya Tunguska and Nizhnyaya Tunguska Rivers. The second major river is the Ob, which flows in Western Siberia from the Atlas mountains north to the Gulf of Ob in the Arctic Sea; a length of 2,270 miles. The third major river is the Lena, which flows in Eastern Siberia from the Baikal Mountains north to the Laptev Sea. Its tributaries are the Vitim, Kirenga, Olyokma, Aldana and Vilyuy Rivers. These have been the major transport links through Siberia.
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 routes 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 Vassily 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 of 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, 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.
As a result of the increase in numbers in Siberia there were frequent discoveries of valuable mineral deposits and oil and gas.
The oil and gas deposits are extensive
There were very few Russians who volunteered to work in the mines and pits of Siberia. The Bolshevik governments decided that involuntary transport to Siberia would be necessary. They formed the ‘Gulag Archipelago’ of penal colonies across Siberia. Prisoners were gathered from all over the Soviet Union and sent down the rail line to Siberian camps or onwards to the port of Vanino where they were removed from the trains and herded into slave ships for the week-long journey to the Port of Magadan. At Magadan the survivors were led off to the Gulag camps in Kolyma. There were often executions in the camps. Ten thousand were specifically ordered by Moscow in 1937. Others were carried out for local offenses such as failing three times to work, or simply as a means of removing those showing any other sign of independence or uttering any “anti-Soviet” words. Some were done locally, others in special camps serving a whole area such as the Serpantinka in Kolyma. There were even small execution camps that handled a few hundred brought in at a time, two or three batches a week.
A further horror of the Gulag was that, in most camps, there were a proportion of members of the old Russian criminal caste, the urkas, who had been given privileges in the camps as they helped keep order among the prisoners. These were favoured by the authorities, and, together with the camp officials, they terrorized the noncriminal prisoners in an alliance productive of both physical abuse and starvation.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quotes the Kolyma camp commander as establishing the new law of the Archipelago: "We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don't need him anymore." [i]The system of hard labour and minimal or no food reduced most prisoners to helpless "goners" (‘dokhodagya’, in Russian) who wandered about waiting to die. The numbers of people who died in or on their way to the Gulag is estimated at over three million. It wasn’t until the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” in 1973-1978 that these facts emerged, even inside Russia.[ii]
One of the most difficult aspects of developing the Siberian region was the skewed pattern of distribution developed over the last seventy years of Moscow rule. The Soviet system was one in which planning played a very important part. This had both positive as well as negative effects. On the positive side, the Soviet system sourced and delivered regular supplies of food, clothing, fuel, hot water and heat to remote areas of the nation. The ability of the Soviet system to keep up the supply of food stuffs, hot water and fuel to even its most remote areas was a remarkable achievement. This achievement enabled factories to continue producing goods for the larger Soviet market and delivered raw materials for this productive base from incredible distances
This was coupled with a policy of deterring internal mobility using internal passports and closing off whole regions and cities to even internal immigration. The vast military-industrial complex of Russia was largely buried in the centre of Siberia; from Tomsk to Khabarovosk and concentrated in major industrial towns like Krasnoyarsk, Bratsk, Novosibirsk, Bernaul and Omsk.[iii]
Life was very difficult for Siberians, even after the fall of the Soviet Union and many who had been trapped there by history and circumstance tried to leave for Western Russia where they believed life was easier and opportunities greater
The Changing Ethnic Mix of Siberia and the Russian Far East
One of the most serious challenges to the Russian state in dealing effectively with Siberia and its industries, especially its defence industries, is the growing depopulation of the region and the Russian brain drain overseas.
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 and the Arctic..
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, Russians began to leave the region in massive numbers. By 2003, the total population had fallen to 6.6 million, and the share of ethnic Russians had declined as well.
By the end of 2010, the situation appeared to have stabilized, but, after 2013, the outflow of the population has resumed at an even greater rate, with the total falling to around five and a half million and the share of Russians once more declining. Indeed, so many working-age Russians have left that those businesses and government agencies that want to develop the region are having to import workers either from Central Asia or from China, both of which are triggering the departure of even more ethnic Russians and lowering their share of the population still further. If the current trend continues, there will be fewer than five million residents in the Russian Far East by the end of this decade, and the share of ethnic Russians in many areas will fall to 50 percent or less[iv]
So, if Russia wants to build an oil or gas pipeline to China it will have to bring in contracted Chinese or North Korean workers to build the pipelines. The absence of an available labour force in Siberia and the Far East is a major impediment to Russian growth. These Russians aren’t only leaving because there are better job opportunities in Western Russia; they ae leaving because of the dramatic fall-off of amenities in the region and reliable quantities of food and hot water. It was a cardinal principle of the organisation of the Soviet Union that the state would provide piped hot water to heat every dwelling; that it would have food available at the place of work as well as the markets; and that health care would be accessible. The roads were always bad and muddy so that is no change. Today there are no funds to maintain many of these services in rural Russia; no state companies to distribute food; no hospitals or clinics with reliable supplies of medicines and doctors; and no reliable and affordable heating. In Siberia that is not a condition which can be overlooked. Furthermore, without sustained industrial growth the regional authorities have no funds available to fight fires, as is the current case.
China is already in effective control of much of the eastern portion of Russia, including Primorsky Kray, Khabarovsky Kray (to the south of the Uda Rivere) Amur Oblast, Chita Oblast (now Trans-Baikal Kray), Buryatia, the southern part of Irkutsk Oblast and Krasnoyarsk Kray.[v] China has made inroads in the Russian Far East in part because of the decay of Russian infrastructure. The infrastructural decay is important and is a clear threat to Moscow’s rule of much of the country. Its roads, rail lines, and air routes not only are inadequate to handle existing levels of interaction between the centre and the periphery but open the way for outsiders to play a role that a country as hypercentralised as Russia views as threatening.[vi]
In July 2019, despite the fires, China has reached an agreement with Omsk Oblast, deep in the middle of Siberia, to ship grain produced there on Chinese ships via the Ob River and the Northern Sea Route to Asian markets. Income from overseas sales is welcome as the Russian state has fallen far behind in its payments to the Russian defence industry. In July 2019, Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov reported that defence firms are “living from hand to mouth,” and that many of the largest and most important plants will have to close entirely[vii]. He declared that Russia’s military-industrial complex was seriously in debt. Additionally, he asked the government to take steps to write off 600 billion–700 billion roubles ($10 billion–$13 billion) in bank loans that the defence firms needed to take out because the government had not paid them for orders it had placed (RBC, July 8). The total indebtedness of the sector is now “more than two trillion roubles” ($30 billion). He complained that one third of that debt, threatens the survival of firms that are now barely able to keep their heads above water—not to mention their bank lenders and the economy as a whole. Among the defence firms in the most dire straits are Almaz-Antey, Uralvagonzavod, and the United Aircraft Construction Corporation. While Putin announces to the world that Russia is busy achieving renewed military strength and power, the defence industries are woefully under-capitalised, bereft of a skilled workforce, and unable to fund R&D out of their budgets.
Some plants in the sector have already cut their workweeks, while others are on the brink of doing so, threatening the livelihood of a significant portion of the two million Russians employed in the defence manufacturing sector and adding to the pervasive labour unrest and strikes in the region. The country is likely to face new unemployment and underemployment and an increase in the number of decaying company towns (monogorody), which have often proved to be seedbeds of protest. Moreover, the heavy sanctions against Russia introduced after its invasion of Crimea have made it impossible for many of the defence firms to acquire components necessary for production of sophisticated equipment
The Siberian Fires
There have always been fires erupting the taiga and tundra in the summer. They are a natural occurrence and often triggered by lightning on collapsed trees and brush. For many years the Russians have allowed “control zones” where fires are left to burn outside of urban areas as the cost of fighting the blaze is often more expensive than what will have been saved by intervention. This year, however, the hot temperatures in Siberia and the absence of rain have left the region particularly vulnerable to fires, and the extent of the fire is unusually large. While the size of the control zones are limited to 100,000 hectares [386 square miles], the actual fires extend to four million hectares [15,400 square miles). Even if the firefighting keeps the fires from ravaging urban centres, the smoke from the fires have engulfed cities like Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk and blocked out daylight from Bratsk and Yakutsk. These fires are not just burning trees and forest floor waste they are also burning the dried swap cover which global warming has exposed and lingering peat fires are expanding under the surface across Siberia. In some cases these peat fires leave deep sinkholes hundreds of feet in diameter.
These fires have placed an additional risk burden on the numerous mines which produce many of the minerals used in industry and exported. The melted covering of the permafrost in the tundra and taiga has led to a massive release of methane which has been accumulating under the ice layer. This release of methane into the Siberian atmosphere has been a factor in spreading the fires on such a wide scale and threatened the stability of the various mines which have been exploding and catching fire at a prodigious rate.
The mine owners and the oil and gas producers have shown little willingness to meet with the unions of workers who are endangered by the increasing number of preventable mine explosions due to the inability of the existing safety equipment to deal with the rising burden of methane seepage. This is also a problem for the buildings sited on top of gas seepages. They have been damaged by the effects of these rising gases. Oil pipelines are being stressed by movements of the land under them which causes distortion of the lines and breaks in the transmission. There is a relatively high cost involved in dealing with these problems which the companies are unwilling or unable to pursue due to the decrease in commodity prices, international sanctions and historic lack of concern for worker safety.
This has led to recurrent labour problems, strikes and demonstrations across Siberia. There is a continuing crisis of wage arrears and lack of medical treatment. Siberian workers have been raising their complaints with the regional leaders and , increasingly, with several of the political activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The current waves of protest in Moscow by citizens unhappy with having opposition candidates for public office removed from the ballot paper has energised, as well, the independent Russian labour movement. They have been providing liaison with the Siberian independent unionists frustrated by the lack of jobs, pay, opportunity and political choice. The Putin government is acutely aware of the potential of additional sustained labour protest which has been continuing in Russia and has been trying to interrupt access to the trades unionists across the nation in building a coherent protest movement and gaining recognition as registered trades unions.
These Siberian fires are both a physical problem for the government as well as a figurative representation of the anger which is growing across Russia at the lack of basic services. The decline in oil prices and the increase in international sanctions are biting the economy and Putin has no solution in mind which will receive support from a disenchanted populace.
There is a holiday every year in Siberia celebrated on March 19. This is the celebration of Dariya The Martyr Gavnopolvkiy (the day when the shit rises). In the second half of March, as the thaw begins, the rivulets wash to the surface and fill holes in the melting ice with pieces of excrement from the previous year which had been covered by the winter's snow. The white of the snow is darkened, for a while, by the floating residue of earlier deposits. There has been a lot to celebrate this Feast of Darya Gavnoplovkiy.
[ii] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, p. 49.
[iii] G.K. Busch, Free for All: The Post-Soviet Transition of Russia, Virtualbookworm 2010
[iv] Paul Goble, “Russian Flight From Russian Far East Again Increasing”, EDM 4/11/15
[v] Paul Goble, " Russia Now Split Into Three Parts Only One Of Which Moscow Reliably Controls" Eurasia, 4/8/19
[vii] Y. Borisov, “Russia’s Defense Industry in Increasing Disarray as More Plants Set to Close”. RBC, 8/7/19