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Russia’s Military Build-up in Recent Years
The young man leads me up a dim staircase. But then we enter a flat that could be anywhere in Russia: a kitchen table laden with pancakes, smoked fish, buns with cottage cheese, jam and tea. Past the lace curtains and geraniums on the windowsill, barely anything is visible of the snowdrifts and crumbling houses outside.
This is Tiksi, a decaying town in the Russian Arctic. Here, more than 4, kilometres from Moscow on the coast of the Laptev Sea, 4, people inhabit a wasteland whipped by blizzards and wrapped in polar night for half of the year. Surrounded by thousands of kilometres of permafrost, the town has no outside land connection. Kudryashov, 20, grew up here, the son of an air force commander. Lyudmila Obidina, his year-old girlfriend, moved to Tiksi four years ago with her mother and stepfather.
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Both say they love their home. But the harsh climate and remote locale mean the town is struggling for survival.
In the military district where Kudryashov lives, only a handful of buildings are still in use. The rest stand empty, cracks in the concrete walls widening with every winter, ice falls pouring from burst pipes. Still, the young man is hunkering down. This ray of hope comes from an unlikely source: climate change. Global warming, which is causing Arctic sea ice to melt at an unprecedented pace, is watched with alarm in other parts of the world.
Government officials and scholars argue that the Northern Sea Route NSR , a historic sea link between Europe and Asia traditionally known in the west as the Northeast Passage, is being reborn. In theory, the NSR could compete with routes that have dominated global maritime transport for decades. Calculated between the ports of Yokohama and Hamburg, the 7, nautical miles shipping distance between Asia and Europe using the NSR is 37 per cent shorter than the southern route via the Suez Canal.
Nikita Kudryashov and Lyudmila Obidina. The Soviet Union developed its Arctic regions very differently from geographically comparable areas in Canada or Alaska: it built full-scale industrial facilities, infrastructure and large permanent settlements. The Soviet government had used the Northern Sea Route since the s, and extensively since the s: for full-length transits between Europe and Asia, to supply its Arctic settlements with food and fuel and to ship products from northern regions that lacked transport links on land.
But after the disintegration of the USSR, use of the route almost completely stopped, threatening the survival of towns like Tiksi. Total cargo transport volumes plummeted from a peak of 6. But over the past decade, rising temperatures have created larger patches of open water on the NSR for longer periods than ever before. For five of the first six months of , the sea area covered with ice was smaller than any year since satellites started tracking sea-ice extent in As a result, total cargo volumes recovered to 5. The government has set its sights on much bigger goals. President Vladimir Putin has strongly backed such ambitions.
His government has set up a Northern Sea Route Administration to regulate foreign shipping traffic through Russian Arctic waters. In the past few years, Moscow has also resurrected search and rescue posts and made plans to repair and expand Arctic ports along the coast. Many of these hopes hinge on the idea that some of the goods manufactured in China and bound for European markets could be transported via the Arctic. But beginning in , a few German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Korean shipping companies started experimenting with transits.
The companies pay the Russian government to support their vessels through icebreaker escorts, weather data, supply and maintenance and search-and-rescue infrastructure — revenue that Russia needs to subsidise its northern territories.
Therefore we would like to see more transit voyages. A map showing Russia's vast, inhospitable far north, and its Arctic coastline. Circles show some of the locations the FT's Kathrin Hille travelled to via plane and container ship. But the town also starkly illuminates the immense challenges of reviving the Russian north.
Situated near the delta of the mighty Lena River, the spot has been a stop for explorers, traders, fishermen and scientists since tsarist times, but a town was built here only after the Soviet government decided to establish a port in It serviced the Northern Sea Route. Tiksi was also a trans-shipment hub for timber and other resources that were transported down the Lena on barges from the wilderness deep inside eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East.
This created jobs that attracted people from all over the Soviet Union. The Soviet government built a smattering of other enterprises around the port, further growing the settlement — despite the fact that providing for these residents created immense costs.
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We had everything. Since then, Tiksi has lost three-quarters of its inhabitants. Outside, the steel gates to the port are locked, a dozen rusty cranes frozen in time over the snow-covered pier. The port opens only during the brief three-month summer navigation season. The town is dotted with ruins. West of the port lie the remainders of a cement plant, while the empty frames of former greenhouses and stables stand on a hillside.
Russia’s Military Capabilities in the Arctic – ICDS
Empty spaces in town and the tundra around it are strewn with rusty metal parts — once cars, pipes and machinery. Hein Bjerck , an archeologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, has fond memories of visiting Pyramiden when the town was still in operation, when he served as a cultural heritage officer. Coal mining aside, Pyramiden and the nearby Barentsburg largely served as a convenient way for the USSR to maintain a presence in the West. Amidst the budget woes and declining standards of living, in tragedy descended.
Shortly after the crash, Arktikugol began discussing shuttering Pyramiden. Why Pyramiden and not nearby Barentsburg closed, however, remains the subject of some speculation. It could be that Barentsburg did in fact have more coal, but internal politics might also have come into play. Coulson heard that one group of politicians operated Barentsburg, and another Pyramiden.
When that latter group lost power, its town was closed. Whatever the actual reason, in the first months of , the decision was finalized. On March 31, , the last coal was extracted from the mine, and the approximately workers who still lived there—mostly men—began shipping out. They left by the boatload or by helicopters, which ferried passengers to Longyearbyen or Barentsburg throughout the summer.
The Russia File
Around half chose to stay in Svalbard and continue working for Arktikugol in Barentsburg, while the rest left the company and returned to Russia. Most were on two-year contracts, and many had left families behind in Russia. Still, bidding the town goodbye was bittersweet for many. Friendships had formed, and people had developed a fondness for the place. It was their last day in Pyramiden.
Finally, on October 10—just before the ice arrived—the last permanent residents departed. During that week, they camped out in the former Tulip Hotel which has since been reopened during the summer months , and used a paraffin camping stove to prepare meals each evening. When Bjerck returned in , however, he found that many of the decorations and relics had disappeared, or else had been destroyed and tossed to the ground. While tourists probably nicked some objects as souvenirs, Bjerck suspects that the workers from Barentsburg are the main culprits.
While some of the objects have fallen into a state of disrepair, the landscape has held up. Despite frequent spring floods, the imported soil and grass have managed to outlast the human residents. Eastern residents of a different sort still reside within it, however. Native mites, on the other hand, have been almost completely excluded from that plot. Nesting gulls vie for coveted windowsill spots to raise their young each summer, and their squawks can be heard all around the abandoned town.
Polar bears pass through from time to time, too, making it imperative to carry a rifle at all times—or to stick with a gun-carrying guide. But despite the influx of animals, Pyramiden will not be completely reclaimed by nature any time soon. Compared with warmer locales, the Arctic environment is relatively sterile. Vines will never engulf buildings and trees will never sprout from sidewalks. Here, the forces of decomposition work at a much slower pace. Although mold has taken up residence in mattresses and walls, the process of breaking those materials down will be a job carried out on the extreme long-term.