Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Russia's arctic future- Yamalo-Nenets and the Road to the End of the Earth

Diggers smash up a section of ground in preparation for one of Russia's new northern roads.

We fly in through heavy snow to Salekhard, the capital of Russia’s far northern Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous region. It’s thought to be the world’s only town located on the polar circle. I’m surprised at how smart the airport is given the town only has around forty thousand inhabitants. The region is certainly attracting state investment for its oil and gas reserves. And the state has a big presence here with the whole region seeing a flurry of capital works designed to get Russia’s artic moving.

But that desire isn’t a new one. On the way into the city we pass a monument, an old steam engine. It is not a salute to a railroad baron but a memorial to the thousands of gulag prisoners worked to death on Stalin’s plan for a northern railway linking towns across from western Russia to the depths of Siberia. In 1953, after Stalin’s death, the plan was abandoned and only a small section of the track remained in use.

But now construction has returned to the permafrost and wilderness of Yamalo-Nenets.  We turn off the main road somewhere near a place called Aksarka, and take a snowy concrete road leading off into the white out. A security guard is huddled at a gate across it with a small hut made from the back of trailer.

The workers' accommodation nowadays isn't Gulag barracks, but  it's still a basic life.

As we continue huge heaps of earth loom out of the snowstorm. They were relatively fresh but are slowly being covered white like everything else. Then the creak of caterpillar tracks and a bulldozer emerges, shunting earth. Then a camp full of rows of excavators and lorries. The road starts to become patchier, alternating between concrete and parts of dirt track frozen like bumpy concrete. Scattered diggers plunge their hydraulic buckets into the snowy ground and lorries head back and forth along the slowly forming path. This was how the road of death could have been built without so much death. A skinny lone pine tree slips past as we push on into the endless wastes.

The terrain the road will have to traverse is tough and bleak. This will be one of its bigger bridges.
This continues for another thirty minutes, with vehicles emerging and disappearing along the road like so few scattered worker ants, only in a snowstorm. Roads and railways are hard to build on permafrost. In winter the ground freezes hard and in summer the matter (you couldn’t real call it earth) thaws into boggy morasses. This is what the death road workers faced with almost no heavy equipment. In fact most of the equipment used today was available then, but this time real money and impetus is being put behind the project.

As head engineers Piotr Konov and Maxim Pershikov showed me, this road was being built to try and withstand the subsidence and buckling pressures which have doomed so many construction projects in these permafrost environments. Piles for bridges over the criss-crossing small rivers here were driven twenty five metres down into the ground. Road sections were being bolstered, and packed down repeatedly by rollers to stop subsidence in the spring thaws.

Another bridge on the northern road. The piles to hold the bridge up have been driven 25 metres deep.

At present many supplies for Salekhard and surrounding towns here have to be brought in on circuitous routes by boat or flown across the summer months. This road will connect Salekhard with the town of Nadym 330 kilometres away. There are projects for other roads and railways here that aim, in Maxim’s words, “to let people here live normally. There are roads in the towns here, so why not between them.”

Piotr Konov and Maxim Pershikov, trying to overcome the natural obstacles for part of the road's length.

More than that this marks Russia’s renewed attempts to return to its artic territories. The government wants access to the North’s vast suspected oil and gas reserves. It’s time consuming and expensive to build roads like this on permafrost. In Canada little attempt has been made to try and populate, let alone develop regions that would be costly to maintain. The Soviet Union thought differently, for reasons of doctrine, strategy and natural resource exploitation. Russia still thinks of the region in similar terms and had maintained a populated artic at immense cost. Whatever the arguments about the wisdom of trying to develop the far north to get at fossil fuel reserves, it seems the costs of these projects at least will no longer have to be measured in thousands of human lives. In the local Nenets tribal language, the region, ‘Yamal’ means ‘the end of the earth’. Now Russia once again wants to build a road there.