“Horror in the North”: Russia’s Arctic Military Expansion Leaves Struggling Communities Behind
24 October, 2019
The then Russian President and Supreme Commander Dmitry Medvedev visits the aircraft carrying heavy cruiser 'Admiral N. Kuznetsov' in the Barents Sea, Russia on October 11, 2008. Medvedev joined the Northern Fleet to observe military exercises in the Barents Sea including a full-range test of the Sineva ballistic missile. EPA/DMITRY ASTAKHOV - POOL RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL

When residents of Murmansk heard the sound of fighter jets overhead, they weren’t sure what to think. Grandmothers sleeping in the streets whispered “War” and young people took out their cameras and smartphones. Some recognized the low flying aircrafts as MiG-29 fighter jets – belonging to the Russian Air Force’s “Strizhi” aerobatic team – and realized it was a rehearsal for City Day. But many were still surprised when tanks rolled into the city the next day. 

This military display in Murmansk reflects the growing presence of the armed forces in the Russian Arctic. With rapid climate change warming the region, governments like Russia, the United States and China are competing to solidify their control over new trading routes and natural resources in the North. Nearly 75% of Russia’s $1.9 billion military budget went to Arctic expansion from 2015 to 2017. 

In September 2019, the Russian military brought in new S-400 missile systems to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, and built a new generation of anti-missile radars near the city of Murmansk and in the Komi Republic. $13 million is also being channeled through the Russian Guard for the defense of the northern settlements of Sabetta, Dikson and Dudinka. But while the Russian government is spending billions of rubles on Arctic military development, the standard of living in the region is getting worse. 

Hromadske’s partner Novaya Gazeta shares dispatches from Russia’s distressed Arctic communities, where military expansion is leaving the locals behind.

 “Let’s not exaggerate!”

North of the Arctic Circle, in the village of Pechenga, children at the local school have been freezing for years because there is no money to heat the building. When the acting governor arrived at the school on the eve of the local elections in September, infrared heaters were quickly installed. But health and safety regulations prohibit even the temporary use of these heaters in childcare facilities. 

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That being said, the whole region froze this summer as snow continued to fall and the average temperature did not exceed 3-5 degrees. Houses connected to the state-controlled central heating system (a relic of the Soviet era) had no heating and when residents demanded the central heating systems be turned on, the regional Minister of Housing and Utilities said, “Let’s not exaggerate!” and promised an “Indian summer.” 

According to regulations, central heating is supposed to be turned on if the temperature outdoors is less than 8 degrees for five consecutive days. Instead, the central heating system was started up the night before the local elections, securing a win for the Kremlin’s candidate, Governor Andrei Chibis. 

Hailing from Moscow, Chibis campaigned on the slogan “Na Severe – zhit’” (meaning “Live in the North” in Russian) – flaunting the catchphrase on a sweatshirt he wore in selfies posted on Instagram and Facebook. But locals quickly transformed the slogan from the Russian phrase “Na Severe – zhit’” to “Na Severe – zhut’,” meaning “Horror in the North.” 

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Pechenga’s heating problem is hardly unique in the Russian Arctic, where central heating isn’t turned on until late autumn and the climate is uniformly harsh. In villages in the Taymyrsky District (not far from the site of millions in military investment, Dudinka), families are left sifting through coal with shovels – a third of which is useless dust. With women and children doing most of the work, each family manually sorts up to 10 tons of coal every year. 

Meanwhile, the village of Krasnoshchelye in the Murmansk Region only has roads in the winter. Here, dying in winter is considered an easy death, because the body can be taken along ice roads to the mainland for an autopsy. In the summer you have to carry it by helicopter, which flies one a week, weather permitting. Until then, the deceased are kept in a glacier – to spare them from being eaten by lemmings. 

Military Middle Class

Over 350,000 people have left the Murmansk region over the past 25 years, with more than four thousand people officially leaving annually in the past five years alone. As of January 1, 2019, official statistics reported the remaining population in the region as just over 748,000 people. The main reasons behind the exodus? The harsh climate, lack of infrastructure, poor quality of education and healthcare, as well as a lack of competitive salaries. 

A Russian officer gives orders to prepare a new anti-ship missile system "Rubezh" during strategic manouevers "Zapad (West)-99" in Murmansk region and at the Barentsevo sea on June 23, 1999. Photo: EPA

The median monthly income of 60 thousand rubles (around $965) per person may seem higher than the national median income of 34,335 rubles (around $536) per month, but this money quickly amounts to nothing when you take into account that, on average, rent here is twice as high as in Moscow. And the widespread presence of the security forces has an impact on the average income level as well. 

Dozens of coastal military units, the Northern Fleet and numerous Federal Security Service (FSB) border guards are deployed in the region, pulling in “northern” salaries starting at a minimum of 70,000 rubles (over $1,000) per month. 

In other words, the military in the Arctic has taken the place of the middle class. Instead of business owners – who can barely make ends meet when paying their workers “northern” allowances – people in uniform have become the main taxpayers in the region. As a result, in addition to overtaking the locals economically, military personnel are gaining greater political influence in the North.

Now, on the shores of the inland sea, border guards are fining local residents for fishing; checkpoints are appearing “in the middle of nowhere” where you are required to show your passport and the contents of your trunk without any explanation; and the boardwalk of the Murmansk seaport has been militarized as well – with bars and a checkpoint separating passersby from the pier.

Meanwhile, Murmansk’s City Day has turned into a military spectacle. The press release for the event promised entertainment in the form of a “Grad” multiple-launch rocket system, a Pastsir-S missile system, a “Bastion” coastal defense missile system, an “Akatsiya” self-propelled howitzer, a T-80 tank and a S-300 missile system, as well as a field kitchen, speeches from the special forces, excursions on warships and an initiation ceremony for the “Young Army.” 

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“I will not attend the city celebrations while they display instruments for killing people. [Not unless] they write a warning that all of this is meant for taking lives,” wrote Denis Zagorie, a journalist from Murmansk, on Twitter.

During the celebrations, war songs played from the stage in the main square as fighter jets flew over the city. Bloggers grimly joked that Murmansk was no longer a city of fishermen but a city of soldiers. 

According to National Defense magazine, 2017 estimates place the cost of a one hour flight of a MiG-29 fighter jet between 16 and 20 thousand dollars – money that could go a long way in a place like Murmansk, which had been observing MiG-29s flying over the city for three days.

Meanwhile, the local oncology dispensary is still using outdated radiotherapy equipment issued in 1976 and 1989 – and the Pechenga school still has no heat. 

/Adapted by Eilish Hart, with materials from Novaya Gazeta. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange