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Special Issue No. 31. October 2005. Siberia: curse or blessing?

The debate over the book by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, "The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold" (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003)

1. Summary of the book 
2. Summary of responses published in EKO 
3. "Patriots of the North": summary of article by Prof. Pound 
4. My own response to the book 
5. Further notes on global warming and Siberia 
6. A Chekist in the family


In terms of the number of people living in cold, very cold, and extremely cold climatic conditions, Russia is by far the coldest country in the world. Although in recent years there has been some out-migration from the coldest areas, the population density of Russia's Far North is still 40--50 times greater than that of Canada's. Russia accounts for 9 of the 10 largest cities in the global north.

How did this situation come about? What implications does it have for Russia's economy? And what if anything should the Russian government do about it?

Two recent books on these problems have aroused considerable controversy. The first was Andrey Parshev's "Why Russia Is Not America: A Book for Those Who Remain Here" (Moscow, 2000). (1) Parshev argues that Russia's geographical and climatic handicaps prevent it from competing on equal terms in the global economy, and that therefore the Russian market must be isolated from the world market. The second book was published by the Brookings Institution (a prominent Washington think-tank) in 2003, authored by two of its current associates, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, and dramatically entitled "The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold." (2) The authors argue that Parshev is too fatalistic: Russia is capable of completing the transition to a successful open market economy. However, due to the enormous "cost of the cold," this will require a massive relocation of industry and population away from Siberia and the North in favor of central European Russia in order to correct the misallocation of Soviet planners.

The book attracted the attention of the editors of a Russian journal called "Economics and Organization" (Ekonomika i organizatsiya, or EKO for short). This is the journal of the Institute for the Economics and Organization of Industrial Production of the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, based in the Siberian capital, Novosibirsk. (3) EKO had already hosted a debate over Parshev's book. Now the journal published (in Russian translation) an authorized summary of "The Siberian Curse," followed by a series of responses from Russian economists. As might have been expected given that these economists are themselves residents of Siberia and the North, that is, of the very regions that Hill and Gaddy propose to depopulate, their responses are highly critical (to put it mildly).

Then "Problems of Economic Transition" (PET), one of the translations journals published by M.E. Sharpe of New York, decided to devote their December 2005 issue to the EKO articles on "The Siberian Curse." I was asked to make the translations. Now I am preparing this special issue of RAS in order to bring the debate to the attention of JRL readers and also to contribute to the debate myself.

In the first section (item 1) I reproduce (with the authors' permission) the English version of the summary of "The Siberian Curse" that was published in EKO. If you have already read the book you may not need the summary. In fact, I do recommend reading the book because it contains valuable material omitted from the summary.

Then I summarize the main themes of the responses that appeared in EKO in Russian and will soon appear in PET in English (item 2). A synopsis follows of an article by a British scholar on a closely related theme: the difficulties of inducing people to leave the Far North (item 3).

The next two items (3 and 4) are my own contribution to the debate: a critique of the mathematical model used by Hill and Gaddy and some notes on the possible impact of global warming on Siberia and the North. I round off the issue with a reminiscence that I think has a certain bearing on the overall theme (item 5).

Finally, I would like to draw attention to work by two other Western specialists on Russia's economic geography that is highly pertinent to the theme of this issue and that has already been summarized in RAS. Allen Lynch analyzes Russia's "illiberal geography" and draws conclusions broadly comparable with those of Parshev(no. 6 item 5). Per Botolf Maurseth highlights the peculiar geographical structure of Russia's markets, another consequence of Soviet-era distribution of productive forces (no. 20 item 3).


(1) Original Russian title: "Pochemu Rossiya ne Amerika: kniga dlya tekh, kto ostayetsya zdes'." Published by Krymsky Most-9D and Forum.

(2) Hill has worked on various topics, but is best known for her writings on conflicts in the Caucasus. Gaddy is well known for his controversial books on Russia's defense industry and "virtual economy."

"The Siberian Curse" is due to be published in Russian in the new year by Izdatelstvo "Andreyevsky Flag" ( ). This publishing house is part of the Fond Andreya Pervozvannogo (St. Andrew Foundation) ( Both are linked to the Center of National Glory of Russia ( ).

(3) Under the directorship of Academician Abel Agabenyan, the institute and its journal acquired a reputation as pioneers of economic reform thought, even in the early 1980s before Gorbachev came to power.

(4) Unfortunately I cannot reproduce the graphs, but I describe them.

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By Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy

In the course of efforts to reform the Russian economy over the decade since the collapse of the USSR, the focus has naturally been on the future, not the past. One of the guiding assumptions has been that if the old system that produced the wrong results in the past is now changed, the proper new system will automatically produce the right results in the future. The future, then, will take care of the past. Unfortunately, creating a new Russian economy is not that simple. It is not enough merely to dismantle the old system and replace it with a new one. One must also rectify the consequences of operating under the old system for more than seven decades.

One of these consequences was a peculiar and unique economic geography that continues to define Russia and yet prevents it from building a competitive market economy and a normal democratic society. Today, despite the abolition of central planning, Russia still has a nonmarket and nondemocratic distribution of labor and capital across its territory. Too many people and factories still languish in places communist planners put them -- not where market forces would have attracted them.

One specific aspect of this inherited economic geography is the development of Siberia. Nowhere was the freedom of the market more deliberately defied than in the Soviet efforts to conquer and industrialize Siberia’s vast territory. Beginning in the 1930s, slave labor built factories and cities and operated industries in some of the harshest and most forbidding places on the planet, places to which citizens would not freely have moved en masse on a permanent basis. In the 1960s and 1970s, leaders in Moscow decided to launch giant industrial projects in Siberia. Planners sought to create permanent pools of labor to exploit the region’s rich natural resources, to produce a more even spread of industry and population across the Russian Federation, and to conquer, tame, and settle Siberia’s vast and distant wilderness areas. This time, new workers were lured to Siberia with higher wages and other amenities -- rather than coerced there and enslaved -- at great (but hidden) cost to the state.

Thanks to the Soviet-era industrialization and mass settlement of Siberia, Russia’s population is now scattered across a vast landmass in cities and towns with few physical connections between them. Inadequate road, rail, air, and other communication links hobble efforts to promote interregional trade and to develop markets. One-third of the population has the added burden of living and working in particularly inhospitable climatic conditions. About one-tenth live and work in almost impossibly cold and large cities in Siberia. Given their locations, these cities (as they did in the Soviet period) depend heavily on central government subsidies for fuel and food; they also rely on preferential transportation tariffs. Costs of living are as much as four times as high as elsewhere in the Russian Federation, while costs of industrial production are sometimes higher still. The cities and their inhabitants are cut off from domestic and international markets. Russia is, as a result of its old centrally planned system, more burdened with problems and costs associated with its territorial size and the cold than any other large state or country in northern latitudes, like the United States, Canada, or the Scandinavian countries.

Room for Error

From the point of view of economic efficiency—that is, market economic efficiency—the dominant characteristic of the Soviet period was MISALLOCATION. The country’s resources (including human resources) were misused. The Soviet system produced the wrong things. Its factories produced them in the wrong way. It educated its people with the wrong skills. But perhaps worst of all, communist planners put factories, machines, and people in the wrong places. For a country with so much territory, especially territory in remote and cold places, location matters a great deal. Not only did Russia suffer from the irrationality of central planning for more than seventy years, but Russia’s vast territorial expanse offered latitude for that system to make mistakes on a huge and unprecedented scale. Had the Bolshevik Revolution taken place instead in a country as small and contained as, say, Japan, the damage could not have been as great. While central planning would still have distorted the economy, it would not, and could not, have distorted it as much in terms of locational decisions. In Russia, Siberia gave the Bolsheviks great room for error.

Size as Salvation...

In earlier epochs, Russia’s size was seen as its most significant attribute. It was the source of wealth, power, and even invincibility. Russian historians claim that Russia’s huge territory saved not just Russia itself, but all of western civilization from devastation by serving as a buffer against Tatar-Mongol expansion. Even Pushkin wrote that “[Russia’s] vast plains absorbed the force of the Mongols and halted their advance at the very edge of Europe... [T]he emergent enlightenment was rescued by a ravaged and expiring Russia.”

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the race to divide the globe up into colonies had firmly established a state’s size -- or, at least, the size of its colonial possessions -- as a primary indicator of its influence in international affairs, Russia could scarcely be ignored. With a territory that covered a sixth of the world’s surface in one single sweep from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, Russia far outstretched both of the only two other contiguous land empires in Europe -- Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. In the course of time, European observers said, Russia -- along with the other great continental power, the United States -- would eventually dominate global affairs.

The idea that size is power was particularly promoted by British observers, who were used to admiring the attributes and enormous proportions of their own empire, on which the sun famously “never set.” One British historian wrote in 1914: “The Russian Empire is an organism unique in the world’s history. It embraces an area greater than Alexander’s conquests, than the solid dominion built up by Rome, than the realms overrun by Chinghiz or Timur; it is surpassed only by Greater Britain [the British Empire].” (1) The celebrated British geographer Halford Mackinder went so far as to describe Russia and the Euro-Asian landmass that it occupied as “the geographical pivot of history.” All other areas of Europe and Asia to the east, south, and west of Russia and its great steppe lands were, Mackinder argued, merely marginal to it. (2)

Even today, after the collapse of the USSR, western observers remain in awe of Russia’s size and resources. They marvel at a country that sprawls across eleven time zones with a potential market of nearly 150 million consumers. They typically cite a long list of its natural resource holdings: 40 percent of world natural gas reserves, 25 percent of the world’s coal, diamonds, gold and nickel, 30 percent of its aluminum and timber, 6 percent of global oil, and so on, and so on.

It goes without saying that such words are music to the ears of Russia’s nationalist politicians and ideologues. For them, size in the most abstract sense of pure and empty “space” (prostranstvo) has near-mystical power and appeal. But even respected mainstream politicians fall prey to the temptation of invoking Russia’s physical size to justify its international influence. One top political figure -- Aleksander Livshits, a former finance minister and advisor to President Boris Yeltsin -- expressed a typical sentiment when he remarked in July 2001, after a high-level international meeting in Italy, that Russia could never accept the status of a junior partner to the United States. “The country is too large to be a younger brother.” (3)

...and as Stumbling Block

But in today’s world size is less an asset than a liability. It is a disadvantage that has to be overcome. It is an obstacle to economic competitiveness and effective governance. Population centers are spread over vast distances. As distances between cities and towns increase, physical movement becomes more difficult. Direct transportation costs increase. Information flows, the establishment of trust among market actors, and the creation and functioning of shared institutions are all impaired. In short, “being big” is a serious impediment to economic development unless a country can reduce distance and increase connections between population centers and markets.

The primary issue is not just that of Russia’s physical expanse, but the location of people within that space and what they are close to or not close to (markets, communication routes, and so on). In Russia, it is costly to build and maintain the infrastructure to keep citizens in economic and political contact with one another and with the center in Moscow. But it is not only the vast physical space that is the problem. Russians have also located themselves poorly in “thermal” space. The uniquely cold location of many of Russia’s big cities adds further costs to Russia’s economic geography.

Coldest in the World

It is a commonplace that Russia occupies a cold territory. Not only does its uniquely large land mass lie in an extreme high-latitude (northern) position, but very little of that territory enjoys any moderating influence of temperate oceans in the east and west. By nearly any conventional measure of temperature, Russia claims the distinction of being the coldest country in the world. It has twice as much territory above the Arctic Circle as Canada, ten times as much as Alaska, and fifteen times as much as Norway, Sweden, and Finland combined. Day after day, the coldest spot on the globe is usually somewhere in Russia. Not surprisingly, the lowest temperature ever recorded outside Antarctica was in Russia. That temperature was recorded three times: in Verkhoyansk on February 5 and February 7, 1892, and in Oymyakon on February 6, 1933. Both locations are in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya).

Like its size, Russia’s cold is at the very core of popular conceptions of the country. Winter and snow are particularly Russian phenomena, captured in poems and novels and in the broadly recognized images on lacquer boxes -- of fur-clad figures bundled against the elements, expansive stretches of birch and pine forest laden with snow, and squat wooden peasant huts built around a stove to beat back the elements. The very word “Russia” conjures up associations of Siberia, permafrost, and vodka to warm the flesh and boost the spirits in the long winter nights.

Moreover, like its vast size, Russia’s cold has been considered a strategic asset, greatest line of defense. Throughout its history, Russia seems to have been saved time and again by its winter -- the “Russian winter.” The Mongols were arguably the first and the last to execute a successful winter campaign in the Russian heartland in 1237­38, when they used frozen rivers to launch surprise attacks on Russian cities. Since then the snows and the cold have trapped and entombed invaders. In 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée fell spectacularly afoul of the Russian winter in its retreat from Moscow. Of a French force of about 600,000, fewer than 50,000 made it out of Russia along a route that extended hundreds of kilometers across rivers, forests, and plains. More troops died from starvation, epidemics, and above all the cold than in combat with the Russian imperial army.

Likewise, following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the German army, which had expected a quick summer victory, became bogged down and overextended in the winter. It was forced to withdraw from much of the territory it had captured. Subsequent winters also proved too great a challenge. In November 1942, the German Sixth Army was encircled and trapped during its siege of Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga River. Three months later, in February 1943, with its 250,000 men starving and freezing to death in temperatures of minus 30 degrees C., the Sixth Army finally surrendered—Germany’s first major military defeat in World War II. The frozen fates of Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Sixth Army have become almost mystical invocations of the strategic value of Russia’s unique cold.

Geographical Fatalism

In more recent years, such glorification of the cold has been less in fashion. The imperative of competing in the world economy has focused attention on Russia’s uniquely cold climate as a disadvantage. For some it has produced extreme pessimism, even fatalism, about Russia’s prospects. The best known example is Andrey Parshev’s book, "Why Russia Is Not America: A Book for Those Who Remain Here (Moscow, 2000).

Parshev argues that largely because of the cold climate and the costs it imposes on economic activity, Russia is fated to fail as a global competitor and thus should remain outside the world economic community. While Parshev is fundamentally correct in many of his assertions about the disadvantages of the cold, he goes badly astray in his analysis because he wrongly assumes that Russia’s coldness is an immutable characteristic of the country and its location. (5) For Parshev, Russia’s problem with the cold is God-given and it is eternal. What he fails to recognize is that it does not matter how much of Russia’s land mass lies in far-away, cold space. What counts is how much and what kind of economic activity is conducted in those regions. Parshev ignores the fact that population distribution, and hence a country’s cold, is the result of human choices.

That Russia does pay some penalty, in human comfort and economic efficiency, for its cold climate seems clear. The question is, how great a penalty? Answering that question raises others. First, how extensive is the cold; how can a nation’s cold be measured in an economically relevant way? Second, what economic cost does a country incur per unit of cold? Finally, how much of Russia’s cold is “excess” cold? That is, how much is due to allocative mistakes of the past, and how much was the unavoidable result of Russia’s geography? These questions have been tackled in a project called the “Cost of the Cold,” based at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Social and Economic Dynamics (CSED) and Pennsylvania State University Department of Economics. A summary of some of the findings so far follows.

Measuring Cold: TPC

Traditionally, studies of the effects of temperature on economic activity use territorial aggregations of climate variables -- for instance, an “average national temperature” that is the mean of recorded temperatures spaced fairly evenly across the country. For economic studies, however, this is inadequate. What is important is the temperature of places where people actually live and work. If one uses territorial temperature aggregations, then the countries of northern Europe -- Sweden, Norway, and Finland -- appear to be cold. In fact, in these countries the population is concentrated along the coasts and in the south, where temperatures are not significantly different from the rest of Europe. The same is true for Canada, where most people live along the southern border.

As an alternative to the territorial temperature aggregations, the Cost of the Cold project has proposed a simple index called “temperature per capita,” or TPC, which is a population-weighted measure. For the research on the effects of the cold, the TPC is based on mean monthly temperatures for January, the coldest month.

To illustrate the calculation of TPC, imagine a country with three regions, with varying populations and different mean January temperatures. The TPC is simply the average of the regions’ temperatures, weighted by their relative population shares. For example:

Region A: Population = 4 Mean January temperature = --14 degrees C. "Person-degrees" (pop'n x temp.) = --56

Region B: Population = 11 Mean January temperature = --8 degrees C. "Person-degrees" = --88

Region C: Population = 15 Mean January temperature = --2 degrees C. "Person-degrees" = --30

Country: Total population = 30 Total "person-degrees" = --174

So TPC = total "person-degrees" divided by total population = --174/30 = --5.8 degrees.

TPC allows comparison of the temperature of one country with that of another in an economically meaningful way. For instance, Canada’s territory lies in a northerly range that is similar to Russia’s. But Canada’s population distribution is very different, with a much larger proportion of the total population living in the southernmost part of the country. Is Russia then colder than Canada? By how much? For that matter, is Russia colder than other northern countries such as Sweden?

Another useful application of TPC is to track a single country’s temperature evolution over time. Measured by its TPC, a country can become warmer or colder not (only) because of global warming or cooling but because of population movement. If a country’s territory offers a range of temperature zones, its TPC could theoretically rise or fall if people moved to warmer or colder regions. It is thus meaningful to ask, for instance, whether Russia today is colder than it was in 1917.

TPC data answer such questions. Consider the following figures for the TPCs of various northern countries around 1930, when Russia entered the period of central economic planning.

USA (1930) +1.1 degrees C. Sweden (1930) --3.9 degrees C. Canada (1931) --9.9 degrees C. Russia (1926) --11.6 degrees C.

Thus Russia at this time was already “economically colder” than not only the United States but also Sweden and Canada. It was more than a degree and a half colder than Canada and well over seven degrees colder than Sweden.

But what is particularly noteworthy is the contrast between Russia and the other countries in the subsequent period. If we compare the trend in TPC for Russia and Canada in the twentieth century, we find that (except for a short period in the 1960s) Russia’s TPC declined steadily in the Soviet era, ending up a full degree colder by 1989, while Canada’s TPC rose by more than one degree in the same period.

Pinpointing the Problem

A further use of the TPC concept is to identify which specific regions of a country are most responsible for its overall temperature. By decomposing the aggregate index of coldness, we can find each location’s contribution to overall national or regional TPC. Associated with every region is a quantity of “person-degrees” -- the product of its temperature and the number of people who live there. Hence, a very cold place inhabited by only a small number of people may be less important than a somewhat warmer (but still cold) location with a large number of people.

The table below attempts to identify the “worst offenders” in the low Russian TPC. It is based solely on cities and asks the question, How much does each of these cities contribute to lowering Russia’s national TPC from a benchmark of minus 10 degrees C.? (5) The right-hand column gives the answer -- that is, the relative contribution of each city to the difference between Russia's urban TPC (all cities with populations of 10,000 or more) and the temperature of Moscow (minus 10 degrees C.). All the cities listed are in Siberia (including the Far East) except Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Perm, and Ufa (in the Urals) and Samara (in the Volga region). Population figures are in thousands. Temperatures are mean January temperatures for the period 1961--90 in degrees C. . TABLE. Who's Responsible for Russia's Coldness? Leading Negative Contributors to Russian TPC

City Pop. Temp. Percentage of cold

1. Novosibirsk 1,399 --19 5.2 2. Omsk 1,149 --19 4.3 3. Yekaterinburg 1,264 --16 3.2 4. Khabarovsk 607 --22 3.0 5. Irkutsk 590 --21 2.7 6. Yakutsk 196 --43 2.7 7. Novokuznetsk 799 --18 2.7 8. Ulan-Ude 370 --27 2.6 9. Krasnoyarsk 875 --17 2.5 10. Norilsk 235 --35 2.4 11. Chelyabinsk 1,083 --15 2.3 12. Tomsk 601 --19 2.3 13. Chita 307 --27 2.2 14. Samara 1,275 --14 2.1 15. Perm 1,011 --15 2.1 16. Barnaul 577 --18 1.9 17. Ufa 1,089 --14 1.8 18. Komsomolsk 293 --23.5 1.6 19. Kemerovo 490 --18 1.6 20. Bratsk 279 --23 1.5

Clearly, no single city is the whole problem. Even the biggest negative contributors, Novosibirsk and Omsk, together account for less than 10 percent of this reduction of TPC below minus 10 degrees C. However, as a group these cities are quite significant. To put their importance in perspective, note that there are a total of nearly 1,300 cities with populations of over 10,000 in Russia, home to almost 100 million people. What the Table says is that of all these urban areas, the twenty listed account for over half of the drop in Russia’s urban TPC below minus10 degrees.

Also note the diversity of the list in both range of temperatures and range of populations. Since the product of temperature and population is the significant factor, the cities fall into three broad categories:

* relatively small but extremely cold cities (Yakutsk, Ulan-Ude, Norilsk, Chita);

* very large, although not terribly cold—for Russia—cities (the Urals and Volga valley cities of Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Samara, Perm’), Ufa; and

* cold and large cities (the two big “culprits,” Siberian capitals Novosibirsk and Omsk).

The Cost of the Cold

One of the most ambitious tasks performed in the Cost of the Cold project was to simulate what Russia’s population distribution might have looked like if it had evolved according to market economy principles in the twentieth century. This so-called counterfactual exercise concluded that Siberia and the Far East today are overpopulated to the tune of as many as 16 million people. Translated into terms of TPC, this means that Russia at the end of the Soviet period was as much as 1.5 degrees colder than it "might have been."

Because there is a cost of cold, the locational structure bequeathed to Russia by the communist planners represents a tax on today’s economy. How big a tax? A cautious estimate is that for each degree that Russia’s TPC is lowered, its gross domestic product (GDP) is reduced by 1.5--2.0 percent. By that calculation, the “cold tax” that Russia pays is in the neighborhood of 2.25--3.0 percent a year. This is a huge amount. To illustrate: a Russian economy that otherwise would be capable of growing at 5 percent a year for 15 years would sacrifice from one-half to two-thirds of its potential growth because of the mislocation of so much of its economy and people in the east.

Geography Is Not Destiny

To return to our criticism of Parshev: Russia’s problems of distance and cold are not simply the consequence of its physical geography. Its population distribution is the result of deliberate government policies, some of which date back centuries. Before the Russian Revolution, the tsars encouraged migration to newly annexed territories and built military outposts and towns on the Russian Empire’s frontier lands. Over the course of five centuries, the tsars made Russia the world’s largest country -- a state defined by its physical geography, with a national identity rooted in the idea of territorial expansion and size (“gathering the Russian lands”). It was also the tsars who first pushed people out into Siberia and planted the seeds of cities on the farthest frontiers of the state to establish and affirm Russian sovereignty. But it was the Bolsheviks -- the Soviets and their central planners -- not the tsars, who shaped modern Russia’s economic geography. Where the tsars had placed forts, villages, and towns in Siberia, the Soviets built cities of over a million. Where the tsars exiled thousands of prisoners to Siberia, the Bolsheviks and Soviets deployed millions of labor camp inmates to build factories, mines, and railways, as well as cities. The tsars bequeathed to the Bolsheviks a huge swathe of the world’s coldest territory. The Bolsheviks chose to defy the forces of both nature and the market in developing it.

Siberia and the GULAG

At the end of the tsarist period, the interior of Siberia was barely charted, let alone settled. The large-scale settlement and urbanization of Siberia were not possible under the tsars. The costs of peopling, exploiting, and maintaining such a vast, cold area were simply too onerous for their market-oriented economy. Only the Soviet Union­­a totalitarian state with coercion at its core, with its highly centralized control of production and redistribution of resources and with absolutely no sense of cost­­could conquer Siberia.

Like the tsars, the Soviet state used Siberia both as resource frontier and as penal colony. But the Soviets developed the tsars’ Siberian penal system to levels previously unimagined. Under Josef Stalin, the government launched the labor camp system in 1929 for the explicit purpose of colonizing and exploiting the natural resources of the nation’s most remote regions. By 1934, half a million Soviet citizens -- everyone who had received a prison sentence of three years or longer -- were in the GULAG (an acronym based on the name of the department within the Soviet police ministry that ran the camp system). Stalin’s great purges of the late 1930s brought the total camp population to more than two million.

The GULAG and its virtually inexhaustible pool of slave labor became fundamental tools in the industrialization of Siberia. GULAG inmates -- some 18--20 million of them over the span of slightly more than two decades -- facilitated the exploitation of timber and mineral resources in unpeopled remote areas. They also laid railroads, constructed roads and dams, dug canals, developed oil fields, and built factories and farms, all under monstrously inhuman conditions.

World War II gave further impetus to Siberian development when key factories were moved from European Russia eastward into the Ural Mountains and beyond to put them beyond the reach of invading German forces. Siberia received 322 of the relocated plants. Postwar economic development plans encompassing both these and yet-to-be-built industrial facilities demanded even more forced labor. Continuously, from mid-1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953, the forced labor camps contained around 2.5 million inmates, half of whom had committed crimes no more serious than petty theft. During those peak years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the GULAG accounted for an estimated 15­18 percent of all Russian industrial output and industrial employment.

Siberia after Stalin

The GULAG was largely dismantled after Stalin’s death, but it had already laid the basis for what was to become a massive project of Siberian development under his successors. Many motives converged in the postwar development of Siberia. Communist economic planners sought to extract Siberia’s oil, gas, diamonds, gold, and other rich mineral deposits to make the Soviet Union self-sufficient in strategic resources. Military planners, who already during the war had begun to re-conceptualize western Siberia as a strategic redoubt -- a defensible core deep in the interior -- wanted to ensure that the entire region be settled and secured. Soviet politicians tasked with engineering and mobilizing society in the 1960s--1980s stressed the ideology of “conquering new lands” -- now to be interpreted as campaigns to overcome nature and the wilderness through industrialization -- to increase the strength of the Soviet state.

Planned “Cities”

Cities were an important feature of the plans for a Siberian industrial utopia. Cities were developed in Siberia in tandem with industries to provide a fixed reserve of labor for factories, mines, and oil and gas fields. In many respects, however, the cities were not really cities. Rather than being genuine social and economic entities, they were physical collection points, repositories, and supply centers -- utilitarian in the extreme. They were built to suit the needs of industry and the state, rather than the needs of people. Indeed, primary responsibility for planning and constructing city infrastructure fell to the Soviet economic ministry in charge of the enterprise the city was designed to serve. Few responsibilities were assigned to the municipal governments.

Still the cities grew, in both number and size. By the 1970s the Soviet Union had urbanized its coldest regions to an extent far beyond that of any other country in the world. At precisely the time when people in North America and Western Europe were moving to warmer regions of their countries, the Soviets were moving in the opposite direction.

How cold are Russia’s cities?

A comparison with Canada and the United States is instructive. A list of the 100 coldest Russian and North American cities with populations of over 100,000 would have 85 Russian, 10 Canadian, and 5 U.S. cities. The first Canadian city to appear on the list (Winnipeg) would be in 22nd place. The coldest U.S. city (Fargo, North Dakota), would rank 58th.

Americans are accustomed to thinking of Alaska as the ultimate cold region. But Anchorage, Alaska, would not appear on a list of the coldest Russian and North American cities of over 100,000 until position number 135, outranked by no fewer than 112 Russian cities. The explanation for this result is not that Alaska isn’t cold. It is. It’s just that Americans don’t build large cities there. In fact, Anchorage is the only city in Alaska with a population of over 100,000.

For really large cities, things are even worse. The United States has only one metro area over half a million (Minneapolis-St. Paul) that has a mean January temperature colder than minus 8 degrees Celsius. Russia has 30 cities that big and that cold.

Boom... and Bust

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Siberia and the Russian Far East dominated Soviet regional development programs. Western Siberia, rich not only in oil but also in natural gas, was on its way to becoming the largest energy-producing region in the USSR, and grand long-term industrial projects were being planned for the whole of Siberia. Western analysts were astounded by the magnitude of the projects and by the scale of investment necessary to carry them out.

But the Soviet economic slowdown of the late 1970s would put an end to such ambitions. By the 1980s, the massive investments in Siberia and the Far East were offering extremely low returns. Many huge construction projects were left incomplete or postponed indefinitely. At first, the troubles were blamed on disproportional and incoherent planning, ineffective management, and poor coordination. But by the reformist era of the late 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev, the problem was seen to be Siberia itself as well as the efforts to develop it. Criticism of the giant outlays in Siberia became commonplace. Regional analysts and planners in Siberia mounted a fierce rearguard action. They tried to justify continued high investment by pointing to the value of the commodities produced in Siberia on world markets and the state’s dependence on Siberian natural resources and energy supplies. Still, by 1989, the industrialization of Siberia was beginning to seem a monumental mistake. The Siberian enterprise was, in any case, brought to a screeching halt by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the beginning of Russia’s macroeconomic reforms in the 1990s.

Shrinking Russia

For more than 50 years, Soviet planners built Siberian towns, industrial enterprises, and power stations (although often not roads) where they should never have been built. Huge cities and industrial enterprises, widely spread and for the most part isolated, now dot the vast region. Not a single Siberian city can be considered economically self-sufficient. And pumping large subsidies into Siberia deprives the rest of Russia of the chance for economic growth.

Today, to become competitive economically and to achieve sustainable growth, Russia needs to reverse the trend of putting more and more resources and people into Siberia. It needs to move them out, and in so doing it needs to “shrink.” It must contract not its territory (its physical geography), but its economic geography. “Being big” is a serious impediment to development unless distances can be reduced and connections between population centers and markets can increase. Shrinking distance and increasing connections has been the consistent trend in other large countries over the course of their histories. Responding to market forces, the United States, Australia, and Canada, for example, have concentrated and connected their populations within their own vast territories much more than Russia. For the purposes of both economic productivity and good governance, this gives them a distinct advantage over Russia.

Russia’s greatest dilemma today is that it must connect an economy that is both physically vast in size and terribly misdeveloped. This is a costly endeavor, and it is also likely to be inefficient once accomplished if connections are pursued within the framework of Russia’s current economic geography. Reconnecting the Russian economy is not simply a question of refurbishing and upgrading the existing systems of road, rail, and air transportation, or of adding new infrastructure and new means of communications. This would simply improve the connections between towns, cities, and enterprises that should never have been where they are. New infrastructure will, at high cost, have made places more livable where, from an economic point of view, most people should not be living at all. As a result, the Russian government and the population will have forgone alternatives that are better.

Rather than try to “fix” its misdeveloped economy through further investment in Siberia, what Russia needs to do is the opposite. It needs to focus its attention on re-developing the regions that are potentially most productive, those in the western part of the country. A large part of Siberia’s current population needs to move to those areas, which are both warmer and closer to the markets of Europe.

A New Approach to People

Not only does such a strategy of shrinkage run counter to Russia’s imperial and Soviet history of territorial expansion; it also would require abandoning the centuries-old policy of constraining and directing the movement of the Russian people. Even today, although the legal right to move is enshrined in the constitution, Russians are still not free to relocate wherever they would like to live and work. Residence restrictions in cities like Moscow, together with resource constraints, poorly developed job and housing markets, and the absence of social safety nets, obstruct personal mobility. The government needs to remove such overt and hidden barriers so people can move where they want.

While many Russians will welcome the opportunity to move, for others the downsizing of Siberia will be painful. Many people who would like to move are too poor to do so, and the worse the economic situation becomes in the region, the less they are able to move. The Russian Federation is not rich enough to finance a mass relocation, and today few places in Russia can offer new jobs. To the extent that it can, however, the government should help move people, especially younger and more productive people, out of Siberia to European Russia. It should offer housing relocation packages or lump-sum payments or bonuses to help them move. It could, for instance, finance migration through a special fund generated by revenues from Siberian national resource wealth.

The biggest challenge will be dealing with the many residents of Siberia who are too old or too unskilled to find jobs elsewhere. Their assets in the region are worthless and cannot be sold to finance their relocation. For these people, the Russian central and regional governments will have to continue fuel, food, and other subsidies in the coming decades to make life bearable. But the subsidies must be transparent, so that the population elsewhere in Russia, as well as in Siberia, knows who is paying for what and why.

Realistic Strategies for Siberian Development

British geographer Michael Bradshaw has recommended that Russia adopt a “cleaner, leaner approach” to the development of Siberia and the Far East—shifting from labor-intensive methods to labor-saving technologies and industries that can easily shed labor or employ temporary workers. This is exactly the right approach, even if it means renewed emphasis on the region’s extractive and energy industries. They are the only sectors that can rely on (and pay the high wages to attract) outside workers on short-term tours of duty.

Canada offers an appropriate model. Canada’s North is a resource base, but the bulk of the nation’s people are located along the U.S. border, close to markets and in the warmest areas of the country. According to the 2002 Canadian Census, Canada’s northern territories have less than 1 percent of the nation’s total population. Canada’s mining industry -- and northern industry in general -- relies on seasonal labor, with the labor pool shrinking during the coldest winter months and increasing again in summer.

Were Russia to adopt a similar approach, most of its population would live closer to the markets of Europe, also in the warmer areas of the country. Siberian cities would be much smaller than at present. In very remote areas where key natural resources are located, settlements would be outposts (not towns and cities), with small permanent populations and a heavy dependency on seasonal workers for the bulk of production in the summer months.

New Conceptions of Security

Finally, Russia will have to rethink security issues as it contemplates the prospect of “empty lands” in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Despite popular Russian fears, most serious analysts do not foresee a mass influx of migrants from China across Russia’s borders. Still, given that Russia borders countries that may not always remain friendly, its security concerns do need to be addressed. Enhanced technical systems -- for instance, the creation of sensors, new rapid reaction forces, and high-tech weapons -- could replace the deployment and support of large conventional land and sea forces on Far East borders. More important in the long term would be cooperative solutions such as an international treaty with neighbors like China and the United States to guarantee Russia’s territorial integrity and its continued sovereignty over Siberia and the Far East.

Moving Ahead

Market mechanisms alone will not solve the problems that stem from Russia’s distorted economic geography. To re-concentrate its population in the west and correct the misallocations in its economy, Russia will need active, even bold, state policies. Even so, those policies will have to be modest in their expectations. The Stalinist process that put people in Siberia in the first place cannot be reversed wholesale. People will not move en masse, and the goal is not, in any case, to “empty out” this resource-rich region, but to help it move closer to the kinds of economic activity, and thus the population, that might have been expected under market conditions.

One big obstacle to effecting change will be the governors, oligarchs, and others based in Siberia who have vested interests in continued regional subsidies and redevelopment programs. President Putin and other national leaders will have to place themselves above such regional interests. They should send out clear signals that the future of Russia (and, consequently, also of Siberia) depends on a strong, integrated, and connected Russia, which will not be achieved if the government continually pumps resources -- not least, human resources -- out of more productive areas and into Siberia.

Russia needs to achieve, as best it can, a match between its most productive (or potentially most productive) regions and its most productive capital, including people. That involves putting Siberia in its proper context -- which means, in at least one respect, reviving the ancient myth of Siberia’s promise. The wealth of Siberia is not Siberia’s. It is Russia’s. It so happens that much of Russia’s wealth -- and the bulk of its natural resources -- is located in Siberia. But Siberia cannot claim this as its own, as much as the oligarchs and local government officials there may want to.

Russian leaders do not face a choice of developing Siberia or rejecting it and casting it off. As they make it possible for most of Siberia’s people to move elsewhere, they can develop the region’s resources realistically -- reducing its dependency on huge fixed pools of labor and shifting to more technologically intensive methods of extraction and temporary work schemes.

Today, Siberia’s resources are being developed at far too high a price. Enterprises outside the energy sector cannot generate sufficient revenues to pay high wages to attract new labor or to keep the existing labor force. Instead, administrative, nonmarket, mechanisms keep people in place -- heavily subsidized to the detriment of Russia as a whole. Siberia’s resources can contribute to Russia’s future prosperity, and the regional economy can one day be viable, but not if the Russian government persists in trying to maintain the cities and industries that communist planners left for it out in the cold.


(1) Francis Henry Skrine, The Expansion of Russia (Cambridge University Press, 1915), p. 1.

(2) Halford J. Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History, Geographical Journal, vol. 23, no. 4 (April 1904), pp. 421­37.

(3) “Alexander Livshits: Russia may join “the financial seven” within the next two or three years. Advisor to President Yeltsin analyses Putin’s role in the G8 summit,” July 24, 2001, www.strana .ru.

(4) Parshev is also wrong because he ignores that even a cold climate can have a comparative advantage and can therefore benefit from trade with other countries. The tragic irony of Parshev’s final recommendation is that if Russia were to follow his advice to withdraw from the world economy, it would be immeasurably worse off. However, this is not to say that Russia’s comparative advantage lies in its current economic structure—a structure that includes location. The reason Russia is not competitive is precisely that its leaders insist on producing the same things in the same old locations instead of looking for true comparative advantage on a nationwide scale.

(5) The national temperature being considered here is the TPC of the Russian population residing in cities with populations of 10,000 or more. The minus 10 degrees C. benchmark was chosen partly for convenience and partly because it happens to be the mean January temperature of Moscow and generally of the central part of European Russia. Changing the benchmark temperature would alter the results of the exercise. In general, choosing a warmer benchmark gives more weight to a city’s population size than to its temperature in determining its negative contribution to overall TPC.

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Most of the authors whose critiques of "The Siberian Curse" appear in EKO and in translation in PET are from Novosibirsk:

* three associates of the Institute for the Economics and Organization of Industrial Production (Alexeyev, Melnikova, Soboleva);

* the vice president of the Novosibirsk Chamber of Trade and Industry (Voronov); and

* the chief editor of EKO (Kazantsev), who sums up the discussion.

Two authors (Yegorova and Yegorov) are based at the Institute of Economic Problems of the Kola Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences in the mining town of Apatity in Murmansk Province in the far northwest of European Russia. However, these authors respond to Hill and Gaddy not with reference to Siberia or the North as a whole but solely with reference to Murmansk Province. They present calculations that purport to demonstrate:

(a) that the province is economically viable and is likely to remain viable in the foreseeable future; and

(b) that once account is taken of all the expenses of resettling the "excess" population of the province the net savings from doing so are quite modest.

The assessment of economic viability starts from a regional export-import balance for the year 2000 in world prices (where export and import cover both interregional and international flows). This balance is projected into the future by considering both the size of mineral deposits and how the market situation for the various products is likely to evolve. (1)

However, a region may be viable in terms of its export-import balance while at the same time the resources used there have not been allocated to their most effective use from a national perspective. In this sense the authors have not really responded to the book's argument. In addition, their calculations fail to take into account the full cost of the cold, especially the impact on health and other human costs.

Returning to the Novosibirsk critics, one is struck by the fact that they avoid directly confronting the argument that it is economically wasteful and irrational to invest substantial resources in the development of cold and remote regions. Their general attitude is: "So what's new? We know better than you that it's cold, costly, and remote." BUT there follows a whole series of BUTs.

First of all, we are told, it is one-sided to focus exclusively on cold and base policy on a single factor.

* Temperature must always be considered in conjunction with air humidity and wind. Still dry air may minimize the costs of cold (see my article, item 4 below).

* Siberia has very favorable conditions in some other respects. Thus, there is an abundant supply of fresh water and very little danger of earthquakes, not to mention the beauty of the landscape and a freer frontier atmosphere. Tongue in cheek, Kazantsev proposes the urgent relocation to Siberia of the population of seismic risk zones in California.

Similarly, it is one-sided to focus only on Siberia's remoteness from European markets, ignoring the advantages of its proximity to Asian markets.

Second, a number of authors emphasize the strategic and geopolitical dangers of depopulating large areas along the country's periphery. They do not believe, as Hill and Gaddy appear to, that the resulting threats to national security and territorial integrity can be neutralized by means of sensors, rapid reaction forces, high-tech weaponry, and international treaties (p. 210). And geographical contraction is incompatible with Russia's "greatness." The title of Alexeyev's article sums up this "ideology of space" (as Hill and Gaddy call it: "A Great Russia Needs Other Horizons."

A third consideration is that of regional or local loyalties patriotism. (2) "Why should we leave? This is a splendid and rich land, albeit a severe one. It is our homeland. Here lived our forebears, who came here of their own free will" (Soboleva). If this be economically irrational, then so much the worse for economic rationality.

This brings us to a recurrent theme. Hill and Gaddy, say the Novosibirsk critics, view Siberia as a GULAG writ large, a place where people have been forced to go and forced to stay. This view they reject as a gross travesty of the historical record. Yes, Siberia was a place of exile under the tsars and the Soviets. Yes, much of the GULAG was in Siberia. But Russian history is very diverse. Many peasants from European Russia settled in Siberia voluntarily, (3) and even today many Siberians would choose to stay even if they were offered sizeable economic incentives to leave.

The critics do not dispute the claim that Siberian industrial development in the Soviet period (from the late 1920s onward) took highly irrational forms. Indeed, they give further striking examples of this irrationality. (4) However, they do not agree that industrial development in Siberia must inevitably be irrational by virtue of the region's climate and geography. As evidence, they point to the development under market conditions that occurred in Siberia before 1917 (with state support, to be sure) and also to the development of recent years, both of which Hill and Gaddy greatly underestimate. Private capital is now investing money in Siberian industry, Voronov reports. Hill and Gaddy think that Siberian firms survive only thanks to subsidies from the federal government, but such subsidies no longer exist except in the fertile imaginations of American researchers.

A final theme that concerns the Novosibirsk critics is that of who is paying Hill and Gaddy to promote the depopulation of Siberia and for what purpose. Voronov believes that their unknown client is pursuing a long-term strategy to depopulate parts of the world rich in natural resources with a view to bringing those resources under the direct control of US companies. The next candidate for depopulation -- this time on account of excessive heat instead of excessive cold -- will be Saudi Arabia. Voronov says he is not being ironical, or only a bit.


(1) The main exports of the province are electricity, apatite, iron ore, nickel and copper, aluminum, fish, and shipping. Its main imports are uranium (for generating electricity), feinstein (for extracting nickel and copper from ore), alumina (for producing aluminum), fuel, rail freightage, technical equipment, and consumer goods.

(2) See the discussion of "patriots of the North" in the following item.

(3) According to Hill and Gaddy, they did not really go voluntarily because they faced a choice of "go East or perish [from starvation]" ( p. 78).

(4) Thus, Voronov explains, in the 1970s Siberian electricity generating capacity was created far in excess of need. In order to use up more electricity, managers were instructed to defer earthmoving work from summer to winter, when they could use electricity to thaw out the frozen soil.

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SOURCE. John Round, Re-scaling Russia's Geography: the Challenges of Depopulating the Northern Periphery, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 57, No. 5, July 2005, pp. 705-28

Professor Round (University of Leicester) examines the efforts that have been made in the post-Soviet period to depopulate the Far North and the reasons for the limited success of these efforts. His main case study focuses on the city and region of Magadan, the port city on the Sea of Okhotsk in northeastern Siberia that was built under Stalin as an administrative and transit center for the GULAG camps of the Kolyma gold fields. He has interviewed over 100 people in Magadan and Moscow in addition to statistical and archival research.

In the post-Stalin USSR people were encouraged to settle in the Far North both by generous benefits (including provision for prolonged paid rest leave in more hospitable climes) and by heroic-romantic propaganda. Many gave up and left, but those who stayed developed a specific self-image as "patriots of the North." The sense of living in a world apart is still reflected in their use of the word "mainland" [materik] to refer to the rest of the country, as though the Far North were an island.

The population of the North peaked at almost 13 million in 1990. Since then deteriorating conditions have led to a decline to about half this level. This trend is in line with government policy: post-Soviet governments have considered the North overpopulated from the point of view of economic efficiency and have advocated replacing settled communities by workforces operating mines and factories on a shift basis (without families). Indeed, the government finds it a problem that the population decline has not been even greater and that so many people want to stay.

Magadan Province provides a good illustration of the rise and subsequent fall of population throughout almost all the Russian North. (1) From a pre-GULAG starting point of 7,000 in 1926, its population reached 152,000 in 1939, passed the quarter million mark in 1970, and peaked at almost 400,000 in 1989. In 2002 the figure was down to 183,000 (a decline of 53 percent).

Moreover, the number of settlements in the province also fell by about half -- from 161 in 1989 to 82 in 2000. This was the result of a deliberate policy of evacuating the smallest and most remote settlements and concentrating the remaining population as far as possible in the provincial center. It appears that at first force was used to remove recalcitrant villagers. Later the provincial government switched to indirect methods, offering inducements to move (above all, the offer of apartments in Magadan City left vacant by migrants from the region) and cutting off services to those who refuse to move.

In 1998 the federal government turned to the World Bank for assistance in developing and financing a scheme to facilitate the depopulation of the North. The Assisted Migration Scheme (2) has been tried out in three regions: Vorkuta, Norilsk, and a settlement in Magadan Province by the name of Susuman. The pilot scheme provided migration support to 27,500 people, each of whom was to receive a housing voucher worth about $3,000 (enough to buy housing in a small town but not in a major city) as well as free transportation. However, the take-up rate proved lower than expected and there were many dropouts prior to departure.

Why then are so many people loath to bid the Arctic cold farewell?

* They feel pride in their region as "patriots of the North."

* They believe that in the North people are kinder and more courteous than elsewhere. (This belief has some basis. People are willing to share their winter stock of potato and cabbage with neighbors who have run out of food or had it stolen.)

* They believe that the cold climate is good for the health and slows down the development of disease. (This belief is not well founded.)

* They value certain practical benefits of living in the North. Wages, even if low, are at least paid on time. Housing is cheap and plentiful and employment is fairly secure. Private plots are within easy walking distance.

* It is often assumed that old people in the North would want to join their children on the "mainland." However, due to the high cost of telephone and postage many are no longer in close touch with their children. In addition, the children's families often live in crowded conditions. They don't want to be a burden on them.

* They know that if they leave it will be never to return. They don't want to abandon the graves of their relatives.

* They know from experience that they can survive in Magadan. They do not know whether they could survive somewhere else. Indeed, one interviewee said: "I know that I would die if I left the region."


(1) Exceptionally, the Khanty-Mansi and Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Districts have shown continuing population increases (of 12 and 2 percent respectively between 1989 and 2002) in connection with oil and gas development.

(2) Originally called the Northern Restructuring Project. $80m was allocated by the World Bank in June 2001.

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In my own response to the book I would like to concentrate on the authors' mathematics. (1) It seems to me that their calculations, while adequate to illustrate a general point, are too simple to bear the weight of the unequivocal conclusions that they draw from them. I would also like to comment on the deficiencies of the book as an attempt to communicate with a Russian audience.

The main point of contention -- southwest Siberia

The authors' recommendations -- to reduce to a minimum the permanent population of the coldest and most remote regions, to restrict industry there to extractive operations (mining), and to man those operations on a "tour of duty" basis -- are not especially controversial WITH REGARD TO THE FAR NORTH. In any case, as the EKO critics point out, the population of the Far North is falling as people leave and "tour of duty" manning is already in wide use. Argument concerns mainly how fast and how far depopulation should go.

But Hill and Gaddy do not confine their recommendations to the Far North. They extend them to THE WHOLE OF SIBERIA. In particular, they extend them to the relatively mild southwest where several of Siberia's largest cities are located, including the regional capital Novosibirsk (pop. about 1.5 million, making it the third largest city in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg) and Omsk (also well over the million mark). For example, they regret the fact that many of the people who leave northern Siberia go to southern Siberia and not to central European Russia, the only destination of which they really approve. It is this that arouses the astonishment, indignation, ridicule, and distrust of the EKO reviewers.

Critique of the TPC concept

The authors' "verdict" against Novosibirsk and Omsk as "the worst offenders" bearing the greatest responsibility for Russia's coldness (p. 39) is based on a mathematical analysis using a concept that they rather confusingly call "temperature per capita" or TPC (pp. 35-40). To obtain the TPC of a country you divide it into regions, multiply the mean January temperature of each region by its population to give a product in "person-degrees," sum the products, and divide by the total population of the country.

A better term for the result might be "population-weighted spatial mean January temperature." Per capita" refers to the sum of temperature-population products, or "warmth" in a special sense: that is, the amount of warmth depends not only on how warm it is in a place but also on how many people are around to feel it. In this sense we might speak of "warmth per capita." "Temperature per capita" is a piece of gibberish because temperature is a level, not a measure of the amount of any substance that you can imagine dividing up among the members of a population (as with GDP per capita).

When it comes to Russia, Hill and Gaddy are concerned not with "warmth" but with "coldness" (in the same special sense). This entails replacing temperature by its inverse, the number of degrees C below some benchmark level. They choose minus 10 degrees C as benchmark, "partly for convenience and partly because it happens to be the mean January temperature of Moscow and generally of the central part of European Russia" (p. 39fn). Table 3-3 displays how the total "coldness" for all Russian cities with populations of 10,000 or more is divided up among 20 cities: 15 in Siberia and the Far East, plus 4 in the Urals and one in the Volga valley for comparison.

Top of the list is Novosibirsk, accounting for 5.2 percent of Russia's coldness. Next comes Omsk with 4.3 percent. By contrast, Yakutsk and Norilsk in the Siberian North take 6th and 10th place respectively. Despite the fact that their mean January temperatures are much lower (minus 43 and minus 35 degrees C as against minus 19 in Novosibirsk and Omsk), due to their much smaller populations (196,000 and 235,000) they account for only 2.7 and 2.4 percent of Russia's coldness. And the main argument of the book, with its far-reaching policy recommendations, rests on this one calculation. How reliable is it? There are several problems.

Problem #1. Choice of benchmark temperature

The authors themselves admit (albeit only in a footnote) that choosing a different benchmark temperature would have given a different result. The higher the benchmark, the more impact population has on the result; the lower the benchmark, the greater the impact of temperature. Thus choosing minus 15 instead of minus 10 degrees C would have considerably "mitigated the verdict" against Novosibirsk, thereby justifying a milder "sentence," while choosing minus 5 would have had the opposite effect. As Hill and Gaddy also admit that their choice of benchmark is somewhat arbitrary ("partly for convenience"), this would seem to merit a more careful examination both of the criteria for choosing a benchmark and of the sensitivity of results to that choice.

Problem #2. Why only January temperatures?

Also rather arbitrary is the exclusive focus on mean January temperatures. As several EKO critics remark, in recent years southwestern Siberia has enjoyed remarkably hot summers (up to 30-40 degrees C), enabling many gardeners to grow roses, melons, grapes, and apricots. (2) To some extent the benefits of warm summers must compensate for the costs of cold winters. But even if we consider winter weather only, what is the rationale for using mean temperatures for January rather than mean temperatures for the whole winter, and what difference would it make?

Problem #3. What about humidity and wind?

Another point made by critics is that in assessing the effect of atmospheric conditions temperature should always be considered in conjunction with humidity and wind. (3) In Novosibirsk the winter air is usually still and dry, and under these conditions minus 20 does not cause people the same discomfort that it does in Moscow. The dryness and stillness of the air also keep down heating costs because dry still air is "an excellent natural thermal insulator" (Voronov).

Problem #4. The nonlinear cold-cost function

The authors recognize that the relationship between levels of cold and the costs they impose is nonlinear. That is, each successive degree that the temperature drops imposes a greater cost. "A drop in temperature from minus 25 to minus 30 has an effect on human and machine efficiency that is several times worse than one from minus 10 to minus 15" (p. 48). The curves that demonstrate this point look almost exponential (Fig. 3-5, p. 43).

Table 3-6 (p. 49) sets out the effects of different temperatures on standard Soviet machinery. When we get down to minus 35 and below, there is a qualitative shift from specific costs, problems, and failures to what Hill and Geddy call "seismic" (earthquake-like) effects: disastrous discrete events such as steel structures "shattering" or "rupturing on a mass scale."

An analogous point can be made about the nonlinear relationship between cold level and the effect on human beings. A drop of 10 degrees from a moderately cold starting point may cause considerable discomfort, but the same drop from a lower starting point may be a matter of life and death.

However, while the authors are fully aware of the nonlinearity of the cold-cost function, it has no impact on the calculation of the geographical distribution of "coldness" that underlies their key policy recommendations. (4) However, "coldness" and "TPC" are devised as "economically relevant" measures of cold, and the economically most relevant measure of cold is its cost. In effect, "coldness" functions as a proxy for "cost of the cold" and "TPC" as a proxy for "cost of the cold per capita." But as the relationship between cold and cost is highly nonlinear, they are very poor proxies.

In particular, as we have seen, Hill and Gaddy draw far-reaching conclusions from the finding that Novosibirsk and Omsk in Southern Siberia account for a greater proportion of Russia's coldness than do Yakutsk and Norilsk in the Far North. On the basis of some very rough estimates I have made using the authors' own cost data, I am pretty sure that this ordering is reversed when we look at cost of coldness. In other words, it is the smaller cities in the regions of extreme cold that account for the greater proportion of the total cost of coldness in Russia.

In their "Outline for Further Research" (Appendix D, pp. 224-6) the authors still talk about "calculating the cost of cold to the Russian economy for one degree's change in TPC." So it appears that they have no plans to take nonlinearity properly into account even in their future work.

What about global warming?

A final problem with the authors' approach is their implicit assumption that apart from random year-to-year fluctuations climate does not change over time. This enables them to rely on temperature data from the twentieth century (30-year averages for the period 1961--1990) to analyze the situation facing Russia in the twenty-first. In Appendix B they discuss the selection of temperature data but without reference to the issue of climate change. A couple of passing references indicate that they have heard of global warming (GW), but apparently they do not regard it as a factor that need be taken into account. (5)

For more than one of the EKO critics, on the other hand, GW is the clinching riposte to "The Siberian Curse." It explains the hot summers that southwest Siberia has enjoyed in recent years. According to Soboleva, it will be Siberia's salvation:

"Siberia, unlike other territories of the world, stands only to gain from global warming, the regional consequences of which are already clearly felt. The permafrost zone will retreat significantly to the north, areas suitable for agriculture will expand considerably, and crop yields will rise. Over the last few years, despite the general decline of Russian agriculture, harvests in Southern Siberia have been very good, in some cases setting historical records. Numerous amateur gardeners are growing on their dacha plots roses, grapes, apricots, watermelons, muskmelons, and other warmth-loving crops of good quality."

How much difference would it have made to the authors' results had they taken GW into proper consideration? This requires in-depth analysis, but there is reason to think that the difference would have been significant.

Western Siberia has experienced arise of 3 degrees C in the 40 years since 1965. (6) The midpoint of the time interval to which the authors' data pertain is 1975. Therefore the mean January temperatures that they give for various cities are at least 2 degrees on the low side. (7)

However, GW is accelerating rapidly. (In part this is a result of processes underway in Siberia itself: in particular, the permafrost is melting over vast areas to expose peat bogs, leading to the release of an estimated 70 billion tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.) We are talking about a long-term development strategy for Russia, so mid-century (2050) seems a reasonable point of reference. In this perspective, the authors' temperatures are too low by a margin of 5--10 degrees C. This means that within another generation or two parts of Siberia may be as warm (or as cold, if you prefer) as central European Russia is today. (8)

A failure of communication

Nevertheless, "The Siberian Curse" does have an important message to deliver. It is clear that the EKO reviewers are not aware of the full scale of the costs that they and their fellow Siberians and northerners are paying for the cold. Hill and Gaddy present an impressive array of information on this subject, much of it based on Canadian, Alaskan, and Scandinavian experience.

The most effective approach to influencing Russian readers would have been simply to bring home to them the daunting reality of the full "cost of the cold" and then leave it up to them as citizens of Russia to consider what the implications might be for government policy.

Making policy recommendations for foreign governments is a gratuitous insult to national pride. And given the content of the recommendations the insult is especially galling to the regional pride of Siberians. Their natural reaction is to claim that they already know all about the cost of cold and have nothing to learn from a couple of American researchers with a mere smattering of knowledge of their native region. Then they are free to proceed to more interesting speculations concerning who paid those researchers to mount this anti-Russian, anti-Siberian, and anti-Novosibirsk provocation and for what sinister purpose.

Stephen D. Shenfield


(1) My own training was originally in mathematics and statistics.

(2) Yu. P. Voronov, vice president of the Novosibirsk Chamber of Trade and Industry, reports that journalists from the Novosibirsk newspaper "Sibirskaya stolitsa" (Siberian Capital) tried to get "The Siberian Curse" discussed at a conference of mayors being held in the city in May 2004. They failed because the conference had to be cut short due to the "unbearable" heat (36 degrees C in the shade).

(3) The authors do discuss the impact of wind when discussing the cost of cold (p. 43), but it is not taken into account in their calculations of "coldness."

(4) The fact that the summary of the book makes no mention of the cold-cost function is consistent with my view that it plays no essential role in the authors' main argument.

(5) I would like to know why. Because climate change is "not their field"? Because it would mess up their model and make their task more complicated? Because the current US Administration is reluctant to address the issue? Or because they really don't believe that GW exists?

(6) Sergei Kirpotin (Tomsk State U) and Judith Marquand (Oxford U) in New Scientist, Aug. 12-18, 2005.

(7) Some of the recent sources I have looked at (e.g., a website maintained by researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland) give minus 17 rather than minus 19 as mean January temperature in Novosibirsk and Omsk, but I have not made a thorough check of their reliability.

(8) The pattern is likely to be rather complicated because the impact of GW varies greatly from one part of Siberia to another: see following piece.

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The general tendency to global warming conceals wide spatial and seasonal variation.

The average surface temperature of the earth has risen by 0.6 degrees Centigrade over the course of the 20th century, that is, by 0.06 degrees per decade, with the rate rising over recent decades to 0.2 degrees per decade. However, warming has been much faster in Russia than (say) in the tropics. For example, the year-average temperature in eastern Siberia and the Amur and Maritime regions has risen by 3.5 degrees over the last century (0.35 degrees per decade). In the Arctic average temperatures have increased by up to 5 degrees (0.5 degrees per decade).

M. V. Kabanov (Institute of Optic Monitoring of the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Tomsk) has identified eight zones in Siberia that are marked by unusually rapid warming -- up to 0.5 degrees per decade. (1) One of these zones is in western Siberia (around Surgut). The others are in eastern Siberia and include Verkhoyansk, the "pole of cold" -- reputedly the coldest place on earth.

The seasonal factor must also be taken into account. There are many areas in which warming has affected only winter temperatures, with summer temperatures stable or even declining. For instance, the average summer temperature in Krasnoyarsk fell by 0.4 degrees between 1940 and 1990. In some places one finds the opposite pattern. Thus the average winter temperature in Kiev likewise fell by 0.4 degrees over the period 1900--1990.

G.S. Vysotskaya and her colleagues have studied trends in the "degree of continentality" [kontinental'nost'] of the climate in Russia over the 20th century -- that is, the difference between average summer and average winter temperatures, a large difference being characteristic of a "continental" climate. (2) They show that the climate of most of Siberia has become less continental: winters have been growing milder more rapidly than summers have been growing warmer. In the far northeast, however, we see the opposite trend -- a widening of the seasonal gap over the period 1950--2000. In the 1980s and 1990s this latter trend spread to almost the whole of European Russia. (3)

Researchers for the World Wildlife Fund have analyzed climate change in three of Russia's Arctic regions: the Chukotka peninsula in the far northeast, the Taimyr peninsula in the Siberian far north, and the Kola peninsula in northwestern Russia. (4)

The first study confirms the finding of a widening seasonal gap in the far northeast. The average July temperature in Chukotka has risen, but the average January temperature has FALLEN significantly. (5) In general, the impact of global warming in this part of the Arctic is relatively weak. Thus the ice on the East Siberian Sea lost 0.13 meters in thickness over the period 1970-92, as compared with 1.3 meters in the central and Atlantic parts of the Arctic over the period 1958-98 -- a very clear contrast even after correcting for the difference in length of reference period. As yet there are few clear signs of retreat of glaciers in Chukotka.

Taimyr demonstrates the opposite pattern typical of central and western Siberia. Here average July temperatures have fallen by 1 degree over the past 50 years, while average January temperatures have risen by 1.5--2.0 degrees. Glaciers are shrinking, albeit slowly. However, there is huge variation between localities. In particular, there is a "climatic anomaly" in the southeast of Taimyr. Here average January temperatures have risen by 10 degrees over the last half-century! No one seems to understand why.

The climatic situation on the Kola peninsula is even more complicated. The confluence between the Barents Sea to the west, warmed by the tail end of the Gulf Stream, and the much colder White Sea to the east makes for instability and unpredictability. Big shifts in temperature occur not only from year to year and from season to season but even from week to week. The long-term trend in this area is also changeable. Warming at the start of the 20th century gave way to sharp cooling at the end of the 1930s; a new period of warming began in the late 1980s.

Paradoxically, the main danger that global warming poses to northwestern Russia, as to the rest of Europe's northwestern periphery and the North Atlantic region as a whole, is that it will lead to a regional freeze. As polar ice melts and the flow of fresh water in the great Siberian rivers expands, Arctic waters grow less and less saline, weakening the "heat pump" of the North Atlantic Oscillation that draws warm water north from the Central American region in the Gulf Stream. There is some evidence that the Gulf Stream is already weakening. At some point -- perhaps as a result of the Greenland ice sheet slipping into the sea -- the Gulf Stream may disappear completely, triggering a new Ice Age throughout the North Atlantic region. (6) Southwest Siberia might be a very good place to be when this happens!


(1) "Contemporary natural-climatic changes in Siberia," pp. 234-41 in Osnovnye zakonomernosti global'nykh i regional'nukh izmenenii klimata i prirodnoi sredy v pozdnem kainozoe Sibiri, Vyp. 1 (Novosibirsk: Izd-vo Instituta arkheologii i etnografii SO RAN, 2002)

(2) G.S. Vysotskaya, A. I. Dmitriev and L. F. Nozhenkova (Institute of Computer Modeling of Siberian Division of Russian Academy of Sciences, Krasnoyarsk) and V. V. Shishov (Sukachev Institute of Forestry of Siberian Division of Russian Academy of Sciences, Krasnoyarsk) , Spatial Distribution of Trends of Climatic Parameters (20th Century), ibid., pp. 83-6

(3) The authors caution that this may be a temporary phenomenon.

(4), /92, and /54 respectively (Moscow, 2002, 2003, 2003)

(5) Temperature time series for the region are available only from about 1950 and year-to-year fluctuations are very large, so it is difficult to obtain statistically significant results.

(6) See, e.g.,

Shouldn't I preface such predictions with: "If timely and effective action is not taken to bring global warming under control, ..."? Well, I don't do so because:

* there is a continual accumulation of new evidence demonstrating that GW is already far advanced;

* GW has enormous inertia and would only gradually lose momentum even in the event of drastic concerted action by the world community; and

* the likelihood of such drastic concerted action in the foreseeable future seems very low.

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After my grandmother's death in the mid-1970s we discovered letters she had received from her cousin Berta in Russia, of whose existence we had been quite unaware. Out of curiosity my parents and I set off for Moscow to meet Berta, her husband, and her two sons. It was my first visit to the USSR.

From each relative I learned a little about some aspect of Soviet society, but it was Yakov Isayevich, Berta's current husband, who made the most striking impression.

Yakov Isayevich was a sprightly and genial old fellow. He was also a retired Chekist. Before long he brought out his treasured momentos to show us. A group photo of his graduating class from the secret police academy. A certificate of commendation for "merciless service." I looked at that word "merciless" and slowly digested the fact that it signified high praise while Yakov Isayevich talked about the special clinic for Old Bolsheviks to which he had access.

I recall asking Yakov Isayevich whether he had ever been to Magadan. (See item 5 above.)It was not he but Berta who replied, with a chuckle:

"Magadan? No! He only sent other people there!"

So--an interrogator under Stalin. A torturer.

Perhaps Yakov Isayevich sensed my discomfort, because he added: "We were fighting counterrevolution." By way of explanation, as it were. Then he stood up, took my arm, and walked me over to the window. He wanted to point something out to me.

I looked at the scene beyond the window. Suddenly I had the thought of walking out. Then I reflected that I had no idea whatsoever of where I was in this large and strange city and the thought faded.

What was it that Yakov Isayevich was trying to draw to my attention? I looked down in the direction he was pointing and saw a group of school buildings across the road from the apartment block. Children were playing in the schoolyard. I thought to myself that it looked very much like the school I was used to seeing from the window of my other grandmother's apartment in London, in the working class area near Finsbury Park.

In my limited Russian, I tried to make my point. That in order to build schools and hospitals it isn't absolutely necessary to torment and murder millions of innocent people.

Afterward I felt guilty that I hadn't been rude to Yakov Isayevich, that I had even shaken his hand on parting. But, after all, I was his guest. And what purpose would have been served by making a scene and embarrassing my parents? That too would have made me feel guilty, albeit on a less world-historical scale.

But I did draw one conclusion. Never again, if I wanted to avoid the rankest hypocrisy, could I refuse to shake anyone's hand, whatever atrocities he may have committed.

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Special Issue No. 31. October 2005. Siberia: Curse or Blessing?

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