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Siberia: Russia’s Neglected Heartland

A wiser Russian leadership could transform Siberia from a region known for penal colonies and poverty into one of prosperity and connectivity.

· 9 min read
An indigenous man, a reindeer herder in a fur coat, herds reindeer. Everything is dusted in snow.
Dolgan reindeer herder, northern Siberia (Yakutia). Unsplash.

The events of 12 March brought a new twist to the Russia-Ukraine war. Pro-Ukrainian forces turned Russia’s invasion on its head by crossing 100 km into Russia with tanks and armoured vehicles and raiding the Kursk and Belgorod regions. However, these pro-Ukrainian forces were not composed of Ukrainians, but Russians—specifically, three anti-Putin Russian paramilitary groups: the Freedom of Russia Legion, the Russian Volunteer Corps, and the Siberian (or Sibir) Battalion.

Soldiers in the Siberian Battalion crossed some 8,000 km and six time zones to reach the battleground. They came from Russia’s ethnic minority regions, like Yakutia, whose largest metropolis, Yakutsk, is the coldest major city in the world, and Buryatia, which borders Mongolia and shares its nomadic culture. Vladimir Putin has drafted most of his soldiers from such ethnic minority groups, who make up 28 percent of Russia’s population, including many from Siberia. The BBC has reported that six of the ten Russian regions with the highest mortality rates in the war are in Siberia. But many in these regions understand that the war is predicated on lies. The elderly remember the gulag labour camps situated in their indigenous territories, where innocent people were once imprisoned, tortured, and killed. So the Siberian Battalion formed to fight for a better Russia, undermine Putin, and break away from Russian rule or, at least, achieve greater autonomy. From Siberia, they travelled to the other end of Russia to defend Ukraine.

Siberia comprises all of Russia’s territory east of the Ural Mountains, which is 77 percent of the largest country on Earth. Most of its population is clustered in the relatively-warmer south, along the Trans-Siberian and other railways. In GDP per capita, the 20 administrative regions spanning this southern stretch rank among the lowest in Russia. But Siberia could be far more prosperous than it is. It contains immense coniferous forests, fisheries, fossil fuels, and minerals like diamonds and gold. The late US senator John McCain called Russia “a gas station masquerading as a country,” and Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and natural gas, which have contributed 30–50 percent of annual government revenue over the past decade. (Amid Western sanctions, half of Russia’s fossil fuel exports now go to China, and the fastest way to destroy Russia’s economy may be to shut down its Siberian transport routes to China with drone strikes, as Ukraine increasingly tried to do over the past year.) The vast eastern end of Siberia, known as the Russian Far East, makes up over a third of Russia yet is home to only 8 million people, less than 6 percent of Russia’s population. The region’s potential for growth in manufacturing, trade, and tourism is enormous. The Russian Far East has a long Pacific Ocean coastline and has much in common geographically with New England, Canada, and the Nordic countries. It has stunning mountains and volcanoes, fjords, lakes, reindeer, Siberian tigers, and snow leopards. The port of Vladivostok, the largest city on Russia’s Pacific coast, is located across the Sea of Japan from Japan and South Korea, two of the most productive, high-tech countries in the world. Imagine how different Russia’s future would be if the Siberian Battalion, and the over 300,000 Russian soldiers killed or injured thus far in the war, had instead been deployed to turn the Pacific coast of Siberia into a high-tech growth region, connecting Russia with its prosperous East Asian neighbours.

Most of Siberia’s territory was conquered by Russia during the 17th century. But even at the end of the tsarist era in 1917, very little of Siberia’s interior had been mapped, and even less had been settled. But it was under the tsars that the trend began of using Siberia as a site for penal colonies and natural resource extraction. The Soviet Union took this to extremes. Stalin vastly expanded the gulag labour camp system in 1929, using the prison camps as a tool for colonising and extracting resources from the most remote, unknown reaches of Russia.

The gulags made Siberia notorious as a place where truth collides with the lies of Russian politics. Most of the estimated 14–25 million people who worked in gulag camps were convicted on false or inflated charges. Some 10–15 percent were women, arrested mostly for the alleged crimes of their husbands or fathers. About 15 percent of gulag prisoners died from some combination of the harsh climate, backbreaking labour, and torture. Their deaths were explained away as a necessary purging of “class enemies” in the progress toward a communist utopia—even as the Soviet agricultural collectivisation system led to famines that killed over 5 million in 1931–34 and another million in 1946–47.

Those who were eventually released from the gulags struggled to reintegrate into society. They faced formal discrimination and informal prejudices against former prisoners, which were encouraged by Soviet propaganda. But because of their direct personal experience of the suffering caused by lies, former prisoners were among those most aware of the value of truth. For example, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years in gulag prison camps in Kazakhstan, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the whole world. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future.

Alexei Navalny wrestled with the question of how to utter the truth in a society shaped by lies for most of his adult life. A lawyer and finance expert, Navalny began blogging about the extent of Russian state fraud and corruption in 2008, at the age of 32. He founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011, and he posted and analysed documents that led to the cancellation of millions of dollars in state contracts. Navalny published pictures and YouTube videos showing how oil and gas revenue helped pay for lavish estates and yachts owned by the Kremlin’s inner circle, calling Putin’s United Russia Party “the party of crooks and thieves.” He exposed deals in which Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned natural gas giant, and VTB, the country’s second-largest bank, made hundreds of millions of dollars off kickbacks and phony expenditures. “Everyone says corruption is everywhere,” said Navalny, “but for me it seems strange to say that and then not try to put the people guilty of that corruption away.” He showed how Putin’s plutocracy has plundered the natural riches of Siberia, which rightfully belong to the Russian people.

Navalny surprised the Kremlin by finishing second in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election. He was supported by an army of younger voters and volunteers, which he mobilised through social media. But he was banned from running for president in 2018, when he led the Russia of the Future Party. In 2020, he was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent, but he recovered in Germany—only to be sentenced to prison in 2021 and 2022 after sham trials on trumped-up charges of “extremism.” His incarceration led to massive protests in Russian cities.

Last December, Navalny was transferred to a harsh penal colony known as Polar Wolf in the Siberian town of Kharp, north of the Arctic Circle. He died there in February at the age of 47. Average February temperatures in Kharp are -20°C, and Navalny had spent some 27 days in a solitary confinement cell with only a small radiator for heat. His body was returned to Moscow, where thousands of mourners attended his funeral, despite a heavy police presence. One commentator said that, “For every person who is on the street showing their face, there are probably 100 or 1,000 more back home who are scared but still outraged.” Navalny showed that it was possible, in Solzhenitsyn’s words, “not to take part in the lie.”

Alexei Navalny 1976–2024
The life and death of a complex and courageous dissident.

Many more “scared but still outraged” Russians watched Navalny’s funeral from abroad. They were part of a mass exodus of around one million Russians and 6.5 million Ukrainian refugees who have fanned out across the globe since the Russia-Ukraine war began in February 2022. Most went to Europe, especially Germany, while a smaller but significant number have gone to places like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and former Soviet republics like Armenia and Georgia. Indigenous Siberians from Buryatia and Yakutia have crossed the border into Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Many other Russians went to the Americas, especially the US, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil.

Unlike Ukrainian emigrants, who are often women and children, most Russian emigrants are educated young males. They are often digital nomads who had the money and mobility to relocate. They easily navigate the online world of Airbnb, Uber, Fiverr, Upwork, LinkedIn, and co-working spaces, which allows them to continue working almost as normal. Some US tech companies have required their Russian employees to leave Russia, often helping them move to places like Yerevan, Armenia, where cafés and luxury apartments are now bursting with Russian digital nomads. Russian technology trade group RAEK reported that up to 70,000 tech workers fled Russia in the first month of the war alone. Such knowledge industry workers could have helped create jobs in Siberia and connect it to the rest of the world. Instead, the war-induced brain drain robbed Russia of many of the minds who had been building its budding tech sector, and the exodus is likely to continue for the next decade.

Some Russian emigrants are also refugees. These include journalists, diplomats, soldiers, artists, musicians, activists, and regular citizens who fled criminal prosecution and imprisonment after they spoke out against the war. An article by the Centre for Eastern Studies estimates that there are some 10,000–15,000 political émigrés from Russia. It envisions them forming “a relocated Russian public sphere—a space of free debate and democratic communication referring to common interests, the exchange of ideas, and working towards solutions to socio-political problems—that could constitute a ‘mini-laboratory’ of democratic patterns for a future Russia.”

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The fact that educated and enterprising Russians have to emigrate to discuss solutions to Russia’s problems is just one example of how Putin has completely reversed the refreshing openness and transparency that emerged under Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy in the 1980s. Putin has squandered the potential of post-communist Russia, and nowhere illustrates this better than Siberia. Vladivostok is a few hours’ flight from Tokyo and Seoul. It could be a Pacific Rim international business hub and attract tourists and digital nomads seeking refuge from East Asia’s congestion and high cost of living, much as Latin American countries are attracting hundreds of thousands of Americans. But instead of strengthening connections with Japan and South Korea, in June Putin signed a mutual defence pact with North Korea, whose estimated GDP per capita ranks 180th out of 191 countries. In 2016, Putin launched the Far East Hectare program, giving one hectare (2.5 acres) of free land in the Russian Far East to any citizen willing to live there for five years. While 220 million hectares were made available, only around 100,000 Russians have taken up the offer. By contrast, some estimates say 300,000 Chinese have migrated across the border and are now living in Siberia, working in agriculture and industry. Chinese citizens now own or lease 350,000 hectares of land in the Russian Far East. Perhaps the Chinese understand Siberia’s value more than the Kremlin does.

Some argue that Siberia is too cold and remote to be prosperous. But by that logic, North Dakota would not currently lead the US in real GDP growth, nor would Canada’s GDP growth leaders be Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. To be sure, in a post-war Russia, developing Siberia would take at least a decade. Much of its infrastructure was built in the Soviet era and needs repair or replacement. But neighbouring Japan and China are world leaders in building and funding infrastructure overseas, and a more open and diplomatic Russian government could easily attract foreign investment. With the distance-defying power of air travel and the internet, the potential remains for a wiser, more visionary Russian leadership in the future to transform Siberia from a region known for penal colonies and poverty into one of prosperity and connectivity, fulfilling the promise of its rich landscapes and diverse, resilient people.

Robert C. Thornett

Robert C. Thornett has taught in seven countries and has written in The Diplomat, The American Mind, American Affairs, Education Next, Modern Diplomacy, Earth Island Journal, and Yale Environment 360.

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