My vast Siberian motherland is dying


Southern Siberia is dying: farms are failing, the forests have been felled, and the people are leaving – a vast area has been failed by its government.


Natalya Yakovleva
29 January 2015

Vast is my Motherland,

With many forests, fields, and rivers!
Soviet song (1936)

The Siberian town of Kalachinsk is, to all intents and purposes, a suburb of Omsk, a city of a million people. Lying 100 km to the north of Omsk, Kalachinsk may not be very big (it has some 30,000 inhabitants), but the town seems prosperous. Smoke rises from the chimney at the meat processing plant, scaffolding frames the cathedral under construction, and a new three-storey shopping mall gleams in the sun.

But only 20 minutes away the picture is very different. The wheels of my car wince as they break through the snow: the track to the village of Kiber-Spasskoe is blocked by snowdrifts. At one time, Kiber-Spasskoe was home to one of the biggest collective farms in the region. Now, its gloomy grey houses with their broken windows, peeling facades, and drunkenly slanting roofs bear little resemblance to homes. There are no children playing in the snow, old ladies no longer sit on the benches, and you can’t even hear the sound of dogs barking.

The near wilderness

Yet people still live in Kiber-Spasskoe. There used to be 600 residents, now there are 150. Five years ago, the school was closed down and the bus service withdrawn; only the school bus remains. Kiber-Spasskoe’s only two-storey building used to house a social club, a modest health centre, and library. There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030. Instead, last autumn, the district administration sold the building to a businessman from a neighbouring district for a risible 347,000 roubles (£3,500). The businessman, however, has no need of such ‘assets’ and intends to sell the building off wholesale – beams, boilers, pipes, and tiles. The people of Kiber-Spasskoe lined up to form a human shield around the former school; and their appeals to various departments did eventually bear fruit: district head Friedrich Metzler promised to tear up the deal. Though neither the club, nor the health centre nor the library – nor, of course, the school – are functioning.

There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030

 ‘For a long time the government hasn't given us a thought. They wrote us off,’ Nikolai Avdonin, Kiber-Spasskoe's chief advocate explains to me. ‘When I took on the farm in 1975, everyone was sent to live and work here. We were told it would be paradise, and gingerbread would rain down on us out of the sky. I had been at agricultural college in Kalachinsk, and was offered a place in an engineering works looking after agricultural equipment, but the first secretary of the city council summoned me and said, “Off you go, Nikolai, you take on the new farm and get it up to scratch.” So that's what I did. But what for? My wife is ill, you can't get to the doctor because taxis are expensive for pensioners. It's 700 roubles [£7] there and back, almost one tenth of our pension. I'm keeping the farm going, though looking after the cows and the pigs is hard now. But I still care for the geese. We used to have to fetch water, now there are two wells for the whole village – no thanks to the government .. It was the Communists that built them.’

‘Houses are empty, many of them are falling down, pillaged for wood for repairs. Whole families are leaving, simply abandoning their homes – who would they sell them to? There are only three children left in the village. Parents take their children all the way to the main road to catch the school bus, in minus 30.’

‘There hasn't been a health worker for ages, so people die from all sorts of things There are six families here. We’re not the problem, we’re old, but what are they supposed to do if they fall ill? They've been told they should get themselves to the hospital in Kalachinsk – as if they have their own car. So you go if you can. If you can't, you either get better – or die.’

Broken promises

The former governor of the Omsk region, Leonid Pozhelayev, often stated that if a school closes, the village will disappear. Pozhelayev was right, but that hasn’t prevented his administration from closing more than 300 schools over the past five years. The new governor, Viktor Nazarov, promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise.

In the Kalachinsk district, all the primary schools have been closed. So children now have to get up at five or six in the morning to catch the bus to the next village, on terrible roads – through rain, snow, and black ice. The children get back just after three in the afternoon, and whoever has the least homework waits for the others before walking home together. They can't join any after-school activities because adapting the timetable to each and every one would be impossible.

The new governor promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise.

‘Closed-down schools, abandoned homes, skeleton farms, that’s what Siberian villages are now,’ says Alevtina Kabakova, a distinguished teacher and first secretary of the district Communist Party branch.

‘There are 14 villages in the district, all dying. And that’s not counting the villages that have died already. No work, no schools. The young are fleeing. The regional government never sets foot beyond the district centres, and has no desire to see real life, preferring to concentrate on the fancy life they lead. If they did come, they would see for themselves that there’s no agriculture. The Kalachinsk meat processing plant imports from China rather than using local produce. The harvest last year was not brought in, so it got covered by snow. Why? Because there’s only pensioners here, and they can’t do the work.’

Few signs of life

One exception in this picture of deterioration is the Tatar village of Great Tebendya. There is a real community here – the village has just built 30 new houses. But the men work rotation shifts in Tyumen and Khanti-Mansiisk – anywhere where there is oil.

‘Most of the men in the Muromtsevsky district [in the east of the Omsk region] go to the Far North to work, as do virtually all men who live outside the district centre,’ says Aleksandr Rakhno, a deputy in the Muromtsevsky district council and chair of the district social affairs committee. ‘I don’t know how they could live any other way. They have no rights at all – no sick leave, no holidays – but people need some kind of salary, even if it isn’t much. In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district. We may have lots of land, but there’s no work; there are forests, but there are almost no big animals left because for years officials have come from all over the region to hunt here. It would be okay if these people looked after the forests, but they simply plunder them, and completely legally. There’s so little forest left that any increased felling will mean that in ten years the district will be stripped bare. There are no social programmes. Yet the authorities pay themselves shameful amounts of money, and are constantly increasing their own salaries. The bureaucracy just expands, taking money from the budget, unemployment is on the increase, and businessmen, who might create jobs, barely make a living.'

‘In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district’ 

One trillion roubles

As long ago as 1994, the Omsk regional economic committee produced a programme for developing an efficient labour force in the northern regions. It forecast a drastic reduction in population numbers and villages. Since then, the situation has deteriorated still further, with people – just like the rest of Siberia – being drawn to the district centre, and then on to Moscow and St Petersburg.

The Russian government never stops talking about the importance of these territories, and has even promised to invest one trillion roubles in their development up to 2020. But Igor Vyatkin, Professor of the Russian Academy of Natural History, tells me that by northern territories the government only means land where there are mineral deposits. Investments are indeed being made, but mainly into the Arctic (which promises considerable oil wealth); and it is questionable whether this will benefit the state or just a few corporations.

‘The government is investing in those areas of the Far North where there is oil and gas,’ said Vyatkin. ‘Laying roads over the marshes, building houses on the permafrost. But there’s no sun and nothing grows there. Most of the South Siberian population lives in the Near North, where there are forests, farming, potatoes, rye, flax, and wild produce such as mushrooms and berries. Land reclamation here took centuries, but there’s no promise of easy money so the area has been abandoned. The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness. There’s some sort of life around the towns, even small ones like Kalachinsk, but there are very few of them around Omsk or Novosibirsk. Mineral resources in the Far North will be exhausted in 50 years, and then living there (without oil money) will be impossible.’

‘The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness’ 

In Soviet times, at least, there was a sensible resettlement plan. The country was divided up into economic regions, and textbook terms like ‘division of labour’ and ‘complementarity’ actually had some meaning (and funding) behind them. In the Kuzbass region of southwestern Siberia, miners dug up coal, and their wives worked in textile factories, which had been built for them. In the Tyumen region, it was oil; in Omsk, the food to feed the miners was grown. The system was not particularly accurate, but it was an attempt to distribute resources in such a way that the territories could develop. In terms of GDP, 20% went on agricultural development, now it’s 1%. Siberia is an area of risk farming, so without government support, it cannot survive. 

A quick buck

In 2002, several international organisations (WHO, UNESCO, and the UN) published a plan for the development of the planet up to 2015. The plan contained specific recommendations to governments, one of which was that people should eat local produce, thus reducing the import and export of food (with a few exceptions to maintain some diversity). 

Siberia has done the opposite: its agriculture has been destroyed. Even potatoes in the shops and canteens are not local. Until recently, vegetables came from Turkey and Israel because it is cheaper to import them than to build storage facilities. 

With the Russian economy in recession, there is no money to invest in the regions. The 2015 budgets for Siberian regions are directed towards social needs – paying minimum levels of salaries, pensions, and benefits. Even then, expenditure outstrips revenue. Novosibirsk and Omsk regions are living on credit: the only difference is that, by the end of 2015, Novosibirsk’s debt will reach 40% of revenue, whereas in Omsk the figure is 70%.

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures’

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures,’ says Igor Vyatkin. Now everyone is talking about import substitution [because of Western sanctions], which would be excellent, but agriculture needs investment. Every year, there are tons of unpicked berries and mushrooms, but premises for processing are essential. And it would have to be government investment, because the regions are destitute and can’t do anything. People in villages are surviving, rather than living. Only the state can create the economic and social conditions for development, build an infrastructure. We have fields, forests, and rivers, but no people. They might come back, but where would they go?'

Vyatkin is pessimistic about the future: ‘In Finland, when they realised that half of their 6m population lives in Helsinki, they started thinking what they might do about it. Not everyone can live in capital cities, after all!' But this hasn't yet dawned on our government. What do we need so much land for? Why don't we give it up to someone else if we don't want it ourselves? If we are a state, rather than a territory, then we should take care of people’s lives, rather than just calling on them to be patriots. Our human resources are getting older and weaker, the economy has ever fewer entrepreneurs, but the government does nothing. Either it should decide to help the Near North develop, or simply wait for it to die.’

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