AT -15 °C, high-carbon steel cracks. At -30°C, pneumatic hoses split and cranes fail. At -40 °C, compressors stop working. Ball bearings shatter. Steel structures rupture on a massive scale.
Still Russia builds, and mines, and tries to settle its Arctic territories. President Vladimir Putin has revived the old Stalinist vision that saw slave labour assembling cities on beds of permafrost. This time around, in place of the inexhaustible human resources of the gulag, there are delays, cancellations and nervous foreign investors.
The Arctic contains 90 per cent of Russia’s recoverable hydrocarbons. Were the country to finally overcome its many and various technical challenges, after more than a century of trying, it would be vastly wealthy.
So the Arctic remains a burden Russia cannot bear to relinquish. This potentially great nation continues to saddle itself with the costs of transportation over great distances, of keeping warm, or just staying alive, in great cold.
Since the mid-1980s, Paul Josephson, a historian of science and technology, has charted the country’s heroic engineering projects. He has traced its gigantomanic ambitions back, more often than not, to Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. Launched in 1948, it aimed to divert the flow of major waterways, industrialise Siberia, and turn the infertile steppe into a breadbasket.
The consequences for the environment have been at best ambiguous, at worst catastrophic. Natural resources had no price in Soviet economics. Since they were not owned privately, they had no value. Development had no regard for waste or loss. Little has changed under the current system of state capitalism; the Arctic’s underfunded environmental projects are smothered under state plans for “modernisation”.
Josephson is a well-travelled, well-connected and impassioned analyst. But his call for Putin’s Russia “to move more slowly, to adopt measured policies… forego impatience for circumspection” is unlikely to be heeded.
After 40 years writing sober, academic accounts of the world’s most hubristic, atrocity-littered engineering projects, it may be time for Josephson to bare his teeth a little.