Yakutsk: A city of extremes

Today, dust blocked out the sun.

Yakutsk is a strange place; possibly the strangest place I’ve ever been. It’s a city of three hundred thousand people with no real access to the ‘outside world’. You can fly in by plane (like I did), but it’s expensive. You can just about get there by road, but this depends on the time of year (winter is best, when the ice roads make crossing rivers easy). There was supposed to be a train – an extension of the Baikal-Amur mainline – but this has yet to materialise (currently the closest you can get is the town of Tommot and then it’s a 450km bus ride north). And if you want to cross the river – well, plans for a long-awaited bridge have been shelved once again as Putin siphoned off funds to build a crossing to newly-annexed Crimea (for more on this, see the excellent blog: https://www.cryopolitics.com/2018/05/16/putin-opens-bridge-to-crimea-leaving-yakutsk-hanging/).

This is a city of contrasts. When I first arrived, bleary eyed from Moscow six time-zones away, it was pushing thirty degrees and brightly sunny. I was bundled into a ‘taxi’ by a grinning woman with no English and treated to some authentic Sakha music on the radio – a surprisingly enjoyable mix of Western boyband crooning and far-Eastern instrumentals. The city is a complete mess. Dust covers everything, rising up into mini-tornadoes with a gust of wind; buildings on stilts lurch haphazardly; pipes carrying water and gas snaked above ground and across roads. This is what living on top of several hundred metres of rock-solid soil looks like: it’s impossible to dig infrastructure under the city, so you have to improvise.

Later I took a walk to the perennial Russian war monument and found a T-34 tank complete with clambering children, whilst soldiers offered their rifles for families to pose with. Soviet victory music blared from a loud speaker on the empty stage. It was a world away from Westernised, cosmopolitan Moscow, yet the shopping malls stocked Mango fashion, United Colors of Benneton, Tissot watches. And there’s an Irish pub – two, actually – proudly declaring itself ‘the first Irish pub in permafrost’. It’s both global capitalism and frozen communism.

And just as yesterday was hot and sunny, today was cold and dreary. The sun shone but it was blocked by a thick layer of dust, or smog, or something soupy that didn’t allow warmth to get through. For the first time I understood how this place was so shaped and subjected to its climate. Although this was a long way from the minus fifty degrees celsius experienced in winter, the city felt trapped somehow, and not just because of the lack of bridges.

It leads you to wonder why people live here. Why do these three hundred thousand people live with no bridges or proper roads in minus fifty degrees? Why do they live in a place that doesn’t allow for buildings to be built properly, or for an underground sewer system?

I’m sure there are many answers to this, and as an outsider it is not for me to judge why people live the places they do. Humans have lived on and with permafrost for centuries, in defiant and remarkable ways. To Westerners, to live in such harsh conditions seems bizarre, and only a thing someone would do if forced. We imagine the gulags; of shivering prisoners and poverty stricken people unable to escape. Doubtless, these images hold a certain truth, but this is not a city held at the mercy of an unforgiving master. Yakutsk is a place that has learnt to respect the permafrost and the difficulties it brings, but it has also learnt to live alongside it and build livelihoods that a very much rooted in place. Yes, it displays global fashions from China in its shop windows, and continues to hold on a little too tightly to the Soviet Union, but it is its unique geological and cryopolitical circumstances that make Yakutsk what it is. Indeed, there are several museums, exhibits and institutions dedicated to permafrost and its importance to the region. Yakutsk has grown with the permafrost, not in spite of it, and in doing so, has produced a vibrant city that is proud of its status as the coldest city on earth.

And then, the sun began to shine again.

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A mammoth journey

This time next week, I will have left the UK for Siberia. I will have packed up all of my belongings (this is already in process, and my attic room in Hackney is looking uncomfortably bare), deposited them in any spare cracks found at my partner’s flat, stuffed my rucksack with doubtlessly ill-chosen clothing, and hopped on a flight to Moscow. From there I will take two more planes: one seven-hour journey to the coldest city in the world (in winter) Yakutsk, then a creaking Soviet-built Antonov-24 twin-prop laden with cargo for another four and a half hours to the remote arctic settlement of Chersky.

Chersky today has a population of less than three thousand people – a huge, almost overnight, slump from its Soviet-era heyday as a bustling port town in the Arctic circle. Ice breakers would dock here on their way to Vladivostok, and although life was hard, goods would show up on a relatively regular basis. Barges laden with gold and diamonds would snake down the Kolyma river; the abundant mineral deposits in this small part of the world once employed over a thousand people in the Chersky mines. Now there are no jobs, very few supplies, and a deafening silence from Moscow.

But Chersky was built on Russia’s darkest deed. The gold mines that proved so lucrative to the Soviet Union were dug by prisoners, shipped in chains up the river to some of the harshest landscapes and climates in the world. There they were forced to dig mines, build camps and lay roads. These gulags sprung up in Siberia (and elsewhere in Russia) throughout the 1930s, and their particularly brutal brand of forced labour continued into the 1950s, and occasionally beyond. Many Siberian villages sprung up as a result of proximity to a camp; indeed, Chersky itself began as Nizhniye Kresty, a gulag that exists now only as dust, the town it birthed seemingly not far behind.

Chersky may yet experience a resurrection of sorts. A few kilometres from the town, the disused TV building has found new life in an Arctic science station. It is here that scientists travel from other parts of Russia and beyond to monitor the tundra: a biome characterised by deep permafrost, marshy lakes and stunted vegetation. Despite being found in the farthest reaches of the globe, the permafrost fulfils an important planetary role through its very state of being frozen. Permafrost currently sequesters double the amount of carbon found in the atmosphere. If this carbon were to escape in the form of greenhouse gases – say, if the permafrost were to start melting – we’d be in deep trouble.

If you walk through Chersky today, you’d see plenty of cracked and lurching buildings. This isn’t merely the complete lack of infrastructural upkeep afforded to this forgotten place, but an effect of thawing permafrost causing the foundations of buildings to buckle. A few hundred miles away near the town of Batagay, a sinkhole has opened up to such a depth and size that locals have dubbed it ‘the doorway to the underworld’. Further north on the Yamal peninsula, an unseasonably warm summer exhumed a long-dead reindeer riddled with preserved anthrax which then infected the local community. The permafrost is melting, certainly. But what, if anything, is to be done?

Could the answer lie in Chersky, beneath the sludgy, yielding ground? Attached to the science station is an experimental rewilding project called the Pleistocene Park which aims to restore the prehistoric ‘mammoth steppe’ ecosystem. The owners, father and son Sergey and Nikita Zimov, believe that this ecosystem played an important role in keeping the permafrost frozen; by supporting an array of large herbivores, including the woolly mammoth, the heavy tread of these animals compacted the frozen ground and created an insulating effect. Their plan, crazy as it might seem, is to populate the sparse landscape with these megafauna once more, and perhaps to stem the worrying trajectories of permafrost thaw. As the frozen carcasses of mammoths with preserved DNA are found at an increasing rate, the Zimovs hope that one day they might see a mammoth roaming the tundra again through the resurrection technology ‘de-extinction’.

It is the Pleistocene Park that brings me from my Hackney attic to halfway across the earth. Chersky sits at the locus of intersecting temporalities; the deep time of the prehistoric ecosystem meets the more shallow history of Soviet brutality. The Pleistocene Park orients itself towards a better future – a sort of planetary redemption to save humans from an apocalypse of our own making. These are the anxieties of the Anthropocene, where certain pasts are harnessed as mitigating strategies, and other pasts are buried deeper into the ground. But the thawing permafrost reveals and alters, what was once preserved returning to the present day in strange and unpredictable ways. Centuries-old mammoth genetic material might provide a solution to escaping greenhouse gases, but the slumping ground and the ancient virions seeping from the soil might have other ideas.

It is these conflicts and frictions – this complete mess – that I aim to interrogate here. I will spend just under a month living out here at the science station, watching the landscape shift from the brutal cold of winter into the tentative warmth of an arctic summer. A herd of baby bison will have been flown from Alaska and released into the Park. Other animals – musk oxen, wild horses, sheep – will be navigating the marshy soils. The mosquitoes will emerge from their pupae in swarms. The rivers will be teeming with sturgeon. It will be an environment I have never experienced before and I don’t really know what to expect. I guess that’s the point. Whatever happens, this small part of the planet carries with it enormous weight, whether that be its past, its future, or a huge hairy mammoth.