A scorching opinion piece from the Times of London exposes the true horror that underlies Russia’s arctic imperialism:
It was often said, by half-hearted western Soviet apologists back in the 1970s, that one should wonder not why Russia was so badly ruled, but marvel that it could be ruled at all.
I always assumed that this was a reference to the geographical magnitude of the country and its diffuse ethnic mix, rather than an insinuation that Russians themselves were genetically predisposed towards incompetent and vicious autocracies. Might have to think again, though. A good proportion of that geographical magnitude and ethnic mix got the hell out as soon as it could in the years following 1991 – leaving Russia smaller, more ethnically heterodox, but scarcely better ruled.
There’s another little nugget of information to wonder at with Russia: despite, or perhaps because of, possessing one of the lowest population densities in the world, it has wreaked easily the most environmental havoc and misery of any country on earth. From Kamchatka to the Gulf of Finland, Russia is still a land of acid rain, heavy metals and plutonium. Stick a pin in a map of Russia and you are likely to alight upon a poisoned river or the rusting hulk of a nuclear submarine, an irradiated steppe, some chemically defoliated birch trees or a gently glowing peasant with a life expectancy of 34 years.
Karl Marx would have been impressed, I suppose, that in the great battle between man and nature, the Soviet Union succeeded in wiping from the map almost an entire sea – the Aral, now largely a toxic desert – and turning the world’s deepest freshwater lake, Baikal, into a borscht of cadmium and mercury deposits. Shorn of its dumb and vindictive state socialism it was blithely assumed that Russia would improve, but there was nothing in Russia’s history to suggest this would be the case.
Now the Russians have planted a flag 13,980ft beneath the North Pole, claiming some half a million square miles of Arctic seabed for themselves (despite being signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). There are rich oil and mineral deposits down there.
It is assumed by the Russian newspapers that this is the first blow in the battle for control of this bounty and that some day soon there will be a brave new closed city like Chelyabinsk or Krasnoyarsk rising from the snow up there – perhaps the usual tower blocks of grim concrete apartments surrounded by belching refineries, decomposing seal carcasses and woebegone polar bears.
It’s a pleasing, if naive, thought that the Arctic should belong to all of us and, by extension, none of us. But if it is to be divided up I think I would rather it fell into the hands of Chad than Russia. Maybe Moscow should be told that it can have the North Pole when the Aral Sea has been restored to its previous size and Siberia no longer has a half-life.