It was a fascinating week that the Extractive Industries Group spent in Neryungryi, Yakutia, one of the Soviet Union’s youngest single industry towns, established in 1975.
The Uarctic Thematic Network “Arctic Extractive Industries” thank the North Eastern Federal University, Faculty of Law and department for Northern Studies, for organising of a great course in our pan Arctic Phd programme, which was held from November 9-15 in Neryungri, on the basis of a technical institute NEFU.
We were 6 professors/teachers and 9 PhD students in the team, joint in the course lectures by students from the Neryungryi technical institute, a branch of Russia’s North Eastern Federal University (Yakutsk).
Within the first 15 years of its existence, the population of the town skyrocketed already up to 100 000 inhabitants, but once the construction of the town and the coal mines (in the Soviet Union all open pit) was finished, the Soviet Union was in the middle of perestroika, and as much as half of the population left again. We just experienced the celebrations for the 39th birthday of the city. How many of us come from such a young place? Now Neryungryi is a compact town of 50 000 people,
with mainly two companies working there in coal mining: Yakutugol, owned by its parent company Mechel Mining, running the main open pit in town, and recently started a giant new coal development in the taiga, the Elginski deposit, which will be producing with a few thousand fly-in fly-out workers four times more coal than all of Neryungryi did in the Soviet Union – with a town of a 100 000 people! The second company here is Kolmar, which belongs to a wealthy Russian enterpreneur called Gennadi Timchenko. At their Denisovski deposit, they produce coal from underground mining, at a price per tonne of 1800 roubles. Recently the coal price collapsed to 1400 roubles, making this development unprofitable. Nonetheless, Timchenko has enough financial cushion to just stop producing coal, and instead investing a lot of money into building new mines and processing plans, just for the future! The company has high hopes, especially for Chinese and Japanese prices to go up, and invested into hiring more permanent staff, currently a bit more than 900.
Interestingly, they decided not to organise fly-in / fly-out work force. All their employees live locally in Neryungryi, as the fly-in / fly-out model was not considered reliable for this kind of production. Instead, they hired recently 260 refugee coal miners from the Ukrainian Donbass mining area. Here they also feel the political changes in Russia’s relations with the West, as the company has to change from importing western mining technology to chinese technology. According to the main engineer at Kolmar, Chinese equipment satisfies their needs too.
This kind of information we got as a group on our excursion to the industry sites. The visitor to South East Siberia gets a different view of regional development at the small village of Iengra, where Evenki herders herd some thousand reindeer in 10 herds of the local collective enterprise (still called sovkhoz by herders), and a number of private herding groups (obshiny).
Interestingly, their nomadic life was not as much subject to Soviet modernisation policies as in other areas, even in North Yakutia. The Iengra Evenki seem to have continued nomadic migrations with families all the way through the Soviet Union, while their children still go to the boarding school – a system that was discontinued in other areas, such as in Chukotka or parts of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug.
Interestingly, the biggest problems that the Evenki have with industry is not with coal mining, but with gold mining. The latter is organised very differently from the coal mining – namely in smaller companies with less significant gold extraction licences. They get their claims allocated mostly from the district municipality, whereas the reindeer herders are registered with the village council. This means for them that on paper they do not even compete for land with the gold mining (artel, priiski). This industry – as Alexandra, a chairperson from the Iengra culture house says – does not really care what is going on around them. In other words, corporate social responsibility is not even properly known as a concept. On the other hand, both of these livelihoods – herding and mining – are so far spatially not too much overlapping, as the land around Neryungryi is rather sparsely populated.
A bit further away from Neryungryi, an hour’s drive, there is a hot spring, which was a popular excursion trip among our PhD course group too. At a mild minus 35 degrees centigrade we all enjoyed a warm bath, with our hair getting frozen immediately.
The programme organisers Aitalina Ivanova and Mikhail Prisyazhyi from Yakutsk (North Eastern Federal NEFU) University did a great job in dividing our days between sessions and excursions, so that the participants really felt how it made sense to have an extractive industries PhD school at a site where the industry is actually active in extractive practices. A warm thank you to both of them, and the whole team organising what was a remarkable course event within our phd programme on extractive industries.
More on the programme can be seen at our separate website, in Russian at the news service of NEFU,
and of course – as always - Arthur Mason’s visual ethnographic diary of the whole event.