Spirituality of abandoned Arctic Infrastructure

So-called ‘ghost towns’ attract people in a certain sense, the ailing beauty of their ruins and the atmosphere of silence that is so different from the silence that you experience when you are somewhere out on the tundra in the Arctic in a snow-desert. But when I recently walked with a friend through an abandoned building and felt the fascination of that atmosphere, I got also confronted with the opposite: for some people abandoned infrastructure feels threatening and scary for its association with death, decease and decline, and such people would stay away as much as they could from this kind of places. This reminded me of the relations between people and graveyards in the Arctic: that among some you are not supposed to go back to the graves of the relative after the funeral, or if so, then only in groups and on special occasions. Because the world of the spirits of the deceased is different from our world, and it may be dangerous for us is we engage with it in inappropriate ways. In my first field trip to the tundra, when I was going to take a photo of a Nenets graveyard in the tundra, the herder who was with me advised me: better don’t take a picture. “Not that I would mind, but we don’t know if this would be bad for yourself – who knows if the spirits like you taking this picture”.

So I wonder what is the spiritual implications of this ghost-town tourism in the Arctic? In many places people do not even take away the movable infrastructure of these places, although it certainly would have some value to sell. E.g. in the Komi ghost-town of Tsementozavodsk close to Vorkuta, there is a huge amount of trucks left behind, alongside the houses where nobody lived in the last decade.

Abandoned trucks in Tsementozavodsk, c Anadolu agency via Getty images

This place made it to the British Daily Mail newspaper with a detailed photo gallery of the abandoned infrastructure, and there is impressive air imagery from there by Reuters . Someone told me that it’s just more expensive to bring all this away from such remote places than the value that you get for it when you sell it. Hard to imagine. But I find a certain parallel to what I heard in 2013 in the village of Bykov Mys on the Laptev shore: there when the cemetery was being taken to the Sea by coastal erosion, the locals would not dare to go and recover some of the graves. One told me “if some Finns and Lithuanians whose ancestors are buried here would like to, they can come and exhume the remains – we are not going to do that. The Sea can take the cemeteries as all souls have left from there long ago”.

But in Tsementozavodsk this huge amount of abandoned trucks that actually look rather recent impressed me. How come that nobody took them at least to Vorkuta, which is just 17 km away. Surely they could be used there somehow? Maybe that has to do with the legal notion of escheated propertry (vymorochnoe imushestvo in Russian). According to the Russian Civil Code, the Russian Federation inherits such property if there are no legal heirs (article 1151, Law 146-FZ). But this may be only the superficial outside reason of why we see so much abandoned infrastructure in the Russian Arctic. It becomes part of the region’s environmental history. Speaking of which: this is a good occasion to congratulate our colleague Dmitry Arzyutov for his excellent PhD on environmental history in the Russian Arctic. It’s here open access. Congratulations!!!

Forest fires create hell on earth: Yakutia

related to the recent post about the forest fires in Siberia, here I share some footage from local people. This is not official news, it’s private people’s videos, often shot from their phones. It shows close up how Sakha people struggle to save their land and their homes from the inferno – mostly in vein. There is not much commentary in the videos, so people from any language background will find this shocking. (For those knowing Russian: please note this contains some dirty language):

20 minutes watching hell on earth. Words can’t tell the extent. But what is more: the fires leave behind the melted permafrost with all the terrible consequences. For us anthropologists first and foremost: where are local and indigenous people are going to graze their herds, and hunt for many years before these millions of hectares are going to be forests and pastures again – if ever? Some more pictures follow
Continue reading “Forest fires create hell on earth: Yakutia”

The North is innovative!

our university r&d department just shared an EU report, where Finland and Sweden lead their EU-internal rating for innovativeness.

Nice to see that the North leads the way there! We know that the Arctic is at the forefront when it comes to noticing the changing climate, and people in the North, particularly those who live in close contact with the environment round the year, have proved their impressive adaptability to these changing conditions. Good that this tendency also translates into a national level. If countries in the Arctic can lead innovations towards a better life on our planet, so should anthropology from and on the Arctic aim to lead the way for innovative research on social and cultural diversity and the ways how human social groups thrive in a changing environment!

Of course as anthropologists doing fieldwork with a focus on qualitative long-term participation in people’s life, we may be skeptical of the methods of these ratings and reports that base solely on statistical indicators such as numbers of university graduates, share of budgets invested in research, numbers of registered patents and designs, level of broadband internet penetration throughout the country, and the like. We are used to looking beyond these numbers and explain the deeper reasons for the ways in which societies and cultures innovate. Innovation is nothing new. Indigenous and local people in the Arctic have applied innovations as long as they lived in that environment, and continue to do so. We can explain the principles of such processes. Let’s live up to this expectation:)