Recently the German newspaper Die Welt reported that more and more Americans are moving from the south to the north because for many the previously preferred south is too warm, but also too dangerous because of natural disasters. In Russia, this is not yet the case, and Russians are more likely to move from the north to regions with a somewhat warmer climate. Russia is the largest state in the Arctic area, but it is not an Arctic nation, since its population identifies little with the far north. So the Russian government has yet to build an ideal image of its connection to the Arctic, as well as make material investments. So far little has been done to stop the population shift southward. That is why real estate prices in Russia’s north continue to fall.
However, this does not stop the government from continuing to make massive investments in this region because along with the business sector they have other priorities: the Russian Arctic does not yet offer opportunities for a comfortable life, but it has something valuable enough to justify interest and huge investments. It is home to natural resources – this region is called the “Ali Baba’s cave” of the modern world, although assumptions about potential resources are highly controversial – but also to important trade routes. The northern sea route can shorten the journey from Asia to Europe by 15 days compared to the one through the Suez Canal.
Since the same holds true for all the states bordering the Arctic Ocean: Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway (to which China must also be added), this region, once of interest only to polar explorers, has become one of the most important issues in international politics.
In this article, we do not intend to present the economic perspective of the development of the Arctic regions in terms of mineral resources and the northern trade route between the Far East and Europe, which is already well known and much debated. Instead, we will try to show the role that the Arctic issue plays in Russian politics. In this context it is almost an exemplification of what Russia is or should become under Putin’s leadership, both internally and externally.
First of all, we can see that despite all the tensions, upon closer examination and not without some surprise, the region appears as an example of cooperation between Russia and its European neighbors, an example that can be applied to other areas where even greater problems and contradictions exist.
How did we get this far?
Most of the Russian Arctic is located in northern Siberia, which was colonized by Russia, beginning only in the 17th century. In the 12th century, traders and fishermen from the Novgorod State came to places so far away that that can be considered the first contact with the Arctic. However, the Slavic population in that medieval state must not be identified with that of Russia. The state of Novgorod, in fact, belonged culturally to Europe, and was brutally conquered by Ivan the Terrible. Those traders and fishermen had come to the Kola Peninsula and even further across the White Sea in search, just like today, of natural resources – then it was fish and walrus tusks – and trade routes that were supposed to connect Russia with the cities of the Hanseatic League. The conquest of the entire Volga region up to the Caspian Sea in 1556 and also of Siberia (reached peacefully in 1628) had extended as far as Persia and China the trade routes that could pass through the polar region.
At the time, such expansion was driven not only by those in authority, but also by various “stakeholders”: traders, pomory (White Sea people) and Cossacks. The government’s interest in the Arctic was changeable, to say the least, until the 19th century, and events in Europe, the Balkans or the south (the Black Sea, the Caucasus or Central Asia) were so demanding that the Petersburg government could not find the time to deal with a region so distant and so sparsely populated.
The 19th century saw the race for supremacy among colonial powers, and the northern regions were no exception. Russian public interest in events in the north – despite successes in polar exploration, such as the discovery of Franz Joseph Land in 1872 – was relatively limited, until the Swedish advance on the Spitzberg and German interest in Bear Island forced the Russian government to defend its interests in the region. When the world’s first icebreaker capable of operating on the high seas departed from Petersburg in 1889, the navy and scientists, including Dmitri Mendeleev, tried to persuade the tsar to build a fleet of icebreakers to secure the northern route, but they were unsuccessful. For this Russia paid a high price during the war with Japan (1904-1905), because the Baltic fleet had to take a very roundabout route to reach the Far East.
Things changed dramatically in the Soviet era. The elite had a strong interest in the far north by the 1920s. It granted many rights to the indigenous peoples, but at the same time it wanted to develop the northern trade route, partly to have better control and faster access to the Russian Far East, where it felt threatened. Thus a Polar Institute was founded and a Polar Expedition was set in motion, which were to, among other things, explore the connection of the great Siberian rivers with the north, and the polar air fleet was increased. Forced industrial development, initiated by Stalin, was to be carried on with the resources of the north: coal from Vorkuta, metals from the Kola Peninsula, oil and gas from Uchta. The cruel system of the Gulag also allowed forced laborers to be sent north.
The 1930s was the time of the birth of the “Red Arctic” myth. Thus in 1932 the icebreaker Sibiryakov crossed the entire northern route in one summer. In 1937 the North Pole was crossed by an airplane flying from the USSR to the USA. In the same year a plane managed to land at the North Pole, and the first research station was also established. Stalin himself considered “polar literature,” which propagated the myth of the “Red North,” to be one of the key elements of Soviet propaganda. The Arctic was presented as a tabula rasa on which socialism could be inscribed. It and all the successes there constituted a model of patriotism, technological progress and the industrial possibilities of the socialist state.
But with Stalin’s death, the era of the Red Arctic ended. The central government’s interest was diverted to other projects; some Gulags were disbanded and attempts were made to lure labor to the north with better pay. Although the myth of the Red Arctic was never reborn – partly because the “Red” USSR itself ended – the memory of the Soviet Union’s achievements in the north was revived in the 2000s, when the government of Russia began to pay special attention to that region.
After the collapse of the USSR, the Arctic lost its importance in Russian state policy for several years. If the Arctic was mentioned in official documents, it was only as a small part of a larger political program. If bills were prepared, the Russian Parliament did not even bother to vote on them (as happened with the bill on the Arctic regions of the Russian Federation). It was not until the early 2000s that the Arctic regained its economic and strategic importance for Russia, and only then did Russia once again become one of the key countries in that region.
In fact, this revival was driven by pure economic necessity: 98 percent of all diamonds, 90 percent of oil and gas, nickel, cobalt and platinum, 60 percent of copper and 24 percent of gold in Russia are from north of the Polar Circle, and all of this accounts for 11 percent of Russian GDP. This revival has also been fostered by the ideological projection of a new geopolitical reality in which Russia, unlike the old Russian Empire and the USSR, after the loss of vast areas to the west and south, has reverted to being an almost exclusively northern country.
Even more relevant is the important role of the Arctic in Russia’s political, economic, and even cultural life and its emphasis in the narrative of both key government political leaders and ideologues of opposition nationalist movements. There had to be a commitment to the Arctic, because “Russia is the Arctic.”
Just a matter of prestige?
Russia already has a huge share of the world’s energy resources, much of which is located in the north of the country. Policymakers in Moscow say that at stake in the battle for the Arctic is expansion for access to additional mineral resources available in the region. The United States Geological Survey says that 20 percent of the world’s oil and gas resources are in the Arctic, and the Russian Energy Ministry estimates there is twice as much oil in the Arctic as in Saudi Arabia. This is an estimate that has not yet been confirmed, while there is a growing rumor that there is competition in the Arctic for resources that do not exist.
Even if this were true, the Russian leadership would remain interested in the Arctic for political and ideological reasons. In politics, one could shift from the resource development narrative to using the Arctic as an emphatic demonstration of power, both in an attempt to present an alternative to the West and to secure the largest possible share of territory for Russia.
Russian policy in the Arctic seems at first glance to be an expression of geopolitical realism, but on closer analysis, it appears tainted with nationalism, and some even speak of “surrealism.” The talk of huge mineral resources in the Arctic is meant to explain to Russians why so much money is being invested there. In reality, the purpose is to disguise the “high” and “ideal” goal of Arctic control: control for the sake of control. The romanticism associated with conquering the north had first found expression in the 1930s, when the idea of the Red Arctic flourished, and Stalin had been able to exploit this romantic idea.
Even if it contained no resources, the Arctic would still have considerable ideological value, and not only for the government, but also for the many nationalist movements. For these, it serves as an example of “nationalist metanarratives.” The task – one might say, the mission – of the Russian Federation in the world is determined by geography. Russia is the largest country on Earth; in fact, it is not a country, but a universe in itself, a civilization, Eurasia. It is destined to turn to the north (part of Arctic mythology).
Some see the Arctic in a purely geostrategic light, as an opportunity to regain the status of a great power, in a struggle against other hostile powers. Others, however, see the Arctic more mystically, as an element in the construction of the Russian Federation’s identity and the fulfillment of its mission. Believers in both the one and the other hold that the Arctic represents Russia’s last chance and an opportunity to take revenge on history, which has robbed it of its empire.
The well-known nationalist geopolitical scholar Alexander Dugin, although inspired by the Eurasian model, also draws on ancient German ideas of Hyperborea, the birthplace of the Aryans. For him, the domination of the north has a mythical meaning and is also a prerequisite for the fulfillment of Russia’s mission in the world. This is not just a matter of ideas. The Eurasian youth movement, which on the ideological level is inspired by Dugin, has organized demonstrations in support of Russian territorial claims in the Arctic. The leader of that movement, Aleksandr Bogdanov, says that the Arctic is not only important for the economic aspect, but is a land of heroism, of overcoming difficulties, a symbol of great value for the country.
The Arctic question also involves the communists. Their leading theorist, Alexander Prokhanov, combines pragmatic arguments with the theory of the rebirth of the nation. He argues that since the breakup of the USSR, huge areas of the south have been separated from Russia and as a result Russia has increasingly become a northern country. “The Russian people are struggling to say goodbye to their eastern and southern consciousness and replace it with northern consciousness. Now everything in Russia is connected to the Arctic, from security to clean water to energy sources. Now, as in the past, the Arctic is becoming an object of desire and concern. It is an area that is seamless between Russia and the rest of the world.”
Therefore now, unlike in the past, the country is driven to look not south, but north, to secure its future. This is seen in Russia as a hard necessity, a prerequisite for its destiny to be realized. In the Russian ideological vision, the Arctic should be a source not only of material wealth, but also of “spiritual” power, because Arctic civilization requires an enormous concentration of forces in all spheres. Thus this region will become a “common asset and possession” of all Russians, and there “the Russian people will regain their unity, given by God to those for whom he has a great mission in store.”
In the Russian perspective, the main question in our time, as in the time of the Russian Empire and even that of the USSR, is whether geography should continue to play a decisive role in shaping the identity of the Russian people and state.
The Arctic as emblematic of Putin’s policy
Today, the Russian government’s Arctic policy should be viewed in a broader context in which pragmatism and ideology are closely linked and serve each other. Since the beginning of his presidency, Putin has made patriotism the cornerstone of the new national ideology. During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev (2008-12), an attempt was made to promote a modernization narrative, but this failed to oust the idea of a strong state. With Putin’s return to power (2012), it had to give way to the classic narrative of state power. In the case of the Arctic, however, the two narratives – economic modernization and military-backed state power – seem to have come together.
Although in the early 2000s an attempt was made to present the Arctic as an area of competition between great powers, by 2008 the Kremlin had become more interested in a cooperative project with other Arctic states. At the Arctic Forum in September 2010, Putin (then prime minister) had stated, “While we take care of the balanced development of Russia’s north, we work at the same time to strengthen our ties with our neighbors in our common Arctic home. We think it is very important to see the Arctic as an area of peace and cooperation. Our belief is that the Arctic should be a platform for cooperation in the fields of economy, security, science, education and preservation of the cultural heritage of the north.”
This can be seen as an attempt to create a new image of the Russian Arctic, and can also be evaluated in a broader context. Russia has tried its hand at soft power since the heyday of Soviet propaganda, but without ever succeeding, and Russian politicians are well aware of this. However, the idea of the Russian Arctic was also presented in the context of “civilizational competition” with the West, and its image was part of the image of Russia and its civilization as an alternative to the West.
In this competition between civilizations, the Arctic remains a crucial issue that attracts international attention and in which almost all the important countries of the West, along with China and India, are involved.
Competition does not mean opposition, but wanting to work peacefully with others to solve common problems. In September 2010, the first international forum was held in Moscow, entitled “Arctic, a region of dialogue.”
Russia is a member of the various international institutions in the region, in particular the Arctic Council. Despite international competition, collaboration among scientists will continue in the future. The Arctic, despite all the contradictions and differences of interests and opinions, could be an opportunity for cooperation between Russia and Western countries. Certainly for the Russian Federation, there are more differences of opinion with Canada and the United States – for example, with Canada on the “Northwest Passage” and with the United States on the division of the Barents Sea – than with Northern European countries. With these countries Russia could develop bilateral projects in the Arctic.
For Russia, this northward orientation is a relevant dimension of relations with Europe in general. For Europe, the ability to cooperate with Russia in this region can also be a viable model for other areas and regions where, unfortunately, insurmountable differences have so far been recorded.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.2 art. 5, 0223: 10.32009/22072446.0223.5
. Cf. R. Haimann, “Klimakrise am Häusermarkt”, in Die Welt (https://tinyurl.com/5x3fbatx), June 19, 2021.
. Cf. Z. Ullah – F. Pleitgen, “As the US and Russia spar over the Arctic, Putin creates new facts on the ground”, in CNN (https://tinyurl.com/3azcu6wk), May 21, 2021.
. Cf. M. Laruelle, “In Search of Borea. Hopes, Hypes and Realpolitik in Russia’s Arctic Strategy”, in https://tinyurl.com/5bya696h
. O. Krushcheva – M. Poberezhskaya, “The Arctic in the political discourse of Russian leaders: the national pride and economic ambitions”, in East European Politics 32 (2016/4) 547-566: cf. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/46664522.pdf
. Cf. Д. Тренин – П. Баев, АРКТИКА. ВЗГЛЯД ИЗ МОСКВЫ (D. Trenin – P. Baev, “The Arctic as seen from Moscow”), in https://carnegie.ru/2010/09/20/ru-pub-41586
. Cf. ibid.
. See A. Индижев, БИТВА ЗА АРКТИКУ, БУДЕТ ЛИ СЕВЕР РУССКИМ? (A. Indizhev, Battle for the Arctic, will the North be Russian? ), Moscow, Eksmo, 2010.
 . Cf. A. Дугин, МИСТЕРИИ ЕВРАЗИИ (A. Dugin, Mysteries of Eurasia), Moscow, Arktogeia, 1991.
 . Cfr Пикет ЕСМ в защиту Арктики (“Gathering of the Eurasian Youth Movement for the Defense of the Arctic) Россия 3, in http://rossia3.ru/mer/arctica
. Д. Стешин, Россия вернулась в Арктику? (D. Stescin, “Is Russia Back in the Arctic?”), in Komsomolskaya Pravda (https://www.kp.ru/daily/24036/96268), January 21, 2008.
. A. Проханов, СЕВЕРНЫЙ МАРШ РОССИИ (A. Prokhanov, “The Russian March to the North”), in Завтра, April 25, 2007.
. РЕЧИ В. В. ПУТИНА И С. К. ШОЙГУ НА I МЕЖДУНАРОДНОМ АРКТИЧЕСКОМ ФОРУМЕ (“Speeches by V. V. Putin and S. K. Schoigu at the 1st International Arctic Forum”, (in https://tinyurl.com/33yw742u)
. Cf. M. Laruelle, “In search of Borea…”, op. cit.
. See Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 22, 2021, vol. 18, no. 99.
. Cf. B. Solum Whist, “Norway and Russia in the High North: Clash of perceptions”, in Security Brief, no. 1, 2008, at https://tinyurl.com/y9rwdj3y
. Cf. M. Laruelle, “In search of Borea…”, op. cit.