By Paul Goble
Moscow officials want to make the next 100 years “the century of the North,” a time when Russians and others will move north and east rather than south and west. But a Siberian commentator argues that a genuine “rebranding” of the region will have some profound consequences for Russian politics and society.
At the second Eurasian Economic Youth Forum in Yekaterinburg last week, Valery Yazev, the vice speaker of the Russian Duma, said that young people from Russian and around the world will be involved in the coming century in the development of the Arctic and the Far North (www.oilru.com/news/252471/).
That is especially true of and important for Russians, he continued, “Russia historically was established as a powerful state in the great civilizational advance for the mastery of the endless spaces of the Russian north, Siberia and the Far East.” This process, he said, “forged the Russian national character” and “showed the entire world our possibilities.”
As President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have stressed, Yazev continued, “the path to the north is possible only under conditions of fruitful international dialogue” because “the continental shelf must be ‘a zone of peace and cooperation’” rather than a place of conflict among nations.
That in turn means, the Duma leader said, that young people will have “not only to participate in the economic mastery of the North but also to develop a philosophy of a new movement to the North,” to draw on the successes of the past and use them to innovate in the future.
The conference reflected not only Yazev’s perspectives but also those of Aleksandr Dugin, a leading neo-Eurasianist. The meeting declared that “our Eurasianism is looking for models and concepts which promote a New Northern Oecumene, the cradle of the civilization which nurtured the Russian empire and its allies, the USSR, and the CIS” (www.barentsobserver.com/eurasian-youth-looks-towards-russian-north.4914333-116321.html).
In a related but perhaps even more indicative move, President Medvedev signed new legislation this week that makes it easier for foreign workers in the North and elsewhere to get visas and secure them for their families, an issue that had sometimes been a problem earlier (www.barentsobserver.com/russia-improves-conditions-for-foreign-specialists.4915952-116321.html).
If Yazev and Dugin viewed the past of Russia’s conquest of the North in a positive way and argued that Russia in the future should draw on what was done then to reinforce Russian national culture and identity in the future, another writer argues that the Northern “brand” needs to be modified, a change that will affect the Russian nation itself profoundly,.
In an essay on “Brand Arctic” published this week in Karelia, Siberian theorist and activist Dmitry Verkhoturov suggests that the Soviet-era “meta-brand” on the Arctic carried within it several dangerous and destructive messages, messages that must be changed if the future is to be better than the past (rk.karelia.ru/2011/05/daesh-novyiy-brend-arktiki/).
On the one hand, he says, the Soviet “Arctic brand” treated the region as “an empty land where no one lived until polar expeditions appeared which discovered everything and entered them on the map. And on the other, “this brand was the root of a sense that everything is permitted,” that Soviet people working there “can do what they liked.”
A simplification like all brands, “brand Arctic” ignored or papered over such things as “the bloody wars with local peoples which lasted for decades,” the spread of alcoholism, the deportation of peoples like the Nentsy, and the environmental contamination ranging from oil spills to the wholesale scrapping of nuclear fuel.
“For definite circles now,” Verkhoturov continues, “the most valuable thing in the Arctic brand is not the geographic discoveries and the polar researchers who have long ago gone to their graves.” Rather, it is “the ideological justification of the idea that everything is permitted and that there are no limits” on what those running the area can do.
In Siberia, such Soviet-era brands have had to interact with those from other sources, thus creating “an entire mosaic of meanings and signs,” with regard to the Arctic, “this is not the case.” Instead, it appears, Moscow hopes that it will be able to “replace one meta-brand with another” of the same type.
In Verkhoturov’s view, Russians “need a new Artic brand, a new understanding of this region, its history, its present and its future. Without a change in the brand it will hardly be possible to make any essential moves forward in the existing situation.” And he suggests that new brand should have four elements.
First of all, people must understand that “the Arctic unifies,” tying people from around the Arctic Ocean. Second, “the Arctic has its own laws and rules of behavior” learned by local people over thousands of years. Third, in the Arctic, the individual “is closer to the cosmos than anywhere else on earth” and stands “face to face with the forces of nature. And fourth, the people who live in the high north have a cultural knowledge which others must take into consideration.
Coming up with such a new “meta-brand” for the Arctic should not be all that difficult, Verkhoturov says. “What one needs is only to love and value it in all its multiplicity and manifestations and above all to respect it.” Simply exploiting it will not serve either the high North or Russia as a whole.