Inside the claustrophobic confines of a shipping container, a group of Russians waits out another day of an Arctic storm. Anton bakes blini. Andrei watches the same horror movie again. Alexei tries to craft a toothpaste holder from an empty tin can. Lisa the dog, who finds company among the hundred men in Camp No. 2, curls up in the farthest corner from the draughty door. The engineers gathered on this desolate patch of Russian tundra were hired by a geo-exploration company to look for oil deep below the permafrost. I am waiting out the battering winds with them, documenting the international race to appropriate Arctic resources.
I made six trips over three years to the Russian Arctic region, a 7,000-kilometre area stretching from Finland to Alaska, which Moscow bureaucrats have named ‘Zone of Absolute Discomfort’. The icy hinterland is wretched to live in, but just hospitable enough to allow for the extraction of billions of tons of resources trapped beneath the ground.
Here, three different groups of people, representing three contrasting ways of life and three centuries of Russian history, exploit resources amid the world’s harshest conditions: indigenous reindeer herders known as Nenets; descendants of former Soviet prisoners; and energy company men seeking a rich cache of oil and natural gas.
For hundreds of years, this part of the Russian Arctic was home only to the Nenets. The Soviet government tried to force these nomads into collective farms, and some were resettled in apartment blocks, abruptly altering their way of life. Other Nenets escaped Soviet rule and remained on the tundra, raising reindeer for meat and benefiting from an uptick in the demand for antlers, which are sold as aphrodisiacs in China. I sought my subjects via snowmobile, straining to see the Nenets chums, or tents, and reindeer herds on the bleak horizon. My hosts welcomed me with a bowl of frozen whole reindeer brain, a Nenets delicacy.
In the Far North’s urban areas, mounted jet aircraft stand sentry over cities used and abused by the Soviet government, and descendants of Stalin’s prisoners populate the streets. Though most of the Arctic labour camps were abandoned in the 1950s, many former inmates chose to stay. The Soviet government built settlements for those who worked in the mines and used high salaries to attract newcomers. The area boomed for a while, but the regime had no regard for nature and sustainability and scarred the once-pristine land. Now, pollutants shock the landscape and its inhabitants; in one town, sulphur rain kills all vegetation within five kilometres of the mine. As I photographed this dying landscape, the secret police followed me day and night, trying to discourage my efforts to document this environmental horror.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian republic neglected the towns and cities of the Arctic Circle. Mines and factories closed, marking an entire generation in the Arctic region with poverty and alcoholism. Many fled to seek a future elsewhere; those who stayed often don’t work, age rapidly and die young.
In the last decade scientists have discovered billions of tons of oil and gas trapped underneath the tundra. New workers’ outposts rise adjacent to the shells of old Soviet drill sites. Engineers and miners from around the world work short stints in the region. They come with expensive, sophisticated equipment and earn substantial sums for their hardship tour.
The indigenous herders who survived Soviet collectivization now struggle against this new, menacing foe. Pipelines block Nenets migration routes, while asphalt highways and gated drilling towers interfere with the search for fresh pastures.
It is the Nenets who must yield, as the Russian government has invested billions in energy exploration and asserted dominance over the region in 2007 by planting a titanium flag into the Arctic seabed. Ice-breaking ships circle the northernmost oil terminal in the world, near the North Pole, where global warming has opened an Arctic sea route in summer months. Within two decades, further warming may create a year-round ice-free route for container ships travelling between Asia and Europe.
This crucial period in the Far North fascinated me so much that I did much of the groundwork myself, trudging for days in deep snow and pushing my body and my cameras to their limits. The Russian military granted me unprecedented access to photograph the extreme northern oil terminal from the air, but only after I repeatedly appealed to senior government officials and energy company CEOs. Our helicopter flew on the edge of the North Pole region, an area rich with resources prized by countries with an Arctic reach, like the US and Canada, and even nations like China that simply thirst for oil.
But behind the geopolitics are the individuals who eke out a life in this unforgiving desert. Back in the shipping container, Andrei and Alexei grow restless, and talk about their next opportunity to ‘strike gold’ out on the ice. When the wind stills for a moment, they grab towels and bolt for the makeshift sauna a few containers down the road. It is powered by pure Arctic diesel.