The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia out in the Cold

By Wilson, Gary N. | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia out in the Cold


Wilson, Gary N., Canadian Slavonic Papers


Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003. xix, 303 pp. Bibliography. Index. $46.95, cloth. $18.95, paper.

The conquest and colonization of Siberia is one of the most enduring themes of Russian history. Since Tsarist times, Russians have viewed this vast expanse of territory with a mixture of excitement and fear. For, while Siberia has been a veritable treasure chest of natural resource wealth, the very word also serves as a euphemism for the brutality of the Soviet regime towards its own citizens.

In The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy offer their perspective on Siberia's past, present and future. Their main argument is very clear and resonates throughout the book. The authors assert that the combination of coerced settlement and Soviet economic planning forced or encouraged millions of people to settle in Siberia, who otherwise would not have left the warmer climes of European Russia. Compared to other northern countries, the Russian North, of which Siberia forms a large portion, is overpopulatcd. Large cities with cold climates, such as Novosibirsk, Omsk and Krasnoiarsk, dwarf their Circumpolar counterparts. According to the authors' calculations, the growth of these cities during the Soviet period decreased Russia's overall TPC (temperature per capita) and, as a result, dramatically increased the average costs of economic activity, thereby placing a significant drain on the Soviet and now Russian economy. In order to prosper in the future, the authors argue that Russia (read Siberia) needs to shrink. In their words, "Russia's metropolitan future should lie in the west, in the relative warmth-in European Russia" (p. 40), not in the large Siberian cities that resulted from decades of Soviet planning and forced relocation.

Economically speaking, this book makes a very powerful statement about the development of Siberia in the twentieth century. The fact that 45 million people are living and working east of the Ural Mountains, often in very cold and inhospitable conditions, has indeed had a dramatic impact on the country's economy and society. While it is true that such conditions have contributed to the inefficiency of the economy, the authors are correct to point out that Russia's reliance on Siberia's natural resource wealth only strengthens the notion that Siberia and its current population should be supported, even though this makes little sense in strict economic terms and may place Russia on an economic development trajectory that is harmful in the long run.

The authors acknowledge that some depopulation has taken place in the post-Soviet period. …

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