Boreas: MOVE

Assessing senses of place, mobility and viability in industrial northern communities (MOVE-INNOCOM)

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Funded by the Academy of Finland
PI Dr Florian Stammler, Senior Researcher Social Anthropology,
Arctic Centre, University of Laplad, Rovaniemi, Finland

This research proposes a comparative analysis of mobility and settlement in and around communities of industrial workers in Northwest Russia/Siberia. 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s major northern industrial regions have experienced substantial restructuring, in most cases resulting in depopulation, which is connected to industrial contraction and relocation politics of the Russian government and the World Bank. The research project analyses the determinants of northerners’ resilience, investigating which factors let residents of northern industrial towns – mostly non-indigenous incomers– retain intimate relationships to their northern towns under these conditions, withstanding incentives for relocation to the south that are supported by the Russian government. Underlying is the main question of the conditions of sustainability and viability of northern communities, a topic that has gained recent academic and political attention.

By contributing ethnographic analyses of movement and settlement histories of individuals and families including life histories, this project contributes grounded basic data for theoretical research on ‘senses of place’ and the ‘social fabric of communities’ within BOREAS MOVE. Situating in depth ethnographic data within the broader context of policy and economy analysis, we aim for a northern contribution to a general theory of viable communities. The main attention is devoted to assessing community resilience, i.e. under which circumstances members of northern communities stay connected and strive to persist, in other words, display collective agency. On the other hand, this research will reveal, which factors lead to disintegration and outmigration of their residents. The third strand will investigate those factors that lead to a commuting context, where northern inhabitants move back and forth between their northern and southern home.

Using extensive ethnographic fieldwork with participant observation and assisted by a structured survey, the project aims to Identify and analyse the main factors for social cohesion of multinational northern communities. Assess the viability of communities after the loss of a common industrialising vision in the Soviet Union, focusing on possible common perspectives of northerners for post-Soviet city development. Analyse the implications of successful and failed economic diversification of cities for settlement and movement decisions of their inhabitants.

Explore the theoretical implications of community viability research in the North for general understandings of sustainable communities, the socio-cultural impacts of industrial contraction and non-economic determinants of decisions to stay or move.

Case studies:
Fieldwork will be conducted in two different regions in the Russian North with different characteristics, Murmansk and Tyumen’. Their diversity opens challenging avenues for comparison.
Murmansk Oblast as the oldest Russian northern industrial region, experienced substantial industrial downscaling, after the main markets for its products collapsed and economic profitability became the mayor determinant for town development. This led to considerable outmigration of those industrial settlers that were once attracted by high state subsidies in the Soviet Union. Tentatively, the double-town of Apatity and Monchegorsk were selected as field site, supplemented by shorter visits to Kovdor – a border town to Finland, and the regional centre Murmansk.

Tyumen’ Oblast fuelled the Soviet economy with its giant oil and gas resources, which after restructuring continue to be the main source of hard currency influx to the post-Soviet Russian economy. The population in its northern industrial towns did not decrease, but some communities are considered to have adapted better to post-Soviet economic conditions than others. Tentatively, two neighbouring towns of Surgut and Kogalym were selected as field site, both of which once started as mono-industrial towns in the petroleum economy.

Comparing the sense of place among inhabitants in towns of both regions promises to reveal cultural, social and economic determinants of identification with northern towns built by incomers. Ethnographic in-depth analysis will cover several groups of residents. Shared experiences will form the basis for grouping the research partners / informants. In the research we will explore the collective agencies of those following groups:

  • Industrial workers that recently came to work in the North Non-indigenous inhabitants of the first generation, who contributed to building the towns Indigenous town-dwellers who themselves or their ancestors earlier were nomadic hunter-gatherers or reindeer herders “commuters” who both physically and mentally are connected to their places of birth in the south and their places of work and home in the North Decision-makers in the town.
  • Comparing the life histories, experiences, and visions of the future of representatives of these groups in both case study regions will enable us to understand the determinants of community viability in the Russian North. While at first glance it seems that the West-Siberian cases are more “successful” in creating a common northern vision for their lives in town, we are also prepared to explore and consider a possibly particularly strong collective spirit among those who remained in towns in the Murmansk region that experienced considerable outmigration.

In an immediate comparative perspective, the results of this research will provide the western Russian component within MOVE, while the Chukotka and Magadan project provides the eastern Russian component. Both cases will then be related to the broader circumpolar context, where the focus is the comparative analysis of relocation experiences in northern communities. With its expressed focus on communities that started as industrial outposts in the North, this research bears also relevance for our broader understanding of the impacts of industrial downscaling for people’s senses of place, and connected to that of their own identity. As in many northern industrial towns the question of a postindustrial future is of great relevance, this research will also relate to the comparative experience of postindustrial transition in more temperate regions. This topic has been explored in particular in the Fennoscandian North, the Ruhrgebiet Region of Germany and industrial towns in Wales.

Relating the material from extended fieldwork visits in the two case study regions within the Russian context provides a politically highly relevant insight from the ground in Russia’s richest resource periphery and at the EU’s northeastern border. The insights also promise to contribute to reshape our understanding of northern settlement, population movement, and individual senses of place in their relevance for northern identity conceptions.