When landing at the Mirny airport, any sense of time gradually evaporates. Never-ending green layers of taiga clash with colorless Soviet-style apartment blocks. The airport itself, which features a giant red sickle and hammer on the top, adds to the impression that little has changed here over the past decades.
Welcome to Yakutia, in Russia’s Far East.
In 1825, Czar Nicholas I suppressed the Decembrist revolt and exiled military officers to Siberia. Some of them ended up in the wilderness of today’s Yakutia – officially the Sakha Republic – and this is how it became widely known among the intelligentsia. In Saint Petersburg – capital of the Russian Empire at that time – Yakutia was considered as the end of the world, an unexplored territory of permafrost where few were able to withstand the freezing cold in the winter and hordes of flesh-eating black flies in the summer.
More than a hundred years later, the land was referred to as the “prison without bars.” Yet the boundless territory – roughly two-thirds the size of western Europe – of harsh northern nature had limitless resources hidden deep in the earth. And so Stalin decided to integrate it into the brutal Soviet forced-labor camp-system.
Although the exact numbers are still unknown, during the 20-year period of 1930-1950 Yakutia hosted between 105 to 165 gulags, where hundreds of thousands of prisoners worked in unbearable conditions building infrastructure to extract and export the resources of the Russian Far East. What they built later gave rise to multiple small towns and factories that shape the image of the Sakha Republic to this day.
The past, however, is not something that the locals are keen on remembering. Despite an abundance of natural resources, which are exported worldwide for billions of dollars, Yakutia struggles to benefit from its wealth.
Mirny, a small town of just 37,000 people, is widely considered as the unofficial diamond capital of Russia, with 25 percent of all global diamonds extracted here. It emerged as a small settlement following the discovery of a kimberlite diamond pipe in 1955 and was given the name of “Mir” – the Russian word for “peace.” Today, the local streets run toward a 525-meter deep former open-pit diamond mine, which resembles a giant meteor crater.
From Mirny, diamonds are sent all over the world, for polishing in India and selling in Hong Kong and New York. Despite the international sanctions on Russia, the United States is still considered the biggest market for local diamonds and demand continues to grow. Mirny also serves as a connecting hub from which workers travel farther up north to the Nakyn kimberlite field.
It is pointless to ask townspeople where they work. Alrosa – the world’s largest producer of rough diamonds – dominates the local economy. Overall, 93 percent of the company’s assets are concentrated in the Russian Far East. Last year it paid more than $1 billion in taxes, accounting for almost 40 percent of the regional budget, and 3 percent of the revenue for social and economic development.
Alrosa is just one of the well-known corporations at work in the Far East. Large oil and gas deposits, as well as its strategic geographic location, make the Sakha Republic attractive to major oil and gas companies, such as Surgutneftegas and Transneft. The land is also known for its ample gold and coal deposits, and more exotic resources like mammoth bones. The latter is in high demand throughout black markets and has developed over the years into a fever for local poachers.
But despite this cornucopia of resources, the streets of Mirny are not studded with diamonds. Instead, a few days there leave one befuddled as to how the local government allocates its budget of almost $ 3.3 billion, which is significant by the Russian standards given the size of Yakutia’s population (just slightly short of 1 million people).
First there is the massive and seemingly desolate Mir mine that nobody seems to care about, sparking the constant fear of seeing children playing nearby the pit. Piles of scrap metal on the outskirts of town and countless rickety barracks contribute to the impression of neglect.
Locals, however, disagree and claim that life is gradually getting better. Those who travel to Moscow or Saint Petersburg notice improvements and want changes to occur in their own backyard.
During the latest presidential elections, Yakutia had one of the highest levels of opposition votes, which resulted in the long-time head of the republic, Egor Borisov, filing for resignation. Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia, was the only regional capital that elected an opposition mayoral candidate — 48-year-old Sardana Avksentieva — during the latest elections. The first woman ever to lead the city, she is also widely praised across Russian social media as the nation’s most popular mayor, with a reputation of being tough on mismanagement and corruption.
The decreasing support for the region in the Kremlin’s policies further bolsters popular conceptions that Moscow is taking all Yakutia’s resources and leaving little in return. Those in power who are supported by the Kremlin also seem to be unable to carry out reforms and improve life in the republic.
In March, anti-migrant protests rocked Yakutia, pointing to another disagreement with the Kremlin’s policies. Thousands of people gathered in Yakutsk to express disagreement with policies attracting immigrants from Central Asia. The show of public anger resulted in an unprecedented (for Russia) decision to ban migrant workers from being employed in 33 different industries.
It is evident that without further changes, dissatisfaction with Moscow’s policies will only continue to grow.
When speaking to many locals, there is a haunting impression of increasing isolation from the rest of the country – occasionally referred as the mainland – and the feeling that they are being left out by the central authorities. Yet even still, they are hoping for a new destiny for Yakutia, one where the region can play a greater role that corresponds to its global importance.
Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and independent journalist.