ORILSK, Russia, Jan. 22 -- Stalin imprisoned people here, exploiting their labor to build an industry in icy isolation. His Soviet successors enticed them here with higher salaries and ideological cant to conquer the forbidding Arctic.
Now Russia wants people to leave Norilsk -- only to find that most would rather stay, despite poverty, corrosive pollution from ever-billowing smokestacks and insufferable weather that plunges temperatures below freezing for most of the year.
Burdened by the costs of sustaining 10 million people in a vast, frozen region that stretches from the Kola Peninsula in the west to Chukotka in the east, the Russian government has begun a series of programs to relocate tens of thousands of people from the far north to the relatively milder climate of what is known here as the continent.
If it happens, it will be one of the largest mass migrations of Russians since the Soviet Union began forcibly populating the region at the height of Stalin's terror in the 1930's. But the experience so far shows the difficulty of undoing by persuasion what was accomplished by decree.
Under a law that took effect last year, the government has offered housing and other subsidies, worth as much as $18,000, to families willing to leave. But of 20,000 Norilsk families potentially eligible, only 48 have agreed to go so far.
A separate pilot program in Norilsk and two other northern cities, Vorkuta and Susuman, financed with an $80 million loan from the World Bank, has fared little better, with only 360 people accepting a $2,400 housing voucher and an airline ticket. The program is intended to relocate as many as 23,000 from Norilsk alone by 2006.
Many residents say the subsidies are too low to afford new housing in all but the poorest Russian villages. The incentives also come with strings attached, requiring participants to turn over their apartments here to the city at no cost and to forgo supplements the federal government still gives to pensioners in the north.
For them, Norilsk has become a prison of another kind and another era.
"They took everything from me," said Olga I. Yaskina, who was sent to the Gulag in Norilsk in 1952 when she was just 16 for writing a letter to a friend in exile that said: "Don't cry. The sun will rise for us again."
She never left after she was released from the prison camp three years later. Now 67, she receives a pension and works as a concierge at an apartment building, supporting herself and an unemployed son on little more than $300 a month.
She stays not because she wants to but because she has no better alternative. "I have nothing left on the continent," she said.
Resistance like hers threatens to undercut Russia's efforts to reverse one of the perverted economic consequences of Soviet central planning: the settlement of cities and industries in some of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth.
In a new book called "The Siberian Curse," two scholars with the Brookings Institution in Washington, Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, argue that decades of misguided Soviet planning in the north have left an onerous drag on the new Russia's development as a market economy.
The overpopulation of Siberia has saddled Russia with the costs of supporting cities and towns that would not have developed on such a scale under a free market.
Andrei R. Markov, manager of the World Bank's program, estimated those costs at seven times higher than in the rest of Russia, amounting to millions of dollars a year. If Siberia had developed the way, say, Canada had under market conditions, it would have a quarter fewer people than it does today, he said.
Ms. Hill and Mr. Gaddy argue that Russia's current policies have also hindered the natural redistribution of workers, including restrictions on migration and continued subsidies for northerners. In their view, a fundamental change is needed in Russia's attitude toward the region.
"The more money that is expended in keeping people in Siberia and in making life there more bearable, the less is available for investment elsewhere," they write.
While the government has not specified its ultimate goals, some officials have suggested that the population of the far north should shrink by 600,000 to 800,000 to reduce the budgetary strains of providing heating, fuel, food and social programs that are, in Arctic conditions, the difference between life and death.
"The north developed not by economic considerations but by ideological ones," said Vladislav A. Tolstov, a journalist who recently published a history of the city, "Chronicles of Norilsk." "Conquering the north was a feature of the Soviet man. And what we see now is the payment."
More than 230,000 people live in Norilsk and three satellite towns 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is one of Russia's most remote cities, with no road or rail connections to the rest of the country. The winter's blizzards often close even the road to the airport.
The earth around Norilsk, however, contains some of the world's richest and purest deposits of nickel, copper and other metals that were once essential to the Soviet economy and defense industry.
The prisoners sent here beginning in the 1930's not only dug the mines, but also built the factories to enrich the ore and cast the metals, creating a sprawling industrial complex.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Norilsk was closed to outsiders. But the fall of Communism -- and with it, the lifting of residency restrictions -- did not result in a mass exodus. In fact, thousands poured into the city because of its higher wages and benefits.
The government, urged by local authorities, has now closed the city again, hoping to stem the flow of job seekers. Even so, the region's population remains near historic levels.
The government's relocation efforts have the support not only of the World Bank, but also of Norilsk Nickel, the private mining and metallurgical company that grew out of the vast Soviet combine that dominated this city from its inception.
In 1997, with the old combine in disarray, one of Russia's richest men, Vladimir O. Potanin, bought its mines and factories and began a modernization that has cut the work force nearly in half, to 60,000, and jettisoned many of its obligations to support the city's basic services.
Norilsk Nickel plans still further reductions in its work force as new equipment increases productivity, older workers retire, and the company sheds still more city services, like providing the city's buses. The reductions will put still more strain on the services in a city where nearly one in four already lives on government pensions.
"From a purely humanitarian point of view, the city is here and needs social services," said Vladimir N. Karelin, the director of the company's Taimyr mine. "From a purely business point of view, such infrastructure is inefficient."
With the company's financial support shrinking, the maintenance of city services has become an increasingly heavy burden, particularly the city's aging housing and heating system. The city's budget, which this year will total some $300 million, is already so strained that it has no room for improving services.
Valery V. Melnikov, a combative union leader who became the city's mayor, said that in principle he supported the government's efforts to relocate residents. But he added that the onus was on the federal government and Norilsk Nickel to offer more to help people find new homes and new economic opportunities.
At the same time, he campaigned on a platform to improve city services and demanded that the company pay more for it, possibly through a new tax on natural resources.
Mr. Markov of the World Bank said that such promises undercut the government's relocation efforts. Money spent on improving services avoids the difficult reality of persuading residents that Norilsk, like other northern cities, cannot sustain a large population.
In Norilsk, another factor has also slowed relocation: the vagaries of the free market. Norilsk still offers higher salaries and benefits than other places in Russia. The average salary at Norilsk Nickel is $900 a month, compared with a national average of roughly $150.
The city's relative wealth fueled by the salaries has spawned a boom of sorts. New stores, new cafes, a nightclub and even two bowling alleys have opened in recent years, providing more reasons for people to stay. "Nobody explained to the people of Norilsk," the mayor said, " `You're no longer needed here.' "
Trust the World's Fastest VPN with Your Internet Security & Freedom - A Lifetime Subscription of PureVPN at 88% off. Also, Slashdot's Facebook page has a chat bot now. Message it for stories and more. ×