Resource Territories and The Russian Far North: An Introduction

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s force to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization or rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848

No space vanishes utterly, leaving no traces
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 2000 (1st edition: 1974) (French version), 1991 (English version)

Verkutlag, or the Camp at Verkuta established in 1931 for coal mining
Courtesy Photo: Stanislaw Kialka, Tomasz Kizny
originally appeared on RFE/RL

In the coming weeks, I will be posting a series of essays that will be exploring three key-concepts regarding resource territories: contingency, control and accountability. With these concepts, I'll be attempting to address the interrelation between extractive activities (more precisely resource extraction-related apparatus ranging from extraction to resource urbanism) and the forms of violence that this apparatus produces. As I will repeat through this presentation and in the next essays, resource territories are matter of destruction of space in order to exploit its possibilities, what constitutes this space, that is its resources. Destruction of space is always followed by the building of new forms of space, or abstract space, space shaped by and for humans (Lefebvre 2000/1991, Gordillo, 2014). Hence this idea of spatial destruction as creative negativity. The space that predates the destruction contained historical conditions and information that are replaced by new historical conditions and information whether negative or positive. Spatial destruction generates social, political, economic, cultural and environmental modification that involve displacement, poverty, conflicts, violence, landscape degradation, radioactivity, biodiversity loss, and so on and on.

Abandoned buildings in Vorkuta
Courtesy Photo: Tom Balmforth/RFE/RL
Originally appeared on RFE/RL

For this matter, I'll be using a series of concepts that I borrowed from the field of military geography; this includes spatial proximity through contiguity or distance and spatial contingency, control over space, spatial destruction, environmental modification. I will also borrow from the field of philosophy —more precisely acceleration, negativity, abstraction, contingency. 
I’ve been working on these essays for a long while and they are part of an ongoing long research on the contingent relationship between resource extraction activities, humans and the biosphere, and violence that this contingent relationship produces. These essays will mainly be engaging with the problem of violence at multiple levels and its instrumentalization for extraction purposes. I will focus on the Gulag camps’ activities in the mining zones and oil wells of the Far North as example of the establishment of resource territories and the forms of control over space and bodies, and even violence. The core point of these essays is that violence is part of the logic of resource territories. Violence produces and is produced by resource territories. It is declined at the scale of the living, the biosphere, the economic, the political, the cultural. What are the technologies, spatial arrangements, and artefacts that shape Resource territories? How does resource extraction affect beings and non beings? What does resource extraction do to the natural environment? What kind of spatial contingency emerges from the coupling of extraction and these specific territories of the far north?

Resource territories are matter of control over space and bodies, land claims, access, and sovereignty, contingency and uncertainty, as well as geography, geology, engineering, design, techniques, technologies, apparatuses, procedures and spatial arrangements. Remote areas, what we call the outside, because of their geographies, their localities, and their climactic features are sparsely populated, if not uninhabited, or on the contrary case, are economically blockaded. The lack of connectivity, of infrastructure, accentuates their geographic isolation. Yet, the age of the polar exploration over the the end of the 19th- and the 20th centuries has participated in dismantling spatial boundaries, and consequently, territorial expansions, industrialization and urbanization of the whole USSR territory. The Soviet interest for these regions is similar with that of Canada, Denmark, Great Britain and Norway. These regions concentrate a massive amount of natural resources which arouses interests and curiosity and provokes land claims, disputes or even violence for control over these spaces. They incarnate a politics of territorial expansion for the sake of a control over lands and seas, their components, namely natural resources, raising a series of intricate questions ranging from access, land acquisition, resource extraction-induced displacement, development-induced displacement, to forced and illegal labor, violence, torture and even murders for resource extraction purposes (Mitchell, 2014; Marriott and Minio-Paluello, 2014; Sassen, 2014; Gordillo, 2014; Watts and Peluso, 2001).

As said above, these essays will be exploring the formation of resource territories in the USSR through the implantation of the Gulag Camps, the development of oil and mining activities, and the integration of the Far North into the state territorialization ambitions. Murmansk, Norilsk, Kolyma, Pechora, Vorkuta were geographically landlocked places yet rich in natural resources. Access to these regions was limited to slow mobility due to a lack or inadequate infrastructure. There were no roads leading to these areas. The implantation of forced labor camps to support the Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plan played an important role in the Stalinist apparatus of territorialization of the whole USSR (Applebaum, 2003; Barenberg, 2014; Josephson, 2014). Today these cities are typical of resource urbanism which activities mainly rely on extraction and processing of minerals. 
Arctic Population Map | © Lola Sheppard and Mason White/Lateral Office | New Geographies No. 1, 2009

Most of these regions were uninhabited or sparsely inhabited with indigenous people until the construction of forced labor colonies. Yet, their fields are full of resources. These include large deposits of oil and coal as well as metals such as nickel, copper, and, apatites, ceramic materials, iron ores. Given their toxicity, raw material extraction have harmed local population, workers and environment. These affect soil and air, producing by-products, or waste; they also are invisible and nonlocal that can be spread in a very large scale, that of the biosphere (Morton, 2013).

The geography that these essays will be addressing is a precarious frontier resource field. The landscape consists of taiga (southern part) and tundra (northern part). Subsoils are permafrost which affects any form of vegetation like trees except pine trees in the southern areas (taiga). Grass and shrubs dominate these areas. Climate is very harsh with freezing temperatures typical in the Arctic territory and the extreme north of Siberia, with record lows reaching -50°c (-58°F), and windy conditions. After decades of resource extraction, engineering and construction, this extreme territory has been reshaped, transformed into an abstract space, more precisely, an urban space mainly dedicated to resource extraction and processing. Indeed, the landscape has changed dramatically with the construction industrial complexes, apartment blocks and equipment, roads, as well as mining and industrial activities. A part of these cities however is gradually disintegrating due to thawing permafrost, as for example the city of Norilsk.
Norilsk from the serie Days of Night - Nights of Day | © Elena Chernyshova, 2012-2013

In spite of these barriers, these regions have occupied a central place in the apparatus of the USSR economy, mass industrialization and urbanization of the whole USSR. The formation of the camp system displayed in the whole territory of the USSR to people these landlocked areas, and exploit their resources (minerals, fishes, wood) for the needs of the country, and their shift into company towns are great examples of the acceleration of the process of urbanization and industrialization. As Benjamin Noys put it, the «lag between the reality of devastation and the desire to embrace new capitalist technologies as the means to create a new communist society produced a contradiction» (Noys, 2014). This contradiction, that Noys raised, is well-illustrated with a range of concerns including traces of human activities in these extreme territories in the form of spatial et material destruction (ruins, rubbles, toxicity, pollution), spatial proximity through contiguity between work areas and workers' barracks and, then, company towns that surround these industrial complexes. 
Norilsk Industrial complex, also known as Norilsk Nickel | © The Moscow Times, 2011
Originally appeared on The Moscow Times

Landscape degradation, toxic environment, building damage, cancers, and other harmful spatial products are the result of this spatial proximity and human activities. Spatial destruction leads to a new form of, better an abstract space, modeled by humans for human needs (Lefebvre, 2000/1991, Gordillo, 2014). In the case of these territories, precarious technological tools have become the tools of this machine of destruction that are territorialization and industrialization. This destructive process, to quote Gaston Gordillo, has degraded spaces, buildings and lives (Gordillo, 2014). Along with the physiographic and climactic conditions and the impossible requirements of the Five-Year Plan, this form of technology-induced violence has contributed to the destruction of thousands lives (Applebaum, 2003). In this list can be added most of workers’ lack of knowledge, skills and expertise in mining and drilling activities — most of them being political prisoners — as a form of handicap that, yet, did not concern the central government.
What this list above shows is the political nature of space particularly patent in the Communist accelerated industrialization and urbanization. Gulag Camps were unsurprisingly political as they reveal the schizophrenic character of the Stalinist politics of productivity. The human labor, transformed into machines, was forced to make up for Soviet lack of technology (Josephson, 2014). The Soviet Union’s lack of advanced technology, and a degrading economy due to civil war, has forced the government to adopt a brutal form of process of production relied on labor and acceleration. The proletarian poet Aleksei Gastev «saw the destruction (…) as the possibility of a new beginning» (Noys, 2014).
Too much is destroyed, much destroyed to the point of madness, to the point that chronology is wiped out, but even more is begun, begun with open naiveté and faith. We have to accept all that, accept it without conditions, accept it as the emotional-political manifesto of the times and give ourselves up to the whirlpool of the new epoch, where the general platform must be bold rationalism (Carden, 1987, Noys, 2014).
The lack of technology, again, has been filled with the integration of living labor into the machine characterized by the ‘zeal of labor’, a form of robotization of humans — or ‘man-machine’ — for the sake of Communist productivity. As Noys put it, «rather than being reduced to the ‘mere appendage’ of the machine, the worker will control and direct the machine, reworking capitalist technology to communist ends» (Noys, 2014). Workers’ lack of skills and knowledge, their naiveté or inexperience, was viewed as a form of positive, if not creative, negativity as it could make living labor more flexible in accordance with Marxism:
while in communist society,…, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic (Marx, 1845; Noys, 2014).
Anne Applebaum, in her very long research on the Gulag System, has depicted the way in which workers operated in the mining fields using precarious tools, such as hand tools, to dig the frozen soil and extract minerals and drill oils. They also built their own needs and services, their settlements, consisting of wooden or concrete barracks and other basic infrastructure to support their labor, Watchtowers, all closed with barbed wires, or open in the case of the implantation of camps in islands (Applebaum, 2003). 

So was the lack of concerns on the environmental impact that the formation of these Russian resource territories for military and industrial purposes would have produced. Destruction of space should be understood as political. It resulted of this accelerated process of production promoted by Stalin, a lack or absence of knowledge, skills, and expertise, at least at the beginning, on the geological, physical and climactic conditions of the Far North. These wooden or concrete buildings, we will see, have been constructed on a permafrost soil that are not adapted to such constructions. In the same way that these mining and oil activities have been operated on this type of soil which accelerated the thawing of permafrost and the toxicity of the landscape with metals. These high impact activities contributed to rising temperature and ice melting. As architect and co-founder of Lateral Office, Mason White, put it, the shifting conditions of these areas, in particular the Barents Sea, make «previously inaccessible areas thought to be resource fields now developable» (White, 2009).

Resource territories require knowledge, specific skills, expertise, and fields ranging from geology to engineering and construction. The building of roads, railways to link these strategic points to the Russian main cities, of apartment blocks, airports, industries, and other infrastructural networks including pipelines necessitate specialists’ skills and expertise including architects, engineers, and planners. Architecture and planning cannot be dissociated with the setting of the labor camps and resource territories. Stalin understood it when he decided to convoke architects, engineers, planners and other specialists to build these territories. Of course, most of them were arrested for sabotage and counter-revolutionary act and sent to the Far North, Siberia and other colonized territories including Kazakhstan. The actual Norilsk, Vorkuta, or Murmansk, these company towns, are the result of a long process of trials and errors, of failure characterized by Stalinist accelerationism. Material evidence of this failure can be seen with damaged abandoned buildings, apartment blocks sinking because of the thawing permafrost soil on which they have been implanted, because of the ignorance, or lack of interest in the danger of building on this type of soil. This is the case of Norilsk, mentioned above, a closed and toxic city. People and buildings have been severely impacted by toxicity, contamination and pollution owing to their spatial proximity to industrial complexes and mining sites.

The presence atmospheric pollution of heavy metals leads to a drop in the immunity of city residents, which is so vital in our climactic conditions… we are falling sick and dying.» (Sassen, 2014).
Traces of this machine of destruction, can be found with ruins and rubbles of gulag camps and industrial and mining complexes and derelict infrastructure near the city of Norilsk. Images of these previous gulag camps and damaged buildings mirror the process of transformation from a sparsely territory, or historical conditions of this place, to an urban space, or resource-related urban space that challenges contamination, toxicity and pollution. These ruins, rubbles, damaged objects, waste, derelict industrial industries, contaminated land, lakes and rivers are part of this abstraction of space. These abstract objects are also characteristics of past, present and future because of their nonlocality and atemporality. Their are the heritage of mining and oil activities of the 20th century and pose the question of how these places can be designed in the 21th century that tackle these political, social, cultural and environmental impacts.
Derelict buildings
Norilsk City, from the series of Days of Night - Nights of Day | © Elena Chernyshova, 2012-2013 

This globally is what the next essays will be exploring. I do not speak Russian. My research consequently (and unfortunately) is limited to English-written documents. This said, the aim of this series of short essays is to apprehend resource territories in the scope of resource extraction control over space and bodies, contingencies, accountability and violence. I am particularly interested in addressing the spatial, political, social, biospheric implication of the fact that resource territories have long been viewed as closed territories, with their own legal, ethical, political, social, and cultural frames. Put it simply, as I mentioned above, resource territories must be understood as social, political, economic, and biospheric. As Saskia Sassen stated in her book Expulsions, much of the 21st century will be concerned with the social, political, economic, and (and I stress the ‘and’) biospheric situations and conditions (Sassen, 2014). It will be requiring another approach to design, namely, no longer at the scale of the site but at the scale of the territory. It also will be requiring to take account of the by-products, wastes, or hyperobjects, that we, humans, are creating within our activities and that will affect us for a long time on (Morton, 2013; Byant 2014). Such issues should be regarded as an opportunity for the architect, the landscape architect, and the planner to develop, implement an adaptive ecological design that encourages a resilient, scalable process of use, extraction, and remediation. Resource territories, as zone-like-enclaves or extraterritorial zones, are indicative of 20th-century model of human domination on nature, and industrialization and urbanization at the scale of the planetary, to limit to two examples. These remote areas also are the location of what some observers call petro-violence (Watts, Peluso, 2001), that is petro-violence on bodies and environment.
Another issue to discuss when challenging such northerly territories is to rethink how buildings and infrastructure should operate in this context. In another part of the Arctic circle, the Canadian Arctic, Lateral Office is questioning these complex situations and conditions that this region imposes. The Canadian Arctic also is subject to a landscape transformation under the extent of industrialization and urbanization. The agency calls for a reconsideration of the status of the architect as no longer an architect as problem-solver but an architect as opportunity-seeker. This approach opposes to the 19th- 20th-century engineering and construction based on the domination of geography, of nature.
How can architecture contribute to new conceptualizations of alternative formats for these petro-landscapes and petropolises? How can designers and planners tackle the specificities and inequities of this space of contradiction to propose something new? In the present case of the Polar North, how do we learn to live in the North?


Applebaum Anne (2003), Gulag. A History, (New York: Anchor Books).
Barenberg Alan (2014), Gulag Town, Company Town - Forced Labor and its Legacy in Vorkuta, (New Haven: Yale University Press).
Bhatia Neeraj, Casper Mary (eds.) (2013), The Petropolis of Tomorrow, (Barcelona: Actar Publishers).
Bryant Levi (2014), Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
Elden Stuart (2013), The Birth of Territory, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).
Elden Stuart (2009), Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press).
Forensic Architecture (ed.) (2014), Forensis. The Architecture of Public Truth, (Berlin: Sternberg Press). 
Gordillo Gaston (2014), Rubble. The Afterlife of Destruction, (Durham: Duke University Press).
Josephson Paul (2014), The Conquest of the Russian Arctic, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).
Lefebvre Henri (2000), La Production de l'Espace, (Paris: Economica), 4th edition).
Lefebvre Henri (1991), The Production of Space, (London: Wiley-Blackwell).
Marriott James, Minio-Paluello Mika (2014), The Oil Road. Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, (London, UK/Brooklyn, US: Verso Books).
Mitchell Timothy (2013), Carbon Democracy. Political Power in the Age of Oil, (London, UK/Brooklyn, US: Verso Books).
Morton Timothy (2013), Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press).
Noys Benjamin (2014), Malign Velocities. Accelerationism and Capitalism, (Winchester, UK/Washington, US: Zero Books).
Sassen Saskia (2014), Expulsions. Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press).
Watts Michael, Peluso Nancy (eds.) (2001), Violent Environments, (Ithaca: Cornell University).
Weizman Eyal (2011), The Least of All Possible Evils. Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, (London, UK/Brooklyn, US: Verso Books).
White Mason (2009), 'Resource Fields. Gas Urbanism and Slick Cities', in Knechtel John, Fuel, (Cambridge: MIT Press), 70-93.
White Mason, Sheppard Lola (2009), 'Meltdown: Thawing Geographies in the Arctic', in New Geographies, Vol. 1, 130-137.

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