Living or Leaving? Youth and the liveability of single-industry towns in the Russian Arctic

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 2/2020. In recent years, new loosely organised groups of young active people have appeared in northern industrial cities, resisting the decay of the urban environments and making their hometowns more liveable for youth.

Declining industrial towns can be found all over the world, but there are particularly large numbers of them in the Russian Arctic. During the Soviet period, numerous single-industry towns were built next to the deposits of different mineral resources in the north, including the Murmansk region where our study, “Live, Work or Leave? Youth – wellbeing and the viability of (post) extractive Arctic industrial cities in Finland and Russia” was conducted. Decades ago, these towns were prosperous Soviet communities of work migrants. The mining enterprise was responsible not only for industrial production but for all spheres of life in the town. In the 1990s, most town-forming enterprises successfully transitioned to the market economy. Under the new conditions, the urban environments, even in towns with economically stable mines, are neglected. Thriving enterprises are often surrounded by industrial ruins and abandoned mines. In many places, the crime and violence rates are growing, as are drug and alcohol use. Apathy and social anomie plague the previously flourishing communities.

In northern industrial towns, the ‘sense of place’ varies across different generations. Older residents remember the Soviet times when severyane (the northerners) who populated the newly built mining towns were a kind of ‘northern elite’. The past and a strong attachment to the place help them to differentiate themselves from the present decay and give the strength to cope with marginalisation. The youth cannot rely upon such memories and often complain about the obsolescence of their hometowns, the soviet appearance of the urban spaces, boredom and a lack of recreational opportunities. The majority of jobs in these towns are mining-related. In recent years, companies have optimised their processes, cutting job positions and switching to short-term contracts and sub-contracting. Due to the prevalence of male-dominated mining industries, young women feel especially vulnerable regarding their job chances. Their opportunities are mostly limited to traditionally female-dominated healthcare, administration and education jobs.

Youths are mobile and often look for career opportunities elsewhere, hoping for a better future. However, not all of them can afford radical life changes, thus being compelled to stay in their hometowns. There are also young people attached to their places who have consciously decided to live in the north because of a complex combination of social, emotional and material factors, for example, close social ties, cheap housing and the northern nature. In many accounts, the surrounding beauty of natural environments seems to be a compensation for decaying urban landscapes.

In recent years, new loosely organised groups of young active people have appeared in northern industrial cities, resisting the decay of the urban environments and making their hometowns more liveable for youth. They have initiated new projects that provide alternatives to the dominance of the mining industry and outdated soviet-style activities. Some young people have become entrepreneurs, contributing to the urban development of single-industry towns by creating new tourism and leisure opportunities. Others are organising citizen groups and bottom-up events that improve the city’s liveability: volunteer networks help elderly or poor people, informal civic groups promote recycling, artistic groups initiate music festivals, sports activists conduct competitions and adventure races. In mono-industrial towns, such grassroots initiatives often seek the support of enterprises and the local administration and depend on a relationship with powerful stakeholders in the locality.

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Alla Bolotova is a postdoctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute.