While the West weighs how best to mobilise against climate change, one nation looks forward to an age of defrosted prosperity. Peter Savodnik on how Russia learned to stop worrying and love the warm. In Murmansk it was snowing in June. Home to Russia's Northern Fleet, Murmansk is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, and while people here are accustomed to very cold and long winters, they did not expect snow in summer. They expected cool winds, white-grey skies and polar nights, which are like the famous white nights of St Petersburg, only brighter and utterly indistinguishable from daytime. In June children are supposed to ride bicycles in the courtyards of the crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks, and the flags of the fishing trawlers floating in and out of the harbour are supposed to fly briskly; there are supposed to be ice-cream vendors on Ulitsa Lenina, the city's central artery, and outside the train station. In the summer, the statue of the soldier everyone calls Alyosha, rising nearly 300 feet above a hilltop overlooking the harbour, usually points proudly toward a weak and hazy sun, and on Saturdays, all the brides and grooms come to the base of the statue to have their photographs taken in front of the monument. But today it was snowing in Murmansk, and the people were bothered not so much by the cold or the inconvenience but by the oddness of it. Elnur Karimov, driving his taxi through the rolling green-grey sowbacks outside of town and under the veil of snow, explained that he had lived in Murmansk since the late 1970s. "This was when I was in the army, and after the army, instead of going back to Azerbaijan, I stayed, and you know, I've never seen anything like this. The weather, it's becoming upside down." First snowfall used to come to Murmansk in October; now that happens in December. The waves that crash into the pebbly coastline are bigger than they were a few years ago; the coastline is smaller. The ice that spreads across much of the nearby Barents Sea, where seals and bears once roamed, is shrinking. It is more fragmented than it was not so long ago, just like the ice in the East Siberian, Kara, Laptev and Chukchi seas off of Siberia; this would be obvious to anyone who'd been on the fishing boats, nuclear-powered ice-breakers or commercial tankers that form the backbone of Murmansk's mostly marine-based economy. It's warmer, in many respects, but it's also discombobulated and unpredictable - upside down. Global warming, or globalnoye potepleniye, is felt and seen in the Arctic in a way that it is not in Moscow or Petersburg or most other places on earth. Murmansk, after all, is just 1100 kilometres from the North Pole, the gradual melting of which is the cause of so much of this dislocation, meteorological and otherwise. But the people who govern Murmansk - whose job is to represent the will of the Kremlin, not that of the people who live in their jurisdiction - talk about global warming as if it were a theory that might or might not have any relevance to their region. "Our scientists say that the Arctic Circle is melting," Andrei Seryakov, the deputy mayor of Murmansk, said in an interview at his office in city hall, on Ulitsa Lenina. "But, really, we don't see it, and I can say that this is not something that we think about. This is not something that is happening now." In Murmansk, there are ample incentives to cast aside concern for the worrisome side effects of climate change: the local economy stands to benefit handsomely if the temperature inches up a few degrees. The commercial tankers that travel along the northern coast of Russia and Europe would run more frequently, more foreign capital would flow into the region, and the cold and isolation that have historically enveloped this Arctic outpost of the Russian empire would subside. A new place, teeming with possibility, would emerge out of centuries of frozenness.
All across Russia, the prospect of global warming appears to present new opportunities: exploration of oil and gas fields in Siberia and construction of pipelines linking those fields with Europe and China would be cheaper; agriculture would pick up from Karelia, north of St Petersburg, to Chukotka, in the far east; more tourists would come; more timber would be harvested; deaths from exposure to cold would fall; and the quality of life of vast swathes of the country - 60 per cent of Russia is covered in permafrost - would (quite possibly) rise. It might seem impolitic to embrace what many regard as a looming global catastrophe. But this has not stopped the Russians. In September 2003, none other than Vladimir Putin signalled his approval, noting that global warming would help Russians "save on fur coats and other warm things". More recently, Rinat Gizatullin, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Ministry, told the BBC: "We are not panicking. Global warming is not as catastrophic for us as it might be for some other countries. If anything, we'll be even better off. As the climate warms, more of Russia's territory will be freed up for agriculture and industry." Earlier this year, Alexander Bedritsky, head of Russia's state weather centre, issued a public statement noting that "the heating season will be reduced, and this is a positive factor for us as it will allow us to economise on fuel". The weather centre estimated that Russians could save as much as 10 per cent on heating bills by 2050. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist Duma deputy who is widely believed to be close to the Kremlin and who speaks for millions of like-minded Russians, has publicly pined for the day when global warming takes its toll on the West, gloating that London will be submerged by the Thames and "Britain will have to give freedom to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland". Anders Aslund, an economist who has advised the governments of Russia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, said support for - not simply acceptance of - global warming in Russia is a "view shared by government, elites and the population. Only a small environmentalist movement holds an opposite view." Enthusiasm for global warming in Russia, if that's the right way to put it, goes beyond simple household concerns or national economic interests. For the Russians, who regard the Arctic as essentially their rightful territory, shrinking ice floes will ease access to the bounty of natural resources around the polar ice cap, including large reserves of oil, gas, gold, diamonds, nickel and tungsten. But more important than all this is Russia's seemingly unquenchable thirst for territory qua territory - not necessarily as a source of anything economically or militarily useful. This yearning, like that for large meals, eighteen-lane avenues, oversized billiard tables, wide train tracks and sprawling novels, remains at the heart of Russia's political identity. Bigness is a central component, perhaps the central component, of how Russia imagines Russia, and the desire for territorial acquisition has become even more acute in the post-Soviet era, as Russia has seen its borders and international might greatly reduced. Hence the controversial Arctic voyage in August 2007, in which a mini-submarine dived 14,000 feet below the ice and planted a titanium Russian flag on the sea floor - which prompted senior officials in the United States, Canada and elsewhere to remind the Russians that the hotly contested territory beneath the North Pole remained hotly contested. (The United Nations is charged with determining what belongs to whom.) Viewed through this distinctly Russian prism, the West's alarm over global warming - much like its enthusiasm for democracy and human rights - often looks like a thinly veiled ploy to contain Russian ambitions, and this suspicion has predictably fuelled something of an anti-anti-global-warming movement. At an official level, Russia has of late taken a more politic approach toward climate change. In 2004, the government formally backed the Kyoto Protocol, and officials now generally refrain from publicly extolling the benefits of climate change. In February of this year, the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring released a comprehensive report on the long-term impact of global warming on Russia, including mention of droughts, floods and forest fires. Alas, it is very unlikely that in the course of a few years, the Russian state acquired an environmental consciousness. "The mentality of the country is still that two degrees warmer would be good," said Alexey Kokurin, head of the World Wildlife Federation's Moscow office. "In the northern part of the country, global warming is embraced." Sergei Mironov, chairman of Russia's Federation Council and, in theory, third in the line of succession, buttressed this assessment when he delivered a speech at a May 2007 conference in Petersburg in which he attacked the scientific basis for the Kyoto Protocol - despite having helped usher it through the upper legislative chamber. "The natural scientific framework of the protocol," Mironov declared, "is still rather weak, since a long-term impact of greenhouse-gas emissions on the climate has not been studied sufficiently." What seems likelier than a genuine shift in position is that the state has become more sophisticated about how it portrays itself: backing Kyoto earned Russia plaudits from around the globe. But its real reasons for doing so remain murky. The agreement stipulates that countries that produce too many greenhouse gases can buy credits from those countries that underproduce. The Kyoto quotas are based on each nation's 1990 pollution output, and since Russian industry plummeted following the 1991 Soviet collapse, Russia today produces far fewer gases than it is allowed under Kyoto. In other words, the Russian state could reel in between $20 billion and $40 billion yearly from other countries eager to buy Russia's pollution credits (based on one Duma deputy's calculations). Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, said he was unaware of Russia having received any revenue since signing onto Kyoto. Aslund, the economist, said the reason for that was "that Russia has never managed to get its bureaucratic act together to start selling exhaust rights, which Ukraine has actually done this year."
Russians - not simply the Russian state but the Russian people - have a unique relationship with their natural surroundings. There is an obvious reason for this: Russia's size. This vastness, over the centuries, has helped inculcate a seemingly contradictory, bifurcated attitude toward nature: nature is rich and beautiful and a source of physical and spiritual replenishment; and it is at the same time utterly replaceable, a tool or defence that can be used, depleted, burnt and ultimately deserted only to be recreated, or refound, somewhere else not very far away. Nature may be home - until well after the 1917 revolution, the vast majority of Russians lived in villages - but it is a home that can just as easily be rebuilt somewhere else. Russia is the only place in the world where a scorched earth strategy could defeat an entire army, one of a scant few countries that can temporarily move its capital several hundred miles east (as it did during the Second World War, from Moscow to Samara), just as it may be the only place in the world where the state can trash countless forests, rivers, lakes and even an entire sea (the Aral, now shrinking rapidly and on the verge of total dissolution as a result of Soviet mismanagement) without much concern that there won't be other natural resources to plunder in the future. Everything that is necessary or valuable - a home, a government, a body of water - can be found or built somewhere else. "Because of the size of this country, the environment was never considered to be something that could be, I think, lacking," said Kiril Ass, a Moscow architect who has spent years studying and designing Russian dwellings. "When the Tatars would come" - invasions that persisted from the 13th to the 16th centuries - "the Russian villagers would just pick up their stuff, move to another area, cut down the trees and build another village. The cultivation of the land was never a big deal because the idea was never that you would stay there forever."
Oleg Mitvol, a media tycoon and former deputy head of the Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources, observed that the vast majority of Russian political and business elites "almost never think about the environment" and that global warming is simply not part of the Russian discourse. Daily facts of life - Russians' habit of tossing trash out the window while they are driving, heavily subsidised (and therefore wasteful) gas consumption - point toward a general lack of concern or "carelessness about things", as Ass put it. This is a thread that courses through the national literature. Ilya Oblomov, Dmitry Karamazov and Ivan Chonkin, the bumbling Red Army infantryman made famous by Vladimir Voinovich, are all exemplars of a particular Russian character - or a caricature of same - that is at once lazy, uncaring, oblivious, passionate, hapless, mindless, and incapable of planning or piecing together so much as a daily calendar. In their own way, Nikita Khrushchev, Boris Yeltsin and every muzhik, or peasant, are emblematic of a roughness and crudeness, a pungency or distaste for anything too careful or thought through. They lurch. They drink (although not excessively in Khrushchev's case). They thump and rant and gesticulate wildly and (sometimes) slam their shoe on a table at the United Nations. They are not bound by anything so universal as class or ideology - Oblomov descends from St Petersburg's landed gentry; Yeltsin was a communist apparatchik from the Urals. But what is abundantly clear is that this place is not predisposed to view the world it inhabits the way westerners do. Indeed, this place is predisposed to think about the world like so many developing countries - China, India, Brazil and elsewhere - that are still scrambling to forge a more secure future for themselves. While the developed world - thanks in part to the intransigence of its largest polluter, the United States - struggles to coordinate its efforts against climate change, the real challenge will come from outside the west, where industry and development are unshackled by regulation and environmental movements have little purchase. In this sense, Russia, now seeking to rebuild its superpower status with oil and gas pipelines, poses a particularly difficult test. Westerners may disagree about who is to to blame for global warming, or even whether it is a real phenomenon with serious, life-altering consequences. But there is, beneath all this discord, a fundamental consensus: almost all of those people who deny global warming accept that it would be a bad thing. The arguments are not over whether to save the Earth but over the necessity of doing so and the efficacy of government intervention. In Russia, the same cannot be said. That is because the idea of nature is different, and in some respects antipodal, to the western idea. The natural world - far from being "better" or "less corrupt" than the world of man, as Rousseau might put it - is simply that which is not unnatural; it is not especially wondrous or worthy of preservation; it is an ally that can be used and, sometimes, thrown away. All this makes forging a meaningful environmental policy in the mould of a Western-style environmentalism very difficult, if not impossible. "In my government, people are not thinking about the connections between people and government and the environment," said Mitvol, the former natural resources official. The most serious problem, Mitvol said, was that Russia had yet to develop a governmental infrastructure for combating pollution. "What we need is government machinery. This is how you protect the environment."
On top of all this, Russia remains a poor country. In the United States, environmentalism has not been the province of the poor or the working classes - it has been a cause, above all, for upper-middle-class liberals. Analogously, there is no reason to expect that Russian peasants and the working masses earning, at best, $300 or $400 per month will be disposed to think or care about their natural environs. And unlike in the United States, there is no self-defined, self-aware haute-bourgeoisie to tend to such "secondary" concerns as natural resources. There is no vast middle class from which hordes of ecologically minded activists and community organisers might spring. There is not enough leisure time for that. All of which is to say that the environment, at this moment in Russian history, has no obvious constituency. It is extracting oil and gas from the earth, not protecting the earth from extraction or any other disturbance, that has fuelled Russia's phenomenal growth since the late 1990s. The environmental movement, if anything, would appear to be at odds with widespread improvements in the standard of living and the country's new-found, if limited, muscle abroad - whether that means arm-squeezing in Ukraine (which has seen its gas cut off when it failed to pay what the Russians wanted) and Western Europe (which has been loathe to antagonise one of its leading gas suppliers), or bringing giant foreign energy firms to heel. The promise of the Shtokman gas field, which was discovered in 1988 and is believed to contain 3.8 trillion cubic meters of gas and 37 million tons of gas condensate (enough to run the entire world for more than a year), perfectly captures the allure of "anti-environmentalism" in Russia today. Shtokman lies beneath the Barents Sea, about 370 miles north of the Kola Peninsula, which encompasses Murmansk, and Russians have long envisioned funnelling its deep reserves of gas all over Europe. More recently, officials have devised plans to develop a liquefied natural gas facility at Shtokman that would enable them to ship gas on tankers to the United States and elsewhere. The possibility of steering large infusions of foreign capital into the Murmansk Region (French and Norwegian energy companies are involved in the Shtokman project) and the subsequent development of a thriving, hydrocarbon-based economy is very enticing to local officials, who have watched their city atrophy since the Soviet implosion.
Not surprisingly, environmentalists in the far north worry a great deal about the impact of all this drilling and construction. Possible gas leaks, water pollution and related threats to innumerable communities of fish and birds, including the Atlantic walrus and the Atlantic salmon, top the list of concerns. But the absence of a significant environmental constituency coupled with the obvious power of the energy sector has rendered these worries mostly academic. Among environmentalists, a mentality prevalent in the West - that the state alone can protect the environment from rapacious private operators - still predominates. "Business everywhere is the same," Vadim Krasnopolsky, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Federation's Murmansk office, explained over tea in his office on the first floor of an apartment building in the city centre. "They talk a lot about the environment, 'We are the best, we respect your ecological concerns,' but this is talk. This is PR." Turning to Shtokman, Krasnopolsky said the World Wildlife Federation was not, in principle, opposed to the development of the gas fields. (Far worse than gas, he said, was the possibility, also being seriously discussed by energy officials, of a nuclear power plant.) For Krasnopolsky the critical issue was preventing the private sector from developing the gas field without government regulation. "It should only be developed," he stressed, "with the best practices and with public control." This sounds reasonable enough from an environmental vantage point. Environmentalists in the West, rightly or wrongly, have long sought state control of natural resources. The expectation has generally been that private industry, left to its own devices, would plunder public treasures in the service of profit. (There is a good bit of logic to this thinking, but it ignores the fact that command economies, including that of Soviet Union, have had deplorable environmental records.) The problem with importing this particular argument to Russia is that it is premised on the assumption that there is a genuine private sector that operates largely independently of the state. But this is not how things usually work in Russia, and it is most definitely not the case when it comes to large Russian energy companies, all of which have been brought to heel by a powerful Kremlin. For environmentalists to hope that a beneficent and law-bound state will prudently regulate the activities of profit-seeking capitalists is absurd: in Russia, as in some other developing nations, there is no beneficent and law-bound state, and the profit-seeking capitalists often cannot be distinguished from the people who run the state that does exist. It's worth noting that the current president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, was formerly the head of Gazprom, the state-run gas company that is spearheading the Shtokman project. No doubt, Krasnopolsky, who was a translator on an ice-breaker before joining the World Wildlife Federation and has a worldly air about him, was aware of all this. But when pressed about whether applying traditional environmentalist tactics to Russia is likely to bear much fruit, he simply smiled. Then he shrugged and resumed talking about Shtokman. "We need to be involved in the process," he said. "We know what [natural resources are] in our region. We need an independent assessment of the project." Oddly (or not so oddly), it is those who come from the less professional environmental groups, the shoestring operations that exist on the margins and lack a full-time staff and office supplies and central heating, that seem to grasp better what kind of challenges they face (or, at least, are more willing to acknowledge those challenges). Vitaly Servetnik, the president of Nature and Youth, is 23 and has a bolt in his chin, and he runs what looks like a club for teenage indie rockers out of a crumbling, dimly lit apartment-hovel several miles outside the centre of Murmansk. He and the executive director of the organisation are the only paid employees. Everyone else who floats in and out of Nature and Youth's three-room headquarters looks to be a university student volunteering between classes. They have multiple piercings and tattoos. They look angry, disenchanted - politically engaged - and, on some level, they seem to appreciate that environmentalism in Russia is not, first and foremost, about saving trees or curbing carbon emissions. It is about self-government. "Russians don't have a strong position about global warming," Servetnik said. "They don't think it's important, and that's because the head of our country doesn't talk about it. At the local level, I don't know what they do... The regional government's boss is not the people. Their boss is the Kremlin. They're worried about what Moscow wants, and if a big corporation like Gazprom or Rosatom wants something" - both of which are not, strictly speaking, western-style corporations but state-run agencies with a private-sector gloss - "they will do it."
It has been said, outside Russia, that many Russians like the idea of global warming because the country is so cold. It is true that Russians, like everyone, like the idea of saving money - on heating bills, for instance - but it is hardly clear that they like the idea of losing the intense, wintertime cold that has long defined Russia. The cold in Russia is not simply a temperature or a certain level of snowfall. In Russia, the cold is a metaphysical state, and that state has been enshrined by the writers - consider Gogol's Akaky Akakievich's untimely death or Zhivago's snow-capped train trip across European Russia or Babel's depictions of Petersburg during the revolution - and it has been wired into the faces of so many Russians, who move their lips less than English speakers do when they speak and avoid smiling a great deal and generally look like they are cold even if they are not. True, Russians fear the cold - babushkas are fond of chiding young women for sitting on cold surfaces, lest they have trouble conceiving - but their fear is intimately bound up with their love of the culture that has developed out of that cold: the cuisine (rich in fat, with vodka to steel the body against the outside world), the banya, the heaviness of gait and expression, the cryptic melodrama that seems to pervade the whole society, as if to say this is a place that is too close to death, to take anything less than seriously. In Russia at least, this may be the real threat of climate change. For centuries, Russians imagined carving a northern passage, or Arctic bridge, from the old world to the new. That bridge, connecting Murmansk and Churchill, Canada, is now open for three months a year. A somewhat melted North Pole would permit year-round shipping. With the new thaw will come greater commercial traffic, more goods and people, more exchange of foreign ideas, attitudes, politics. The old frozenness will recede just a little bit more. Russia will become richer, more interconnected, less xenophobic, but it will also, presumably, become a little less Russian. Everywhere outside Russia the cold is something to contend with, but in Russia the cold is inseparable from its context. It is the essence of its place, and it is the defensive seal that envelopes that essence. This, more than the fear of losing a species of fish or seal, or even the hope of reaping billions in carbon-emission credits, may be the only thing that will fuel a nationwide movement, if there ever is one, to curb global warming. Russia may still be struggling to find its particular niche in the post-Soviet world, and it may have a complicated relationship with its natural surroundings, but in a very narrow, nationalistic sense, it does not have a complicated relationship with Russia: it will do what it believes necessary to save its sense of self. For now, it's easier to pretend that that sense of self is not, in fact, in need of saving. Like global warming, the northern passage to Churchill has apparently not registered with the authorities in Murmansk. When the subject was broached, Seryakov, the deputy mayor, and Viktoria Shvets, the city's senior economic planner, said they'd never heard of it. "This is not something we're aware of," Shvets said. But in fact there has been talk of a permanent, polar trade route for centuries, and in 2004, OmniTrax, the Denver-based company that owns the Churchill port, entered into talks with the state-run Murmansk Shipping Company to promote the idea of an Arctic bridge that could be crossed in the depths of winter. Strangely, the whole conversation with Seryakov and Shvets revolved around what was not acknowledged or said - that climate change is a fact of life in Murmansk, and that this fact may dramatically change the city and its fate. After the meeting, Masha, an assistant to the mayor who was present, gave voice to the curious, politically plotted ellipses that marked the whole conversation. "Yes, of course," she said. "As for this commercial shipping, it would be better if we could do it year round."
Peter Savodnik has written for GQ, Harper's Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Time and other publications. He lives in New York.