Featured image: Yakutsk is one of the world’s most isolated cities and still has no bridge across the Lena River (pictured frozen and drivable here), while a new one to Crimea opened today.
A little over four years after Crimea became separated from Ukraine and joined with Russia, a new $3.7 billion, 19-kilometer bridge from the mainland across the Black Sea has made the linkage of Russia’s newest territorial acquisition concretely clear. Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin jumped behind the wheel of a tangerine KAMAZ truck bedecked with miniature flags in order to lead a convoy of men with deep pockets and thin scalps across the bridge. Construction began in May 2015 under the supervision of Arkady Rotenberg. The legendary Russian oligarch happens to be a childhood friend and judo sparring partner of Putin’s and is also the man responsible for building much of the infrastructure for the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014. (Last year, American journalist Joshua Yaffa wrote a gripping account of the bridge’s very personal origins in the New Yorker.)
Putin is no stranger to building bridges. The Russian leader has built 16 of Russia’s 25 longest bridges, a record that’s probably now increased to 17 out of 25 following today’s opening. Previously, perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment in bridge-building was the rapid construction of three bridges in the subarctic city of Vladivostok, on the country’s Pacific coast, in advance of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in 2012. Those bridges, two of which were incredibly long cable-stayed structures, had major geopolitical cachet because they demonstrated to visiting dignitaries from Asia that Russia was serious about its “Pivot to the East.”
Yesterday, standing on the smooth asphalt of the Crimean Bridge, Putin announced to cheering construction workers, “In different historical eras, even under the tsar, people were dreaming of building this bridge.” For over a century, various groups have attempted to span the two sides of the Kerch Strait, from Imperial Russian Tsar Nicholas II to Nazi architect Albert Speer. Most dramatically, in 1944 the Soviets used materials leftover by retreating Nazi forces to build a pontoon bridge. Yet within six months, flowing ice, of all things in this neck of the country that has long served as a summertime destination for Russians escaping the cold, brought the bridge crashing down.
Where did Russia find the money for the bridge to Crimea?
This time around, the Russians seem to have been more successful. But in a time of sanctions and low oil prices, where did they even find the money to build this incredibly expensive undertaking?
One popular rumor regarding the source of the funds for the Crimean Bridge is the decision to perpetuate an even icier gap across the Lena River thousands of miles away in deepest Siberia. Astride the unbridged river’s western bank sits Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic. The city is home to nearly 300,000 people who happen to reside in the world’s second largest metropolis not connected to road or rail networks after Iquitos, Peru. That title may be alluring to adventurous tourists in search of far-flung experiences like seeing fish displayed vertically at the market and milk sold in disks. But Yakutsk’s inaccessibility is a real pain to most of its residents who have to make do with living in one of the coldest and remotest cities on Earth.
For approximately five months out of the year, Lena, nearly eight kilometers across as it passes Yakutsk, hardens enough that trucks and cars can drive across it at any time of day or night. Signs erected by the municipal authorities make it easy to see which way to drive across the ice road, which connects with the federal M-56 highway running along the eastern side of the Lena River. In addition, a new railroad, the Amur-Yakutsk Mainline, opened in 2014 right across the river from Yakutsk, but only cargo can come this far north. Passengers have to continue by car 400 kilometers to the south for the nearest passenger station, in Tommot. In summer, it’s possible to travel to and from Yakutsk across the Lena River via boats or ferries, but people complained to me that they were crowded and hot.
Unstable ice in spring and fall make traveling across the Lena all but impossible. The only way out, then, is to fly, which becomes quite expensive – as do the prices of groceries, fuel, and any other good most people living in cities connected to the world’s estimated 18 million kilometers of paved roads take for granted. Families in Yakutsk even schedule weddings and other gatherings around times when the river is passable. That is how much not having a bridge shapes daily life.
“We don’t even have a bridge”
When I spent 10 days in Yakutsk in winter 2016, many locals told me how much they wanted a bridge. There was the odd person who wanted to keep the Lena without one in order to keep drugs and immigrants out, but for the most part, a bridge was a popular idea. So popular, in fact, that a few people raised the possibility that perhaps China would build the bridge out of part of a deal with Russia in exchange for natural gas. Except perhaps for Russian railroad tycoon Alexander Dudinkov, who opined to a Sakha newspaper, “This must not be allowed…Do the Chinese build the bridge to the Crimea?” hardly anyone, even among government officials, seems terribly opposed to the notion of a foreign power building key infrastructure in Yakutsk. Ironically, however, as Dudinkov pointed out, nobody would have ever considered letting Beijing build the bridge to Crimea for even a second.
Despite the widespread desirability of a bridge across the Lena River, the Russian government has not stepped up to the plate. Common excuses center around the engineering challenges of building a bridge on permafrost, the sheer cost (possibly some $2 billion, though that is only a little over half of the outlays that were required for the Crimean Bridge), and the country’s never-ending financial crisis.
But one of the most common explanations I heard for why Yakutsk still doesn’t have its bridge is Crimea. One young person I spoke to in February 2016 remarked, “We have everything here. We have resources. We give everything to the state but they don’t respond to us. We don’t even have a bridge.”
Were funds diverted from Yakutsk’s bridge to build Crimea’s?
There is little hard evidence that funds were directly diverted from the Yakutsk bridge project to Crimea’s, but there are many indications that this may be what happened. In 2006, the Federal Road Agency (Rosavtodor)’s 2002-2010 strategy for modernizing the Russian road system was amended to allocate federal funding for construction of a bridge to Yakutsk. That amount grew each year, ultimately reaching 2.2 billion rubles in 2010. In 2013, Rosavtodor announced a call for tenders for the bridge project, stating that the federal budget had allocated 56.3 billion rubles to build and operate a road through 2027. In 2014, a Russian consortium won the right to build a 3-kilometer bridge across a shorter span of the river south of Yakutsk, along with 18 kilometers of access roads.
Yet changes in the 2015 federal budget – one year after Crimea rejoined Russia – prevented the planned signing of the concession agreement. In 2014 as well, Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported that 44 billion rubles ($1.2 billion) that had been dedicated to construction and repairs along the 1,200 kilometer M-56 highway passing Yakutsk had been shunted to Crimea. Then in 2016, two years after the crisis in Crimea, the federal government removed mention of a cross-Lena bridge from the transport strategy altogether.
For every megaproject somewhere, an infrastructure gap elsewhere
Regardless of whether or not the Crimean Bridge is directly to blame for Yakutsk’s continued inaccessibility, the gradual evaporation of funds for this Siberian bridge shows how megaprojects do not get built without exacerbating infrastructure gaps elsewhere. Time and again, it seems like geopolitically unimportant places in remote places like the Arctic lose out on investments in public infrastructure. Major industrial projects like pipelines and ports may go ahead, but unless it’s the Faroe Islands, it seems, the things people need – houses, schools, bridges – are sacrificed in the process.
Dissenting voices in the Sakha Republic have made their frustration with the lack of investment in a bridge to Yakutsk known. In 2014, Mikhail Nikolayev, a State Duma representative and former president of the Sakha Republic argued to The Moscow Times, “The country has enough funds and resources. To try to cut in one place to patch up another is unacceptable for the country. I think the government and the president perfectly understands [that Siberia and the Far East are Russia’s future] and will not cut funds destined to their development.”
Time will tell if the Russian president who drove so masterfully across what will certainly be remembered as a crowning achievement of his rule will realize this and build bridges in less areas less symbolic to national territorial integrity. If not, then maybe Chinese and perhaps even Japanese companies, with whom Rosavtodor is now supposedly planning to sign a concession agreement, will be the real builders of bridges in the Arctic. Already looking forward to that moment, one Chinese business leader has claimed that the bridge to Yakutsk will be the “continuation of the Great Silk Road.”