REEEC New Directions Lecture: Robert Orttung, “Promoting Sustainability in Russia’s Arctic Cities”


On March 7, 2019 Robert Orttung presented his preliminary findings on urban sustainability in the Russian Arctic. Orttung’s research is a part of a multidisciplinary project funded by the National Science Foundation, and includes the work of scholars from a number of fields, including political science, engineering, and anthropology. Orttung’s research focuses on possibilities for sustainable development in financially unstable Arctic cities that are impacted by climate change. The Arctic is an area that presents unique challenges, as cities of this region face extreme and quickly changing weather conditions. These cities can also be incredibly isolated, because their local economies are largely based on a single raw material (coal, oil, natural gas, etc.), which can lead to economic destitution when that material is no longer in demand.

Orttung’s presentation was in two parts: The first focused on the broader concerns outlined in the Arctic research project. Issues explored by other scholars involved in the project include the impact of “polar Islam,” or how the arrival of Muslim culture in the Arctic has impacted cities in this region, and the migration of the Arctic workforce, which has especially impacted indigenous peoples and women in these regions. In tandem with these socioeconomic factors, Orttung’s own contribution to this project is concerned with indicators of stability in urban governance. By tracking voter turnout in various Arctic cities, Orttung has indicated that high political participation is a large contributing factor to urban sustainability.

The second part of this lecture focused on two Russian Arctic cities in contrasting states of development. Vorkuta, a once-prosperous city fueled by the coal-mining industry, experienced an economic boom in the 1940s and 50s when coal was in high demand. As the coal industry declined into the 1980s, the city experienced a bust period in which it relied on government subsidies for urban development. Now, the city receives no government support, and has shrunk in on itself, leaving its outskirts abandoned and its infrastructure in disrepair. Micro-entrepreneurship has become the primary survival tactic of the city’s residents. Standing in contrast to Vorkuta is the city of Salekhard—an oil and natural gas city currently experiencing an economic boom, as Vorkuta once experienced. In contrast to these urban narratives, Orttung argues that while Soviet-era urban development was quick to capitalize on economic booms in Arctic cities, little was done to plan for the inevitable decline of the boom-bust cycle of these single-product economies. As illustrated by current development projects in Salekhard, Russia has not learned its lesson from the busts experienced by urban areas in the Soviet period.

What intrigued me most about Orttung’s lecture was the advantages and disadvantages presented by multidisciplinary scholarship. While Orttung pointed out that such research is not easy, and that it can be difficult to coordinate between disciplines with different expectations for completing and publishing research, it is nonetheless wise to cross disciplinary boundaries when addressing multifaceted issues. Sustainability is a complex and tightly bound knot that will require multiple perspectives and hands to untangle. I found the various approaches taken by the researchers in this project to be effective not only in identifying key factors in urban stability, but also in illustrating the multiple dimensions of urban life that are impacted by climate change in the Arctic. I look forward to hearing more about the work done for this project, and how it might contribute to increased sustainable development in Arctic cities.


Melissa Bialecki is a PhD student of ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is interested in how affective musical performance shapes political thought on the Ukrainian conflict and Russian-Ukrainian relations. Her research focuses primarily on the Ukrainian folk revival as well as ethno-punk and pop bands in Ukraine and the North American diaspora. She is a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellow through the Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois, and will receive a Title VIII fellowship from Arizona State University to study Ukrainian in Kyiv this summer.

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