In June, wildfires crossed into the Arctic Circle, making them the first wildfires recorded north of the 66th parallel in human history. Blazes in Siberia have already burned through an area the size of Greece this year. It is the worst wildfire season on record for Russia, surpassing the 2019 wildfires, which surpassed the 2015 wildfires, which surpassed the 2010 wildfires.
“I was a little shocked to see a fire burning 10 kilometers south of a bay of the Laptev Sea, which is like, the sea ice factory of the world,” fire researcher Jessica McCarty told National Geographic. “When I went into fire science as an undergraduate student, if someone had told me I’d be studying fire regimes in Greenland and the Arctic, I would have laughed at them.”
These record setting fires are the product of the collision between climate change and neoliberal policies that have dominated Russia and the rest of the planet for decades. And the story of how the fires were allowed to burn in Russia speaks to the insufficiency of mere “reform” as unrestrained capitalism pushes human civilization and the planet into a death spiral.
Before the Fires
The collapse of the Soviet Union was seen as an unprecedented opportunity for the West to remake Russia into an ideal image of a capitalist state. “The vipers, the bloodsuckers, the middlemen – that’s what needs to be rehabilitated in the Soviet Union,” Bruce Gelb, head of the United States Information Agency told reporters in 1990, “That’s what makes our kind of country click!”
The rate at which American advisors went about remaking the country was astonishing to behold, an unprecedented event in human history. Within three years unemployment jumped from less than one million to more than 15 million. By 1996, the standard of living for the average Russian had fallen by half. Wages collapsed – when they were paid at all – along with life expectancy. In 1995, the British medical journal The Lancet, estimated an excess mortality across the former Soviet Union of 500,000 deaths a year. This drop in life expectancy hit Russian men the hardest causing Pravda to ask whether or not Russian men “are becoming extinct” in 2005.
At the structural level, the Russian state was being turned into a finely tuned engine of capital transfer – from the East to the West and from the working class to the capitalist class. It was a modern primitive accumulation of the variety Marx wrote about in the darkest chapter of Capital more than a century prior.
Former Soviet industries, owned by the state, were transferred to private hands as quickly as possible for pennies on the dollar. Once in private hands, factories were generally liquidated for a quick pay-off and their empty husks boarded up. 70,000 factories were closed in two years with many workers receiving temporary employment dismantling their former places of work. Estonia became a leading exporter of aluminum as Russian firms used the country as a black market for unloading scrap metal.
At the state level, the government was turned into a vehicle of pure graft. People fought – and sometimes killed – for coveted political positions where they could sign over lucrative former Soviet enterprises to themselves and their cronies. Even the American advisors, there to midwife the “vipers, bloodsuckers, and middlemen” into being, got in on the action. Using a Boston hedge fund and his wife as a front, Harvard economics professor and advisor to the Yeltsin regime, Andrei Schleifer, funneled millions out of the country and into his own pocket.
“During each visit [to Russia],” Swedish economist and advisor to Boris Yeltsin, Anders Aslund, told reporters in 1993, “I am gladdened by the future and the new triumphs of capitalism.”
People in Russia naturally despised the ransacking of the country at their expense, so elections were fixed, reporters were disappeared, police forces and private militias were funded, and prisons were filled. The people were to be taught, as Margaret Thatcher was fond of saying, “There is no alternative.”
What was left of the Soviet state by the end of the 1990s was a hollow shell of what had existed a mere decade prior. All the copper wiring had been removed; all the scrap metal pulled out – literally in many cases. The state existed only to supervise the continual upward redistribution of wealth – a lucrative occupation in its own right, Vladimir Putin has a net worth of $70 billion – and deal out violence to any of the rabble who got out of line.
The Russian economy, once one of the largest industrial economies in the world, is now almost completely reliant on oil and natural gas exports. Which means that even as Russia burns, the country remains completely devoted to the extraction of ancient carbon reservoirs and their release into the atmosphere. America made the Russian state into its own image, an apocalyptic death cult.
The 2010 Wildfires
In 2010, Russia experienced its hottest summer on record. The hot dry weather combined with the dismantling of the Soviet era forestry service produced wildfires that choked out Russia’s capital city and filled its morgues.
Three years prior to these fires, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Forest Code into law that placed the care of Russia’s massive timberlands into the hands of private logging interests and corrupt local bureaucrats. The previous centralized forestry service that had 80,000 park rangers and 11,000 air-dropped firefighters was cut down to a mere 2,000 people who served a strictly monitoring function. At the time Russian environmentalists claimed the law would spell disaster. Within a few short years, the number of forest fires in the country doubled.
The 2010 wildfires burned through nearly 1,200 square miles of forest. They were the largest wildfires on record in the country and their proximity to the most populous city made them deadly. At the height of the fires, the smoke and ash combined with an unprecedented heatwave doubled the daily summer death toll in Moscow adding an additional 350 deaths per day. Moscow health chief Andrei Seltsovky reported that the city morgues were nearly overflowing.
Embarrassed by the mounting death toll, state authorities told Moscow doctors not to diagnose heat stroke as a cause of death in order to obscure the actual human cost of the fires. One group estimated the total summer deaths attributable to the heatwave and wildfires could be as high as 15,000 people. Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer (an insurance company for insurance companies), estimated the combined death toll in Russia as a whole from the heatwave, smoke, and wildfires to be around 56,000.
After the Putin-Medvedev government received harsh criticism over the fires and the 2007 Forest Code, a Putin spokesman continued to defend the failed system stating, “This is a well-functioning system which only needs some minor adjustments.” Russian people who were forced to suffer through the effects of the fires were not as generous. One man from the village of Tver remarked bitterly that under the communists “there were three fire ponds in the village, a bell that tolled when a fire began, and – guess what – a fire truck.”
The 2019 Wildfires
2019 was the hottest year on record for Russia. As the tundra thawed in Siberia and the peat that lay below winter snow grew dry and brittle in the unprecedented heat, a phenomenon known as “dry lightning” lit fires across Siberia. These fires grew and combined to form one massive wildfire raging across Siberia. Twelve thousand square miles burned in a single month in what became the largest fire in Russian history, surpassing the 2015 wildfires and their 2010 predecessor.
These fires were again aided by the neoliberal state. In dealing with the 2015 wildfires – which also burned in Siberia – Russia’s environmental ministry issued a decree that allowed regions to ignore fires if “the expected cost of fighting fires surpasses the expected damages.” Whether wildfires would grow to unprecedented size would be left to the market to decide – a great victory for neoliberalism!
“It feels like it fills your whole body. There is nothing to breathe,” a resident of a village 60 miles from the fire described the smoke in the increasingly apocalyptic scene to reporters. “We can’t hide from it… Children and adults are coughing non-stop.”
Unable to meet the disaster within the constraints of Russian neoliberalism, authorities pivoted. Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Uss told the press that fighting the fires was “pointless and harmful.” Deputy Emergency Minister Igor Kobzev told the press that “most fires started near roads” and that they were caused by humans, despite forestry officials stating that the fires were caused by lightning. Rumors of arsonists were promulgated by media and politicians alike as had been done during the 2015 fires.
Those forced to live with the fires had a different view. Retired local Ivan Ozornik told reporters, “They are putting out the fires now, but it should have been done long ago, when they were small enough to be extinguished.” He went on to say that under the Soviet Union fire risk was monitored and they “didn’t let it become a disaster. Now the process is out of control. Our public money is being spent and there’s no result.”
On June 20th, 2020, a small Siberian town named Verkhoyansk recorded a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The 100 degree day was not just unusual for the town, where June temperatures average 68, it was the hottest temperature ever recorded in the arctic circle.
As the unprecedented heatwave thawed and dried out the tundra, new wildfires have started. Some suspect that the source of the fires could be “zombie fires,” smoldering peat that stays smoldering through the long winters only to re-ignite fires during the first thaw. Siberia’s 2020 wildfires are now larger than their 2019 predecessors and have stretched above the Arctic Circle, setting a new grim record.
Now, climate scientists worry about another potential danger. Beneath the peat and layers of dirt lies the permafrost – a permanently frozen layer that is a mix of soil and ancient plant life. It is one of the largest reserves of carbon on the planet, trapped in an icy tomb. And now there is evidence that it is thawing, unlocking massive carbon reserves that need to stay in the ground.
“The blazes themselves could also exacerbate global warming,” a report in National Geographic notes, “by burning deep into the soil and releasing carbon that has accumulated as frozen organic matter over hundreds of years.” A process that could “supercharge climate change.”
Once the permafrost thaws and that carbon reservoir is released, it will likely be game over for climate change and the planet as we know it. But as the world boils, the arctic could turn into valuable beach front property and that is something that we can all agree, markets will get excited about!