The Skolkovo of the North
ARKHANGELSK — With a name that means “Archangel” in English, the Arctic city of Arkhangelsk is sometimes dubbed “Russia’s Los Angeles.” But in fact they are poles apart.
The history of one of the most ancient northern Russian cities dates back to 1583, when it was established on the order of Ivan the Terrible to become the first major Russian commercial port. Today, Arkhangelsk is frequently called the “Gateway to the Arctic.”
Nestled among forests, the city has long hosted a great number of timber and pulp-processing enterprises. It also serves as headquarters for companies dealing with oil and diamonds in the region.
But modern Arkhangelsk is turning into a sort of northern Skolkovo focused on the Arctic, the natural resources-rich territory where the Kremlin has been deliberately boosting Russia’s presence. The Kremlin is trying to make Arkhangelsk an Arctic center, and for that reason the city hosts many Arctic-related events, like the Second International Arctic Forum that took place earlier this month and was attended by senior Russian officials and scholars.
Almost a year ago, the government established in Arkhangelsk the Northern Arctic Federal University (narfu.ru), one of eight universities formed to cover all regions from the Far North to the Far East as part of President Dmitry Medvedev’s bid to modernize the economy.
The university’s “key aim [is] to protect Russia’s geopolitical interests in the Arctic,” said its rector, Yelena Kudryashova.
Alexei Kudrin, who resigned this week as Russia’s Finance Minister, has chaired meetings of the university’s board, becoming a frequent visitor to Arkhangelsk. Kudrin himself is a native of the city.
To protect Russia’s Arctic interests, the government has sunk 777.7 million rubles ($27.8 million) into the university during the past year. Uniting several local colleges, the university boasts the modern labs and technical equipment needed to study the Arctic and train specialists, although its leaders concede that not much has been achieved on the practical side yet.
When visited by a reporter in the summer, the city was swamped with posters reading: “Mikhail Lomonosov — the greatest innovator of Russia,” in a nod to the 300th anniversary of the birth in November of the world-famous Russian polymath and scientist who, among many things, discovered that Venus has an atmosphere. The slogan is a clear answer to President Dmitry Medvedev’s call for modernization.
There was no Skolkovo and no Medvedev in the times of Lomonosov, who was born to a peasant family near Arkhangelsk, so he had to travel to Moscow with a fishery caravan to get an education. Centuries on, his name has turned into a brand in his birthplace, where even a local potato carries the name “Mikhailo Lomonosov.”
The city itself is located 760 kilometers north of St. Petersburg and only 40 kilometers from the White Sea. The city covers 60 kilometers from one end to the other and contains numerous islands, not always connected with bridges, so people use boats to get around.
Unlike many other Russian cities, Arkhangelsk has no ancient Orthodox churches. “About 30 churches were blown up when the Bolsheviks came to power,” said Nina Tuchnolobova, an employee at the Stepan Pisakhov Museum. That was the price that the city paid for keeping its religious name.
Instead, there is a number of original wooden houses, often dilapidated, in the historic city center referred to as “Gorod.” They might disappear in a few years, however, because the authorities prefer to build new spacious brick apartment blocks instead of reconstructing the old dwellings.
Locals boast that the nationwide problem of racially motivated violence is uncommon in the city because of its historic background as a hub for foreign traders.
But the Kremlin’s policy may be seen as discriminating toward foreigners in the city. Under a January 2011 decree by Medvedev, foreigners are restricted from owning land in regions on Russia’s borders, including in Arkhangelsk because of its close location to Northern Europe.