Life OfБАМ stories from  on and off  the railway Life OfБАМ

Episode 0: What is the BAM?

The Baikal-Amur Mainline

Photo: Peter Schweitzer

The Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) is Russia’s longest northern railroad, running in parallel to the famous Transsib railway further south. The BAM crosses six federal subjects in East Siberia (Irkutskaya Oblast’, the Republic of Buryatiya, Zabaikal’skiy Kray) and the Russian Far East (Amurskaya Oblast’ and Khabarovskiy Kray). Its major sidetrack, leading up to the northeast and called Amur-Yakutian Mainline (AYaM), crosses the Republic of Yakutiya.

BAM History Olga Povorozynuk

BAM builders with the slogans
Source: Museum of the BAM History, Tynda

The BAM’s history dates back to the late XIXth century, when the first plans for constructing a railroad were discussed, which would run along the shore of Lake Baikal in parallel to the Transsiberian railway. The ancestor of the contemporary BAM was a railroad stretching from Komsomol’sk-na-Amure to Sovetskaya Gavan’ in Khabarovskiy Kray, built between 1932 and 1953 by inmates of GULag labour camps, military personnel, and prisoners of war (Thomas, 2014). That project was abandoned after Stalin’s death in 1953, and the idea of restarting the BAM construction became popular in the Brezhnev era again.

The “Third BAM” was a grandiose engineering endeavor and the “last megalomaniac Communist industrial project” (Ward, 2009). Its construction was part of the Soviet policy of so-called “mastering the North” - rapid modernization and industrialization of remote Arctic and Siberian regions. The BAM was built for both economic and propagandistic reasons: the exploitation of the natural resources, on the one hand, and the development of collective faith in the Soviet administrative system and planned economy, on the other.

In 1974, “Komsomol”, the youth organization of the Communist Party, announced the beginning of the BAM construction and a youth labor mobilization campaign (Argudiaeva, 1988). Soviet propaganda urged young BAM builders to come to the region from all over the USSR under the popular slogans of “conquering the Nature” and “bringing civilization” to “the country’s remote corners”. The majority of the BAM line was built between 1972 and 1984, although some sections were put into operation only as late as in 2003.

BAM Community Olga Povoroznyuk

Home regions of the BAM builders, 1981
Map: Christoph Fink / Data: Argudiaeva (1988)

The cities and towns along the mainline, originally intended to be temporary settlements or railroad stations, were built in proximity to the existing indigenous and mixed communities. Currently the BAM network encompasses 210 railway stations, including big cities, such as Ust'-Kut, Severobaikal'sk, and Tynda, as well as towns like Taksimo, Novaya Chara, and Khani; and a number of smaller settlements. The city of Tynda, a transportation nod, where BAM, AYam and Transsib meet, is informally called the BAM capital.

The proportion of indigenous residents has been declining with the increase of BAM builders during the railroad’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the significant outflow of bamovtsy in the 1990s, they still constitute the majority population in the region, while indigenous population and post-Soviet migrants comprise only small shares.

Ethnically, Russians are the majority (70-89%), whereas the share of indigenous Evenki people fluctuates between 1,4% and 4,5% in the districts along the railroad. The proportion of indigenous population is significantly higher in so-called natsional’nye poselki (“ethnic villages”). Yet, the indigenous urbanization or the outmigration from villages to district and regional centers is another recent trend.

System of stakeholders, including state authorities, private industrial companies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and indigenous enterprises represents the interests of the main groups. In the struggle for benefits from resource development and state support, belonging to the local communities is a valuable asset.

Boom back Gertrude Saxinger

Photo: Gertrude Saxinger

Ust’-Kut, founded in 1631 and gaining city status in 1954, is located at the confluence of the river Kuta into Lena River. The backbone of the economy since Soviet times are the timber and celluloses industry, transport and the hydrocarbon industry. Due to the construction of the Baikal-Amur-Mainline railroad in the middle of the 1970s Ust’-Kut has been developed as a key transport hub for cargo transport to the northern districts: railroad, airport, the largest river harbours in the Soviet period and, the road connection that leads further north to Yakutsk. The population peak of the city was reached in the late 1980s (apx. 61 000) and stabilised after a huge decline in the 1990s by the mid of the 2000s (apx. 44 500). The construction of the oil pipeline Eastern Siberia - Pacific Ocean (ESPO) and the beginning of large-scale oil extraction has led to demographic stabilisation. Currently, plans for construction of new industrial plants, such as a wood-chemical complex, gas processing and other chemical industries are underway. However, small scale economic development such as tourism is slow and leads to a lack of diversified economy. 600 out of 2500 employees of the main petroleum company INK Irkutskaya Neftyanaya Kompaniya come from the Irkutsk municipality, others are fly-in/fly-out workers from other places of Russia. This rather low number of local workers result e.g. from a lack of training initiatives in the region. This current industrial boom, nevertheless, leads to the key concern that the development of the city’s social infrastructure is contested due to a great lack of medical doctors and nurses as well as teachers. If salaries in these highly underpaid professions of the public sector do not substantially increase, there is no incentive for specialists to move to Ust’-Kut. Federal, regional and local development plans should be more coherent to facilitate sustainable development of this BAM city.

Living off the BAM Gertraud Illmeier

The last remains of an ice road in spring, next to the village of Tokma.
Source: Copernicus Sentinel-2

There are many villages located quite away from the BAM tracks (but are still in a distance what we consider as the “greater BAM region”. Nevertheless, many, for example Tokma and Verkhnemarkovo, are connected to the oil industrial boom in the BAM region since INK, the region´s main oil company INK Irkutskaya Neftyanaya Kompaniya is operating closeby these places. Tokma has around 75 inhabitants who predominantly live on hunting in the southern part of Katangskiy rayon and is approximately 165 km away from Ust’-Kut, the next BAM hub. It has a winter road and in other seasons is accessible only by helicopter twice a month.

Verknemarkovo has a population of around 1900 people and is 130 km away from the BAM. A road connects Ust’-Kut and it takes around three hours by car. In Tokma INK collaborates with the local hunters association (obshyna). Fuel for hunting trips and social and cultural activities are co-funded by the company in the framework of INK´s corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. However, the hunters are not allowed to use the roads INK has constructed in the Taiga for corporate use. This leads to discontent on part of the local hunters. Similarly, social and cultural activities are also funded in Verkhnemarkovo by INK.

Verkhnemarkovo and the Oil Sector

The greatest benefit the people from Verkhnemarkovo expect form the oil industry are jobs. So far less than hundred people from Verkhnemarkovo are employed which is not a bad number. However, an increased effort on part of the oil company INK Irkutskaya Neftyanaya Kompaniya should be even more vocational training activities in their CSR activities to attract more young people to this sector and access to higher paid and higher qualified jobs.

An important benefit for local employment is the direct transport to and from the oil field to the community by helicopter or truck in order to avoid long travels by car to the city where workers are picked up for being transferred to their workplaces on the oil fields. In the past, in summer and during the time of rasputica (muddy roads due to wet weather conditions), workers had to go to Ust‘-Kut, from where they were brought via helicopter to the oil fields located in the north of Verchnemarkovo. In winter, when road conditions were better, workers did not need to go to Ust’-Kut, but were picked up in Verchnemarkovo and brought to their oil fields by a corporate truck. Since the quality of the road connecting Ust’-Kut and Verchnemarkovo has been significantly improved in the last years, the time periods when this road is not useable for INK trucks, have been reduced. Nowadays, the local INK workers from Verchnemarkovo working on the Yaraktinskiy oil field are being transported mainly on the ground, which is much cheaper for the company than air transport. However, helicopters are still an important means of transport, when oil fields are farer away or not accessible by road.

The BAM region: gold, copper and coal

A crude oil tank railway car waiting for its onward journey in Ust’-Kut
Photo: Gertrude Saxinger

The term BAM Region refers not only to the narrow transportation corridor, but, in a wider sense, to the territories connected to the railway and its sidetracks and -roads which connect more remote settlements to the BAM corridor. The region in general is only sparsely populated and characterised by administrative centres being far away from smaller settlements. At the same time it has rich mineral resources of gold, copper, rare metals, and coal. Mining and timber industry prompted the construction of the railroad in the 1970ies. Until today, the BAM is important for transporting mineral resources to Asian markets. In contrast, it is less important for passenger transport – which is continuously declining.

The Amur-Yakutsk mainline

In Tynda the AYaM meets the BAM.
Photo: Wikimedia/Afonin

Since the 1970s the Amur-Yakutsk Mainline (AYaM) has been under construction. This railway line connects the Transsiberian railroad and the Baikal-Amur Mainline with the Sakha republic (Yakutia). The rails currently end in Nizhniy Bestyakh. At the moment, passengers can travel from the South (BAM and Transsib) to Tommot. The opening of the passenger connection between Nizhniy Bestyakh and Tommot is being delayed year by year. However freight is being transported since 2011. Future plans foresee the prolongation of the railroad to Magadan on the Okhotsk Sea. The railroad is an agent of change for the Sakha republic, since it brings about new possibilities for transportation, new jobs and educational perspectives in the railroad sector.

Growth Town Nizhniy Bestyakh Sigrid Schiesser

Photo: Sigrid Schiesser

Nizhniy Bestyakh is a village in the center of the Sakha republic and became the administrative center of the Megino-Kangalasskiy district in 2007. Media calls the village a future boom town, as it is supposed to play a major role as a transportation hub town soon. The AYaM railroad, the Lena river as well as several federal roads intersect in Nizhniy Bestyakh. Job opportunities in the railroad sector and the subsequent growth of enterprises and logistic centers contributed to a drastic demographic change in the last 10 years. Many migrants came as workers, which has lead to a culturally diverse community.

An automobile bridge across the vast Lena River in proximity to the capital city Yakutsk has been planned many times since early Soviet days, but so far has never been realized. Due to harsh climatic conditions and the width of the River, the bridge would be the most expensive one that has ever been built in Russia. The bridge would enable all year transportation across the River and therefore significantly enhance the region´s potentiality and provide a connection to the Northern Sea route. Currently, Chinese investors are planning to realize the project in the upcoming six years.

CoRe – Configurations of Remoteness

Photo: Peter Schweitzer

Configurations of ‘Remoteness’ (CoRe): Entanglements of Humans and Transportation Infrastructure in the Baykal-Amur Mainline (BAM) Region is the title of an FWF-funded research project at the University of Vienna. It focuses on the changing roles of remote regions in the Arctic and Subarctic. What used to be the ‘remote’ backwaters of global economic and political currents has morphed into a new frontier of geopolitics, resource extraction, and developmental designs. New transportation infrastructure often plays a critical role in the transformation of ‘remoteness’. The effects of new transportation infrastructures – accessibility, the shrinking of social and physical distance, the increased speed of connection – are not uncontested. On the one hand, those for whom ‘remoteness’ has been an asset, are often among the opponents of such developments. New transportation infrastructures are often not built to make the lives of local residents easier but to move cargo from point A to point B. Thus, there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of such infrastructural developments.

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