"The construction site of the century"
The BAM has become the largest modernization and industrial project of the late socialism. Popularly referred to as “the construction site of the century” and “a road to the future”, it was prominent, at least, in two senses. First, it was a project of communist propaganda with its slogans of “conquering the nature” and building “a new life” that promoted socialist ideologies and attracted population to the region. Second, it was an outstanding engineering endeavor of creating a new built environment in complicated climatic and geological conditions. The construction of the railroad went parallel to building of roads, bridges, tunnels, as well as cities, towns and stations with their social institutions of administration, trade, healthcare and education. The railroad infrastructure did not only change the immediate environment, but also affected remote communities off the road. The BAM became a symbol of Soviet modernization – that is mobility, connectivity and development, for the whole region.
The population magnet
In the period of construction and launch of the railroad into exploitation in the 1970s and 1980s, the BAM Region witnessed the unprecedented population inflow. According to some estimates, annually 1 million people arrived at the region. 800,000 of newly arrived left for other places within the same year while 100,000 stayed in the same place for two winters. By the late 1980s the population of the BAM Region reached its peak. In the period of the socio-economic crisis following the dissolution of the USSR, industrialized resource frontiers witnessed the so called “flight from the North”. A sharp population outflow was also registered along the BAM. For instance, according to estimates of the Administration of Kalarskiy Ryon in Novaya Chara, approximately 2/3 of the BAM builders left the region in the 1990s due to hard socio-economic conditions, lack of permanent housing and jobs. While the feared prognosis of depopulation did not come true, the northern districts along the railroad have been steadily losing its residents throughout the post-soviet period. The dynamic map of population density in the Republic of Buryatiya below shows the population change in the city of Severobaykal’sk and in Severobaykal’skiy Rayon along the BAM.
Current population trends
According to the 2010 National Census, the largest cities along the BAM had the following population: Tayshet (35,485), Ust’-Kut (45,375) in Irkutskaya Oblast’, Severobaykal’sk (24,929) in the Republic of Buryatiya, Tynda (36,275) in Amurskaya Oblast’, Neryungri (61,747) in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya), Komsomol’sk-na-Amure (263,906) in Khabarovskiy Kray. More typical BAM communities, however, are smaller settlements with a population of 300-4000 residents. BAM cities and towns are transportation nods and demographic, economic, and political centers of the region. They attract population of remote communities by providing everyday life services - banks, post offices, shops and hospitals. Public hearings, negotiations between stakeholders, and decision-making processes also take place there.
Indigenous population and Soviet migrants who came to work at the BAM constitute the majority in local communities. At the same time, the number of new migrants from the neighboring regions, post-soviet countries (especially, from the Caucasus and Central Asia) and China has recently been growing. As everywhere in the Russian North, the share of temporary migrations, which usually not reflected by official statistics, is growing. Thus, a significant proportion of small and medium enterprises in trade, agriculture and service sectors in Tynda and Severobaykal’sk is represented by seasonal workers from Central Asia and China. Industrial shift-workers from neighboring districts and other regions of Russia recruited by coal and gold mining companies in Zabaykal’skiy Kray and Amurskaya Oblast’ also contribute to the temporary population of the region. The graph below showing population dynamics in Severobaykal’skiy Rayon, is representative of other districts in the central BAM Region.
The Soviet state designed the BAM project as a show case of its nation-building policies. The official discourse “the whole country builds the BAM” was propagated in mass media and popular literature. Following this ideology, the recruitment of BAM builders was organized in a way to represent as many Soviet republics and regions, as possible. Thus, construction brigades delegated from a particular place were designated to build a particular station, a town or a city. For example, Tynda the capital of the BAM, was planned and constructed mostly by engineers from Moscow, the capital of the country. The following railway towns of in the central BAM Region were constructed by the respective Soviet republics: Niya – Georgia, Ul’kan – Azerbaijan, Kichera – Estonia, Noviy Uoyan – Lithuania, Novaya Chara – Kazakhstan, Larba – Turkmenistan. This cultural and ethnic diversity was also reflected in architecture design of railroad stations, urban planning and streets names.
Although the composition of the BAM builders (bamovtsy) was diverse, it did not proportionally represent each Soviet region or ethnic group. Russians and two other Slavic groups (Belorussians and Ukranians) predominated among incoming population, while Georgians, Uzbeks, Azeris, Armenians, Tadjiks, Kyrgyz, and other groups constituted ethnic minorities. Some historical accounts of the BAM suggest that representatives of ethnic majorities enjoyed better jobs and public recognition than other groups. However, our own field research has shown a great potential for intergroup solidarity among bamovtsy. It is rooted in interethnic marriages, shared experience of participation in the construction process and communal leisure activities.
Remembering the BAM today
Memories of the BAM construction help to sustain bamovtsy identity today. Individual and collective stories of the BAM charged with emotions of joy, enthusiasm, and pride, relate to the construction period as the happiest time in life.
“In 1974, the construction was launched, and in 1979 it progressed. This work was then appreciated and recognized. It was a big pride. We were meeting the first train. My husband was given a floor since he was a trail-blazer of the construction. The first train went here. The golden spike was made here. We have outlived all this!” (Interview, Novaya Chara, 2016).
These memories are filled with the romantic ideals of the Komsomol, the Communist Party Youth Organization, recollections of solidarity and labour achievements at the BAM project, as well as with nostalgia for the strong socialist state. In the period of the socio-economic crisis of 1990s, the BAM project was first publicly criticized and bamovtsy disappeared from the focus of public attention. The patriotic education and politics of the recent decade have revived the old memories and discourses the socialist BAM. Two public events – the launch of the state modernization program of the railroad and the 40th anniversary of the BAM construction, were celebrated in 2014. They served as commemoration forums, where the stories of the BAM construction were narrated, the songs of the period and award ceremonies were performed. This return of the public attention along with relived memories and emotions of the BAM construction strengthen the identity of bamovtsy today.
“Modernizing” the “backward”
With the inflow of bamovtsy indigenous residents of ethnic villages were exposed to intensive cultural contacts. Those included not only exchange of products and common festive events in local houses of culture, but also partnerships and marriages. Such marriages usually involved Evenki women and bamovtsy men. As reported by some of our informants, they were often unstable and ended up with domestic violence or departure of a man to his home region. On a larger scale, mixed marriages boosted cultural assimilation and language loss among the next generation of Evenki people.
The negative environmental impacts of the BAM affected in particular nomadic Evenki. Pollution and destruction of pastures and hunting grounds transformed their traditional land use practices. In many cases the loss of domestic reindeer and depletion of the game due to shooting and poaching practiced by BAM builders and tourists coming with the railroad has pushed Evenki out of traditional industries. The proliferation of alcohol, poaching, environmental degradation and cultural assimilation accompanying the BAM construction caused latent tensions between indigenous people and BAM builders. These tensions persist today in the context of ongoing alienation of traditional lands to resource extraction which became possible due to the BAM.
Indigenous BAM builders
The geological prospecting and planning of the railroad in the 1950s and 1960s involved Evenki reindeer herders as porters of stone samples, equipment and food supplies. The initial construction stages in the 1970s also employed some Evenki. They worked primarily in unskilled jobs like wood cutters, stone dressers, or truck drivers, etc. The later labour policies along the BAM were aimed at keeping indigenous and local pre-BAM population employed in state farms kolkhozes. Professionals and construction workers for the BAM project were paid higher salaries and were usually recruited from other regions. Such division of labour rested on the expectation that the largest Evenki kolkhozes would supply meat, fish and other produce of traditional industries to the construction organizations. This scheme of supply imposed by the state in practice lead to unfair exchange of food products and furs for alcohol. There are few examples of Evenki people who were honored with the special BAM order and, thus, can at least formally call themselves bamovtsy. They either had a direct short-term experience of participation in the construction or worked in the trade or service sectors along the BAM.
Contested identities and intergroup relations
With the inflow of new migrants at the BAM Region new borders between different groups appear. The opposition between “locals” and “newcomers” has long become a more important category than ethnicity. Belonging to local communities defined by the time of arrival and living experience in the region predetermines inclusion in social networks and access to key resources - lands, jobs, housing, state support and public recognition. Thus, the “local” identity as an asset is contested in the identity politics, involving bamovtsy societies, local administrations, indigenous leaders, and mining companies.
From Evenki’s perspective, term bamovets (BAM builder), priezzhiy (newcomer) and turist (tourist) are equivalent. These groups compete with Evenki for berries, game, pastures and hunting grounds. While Evenki call BAM builders “newcomers” bamovtsy themselves contest against such identity. Those of them who stayed in the communities which they built and made home see themselves no less local than Evenks, especially vis-à-vis new migrants. The latter have been inflowing into the region in the post-soviet period to compete with “locals” for housing and jobs in the region.
Anderson, D. G. (1991). Turning Hunters into Herders - a Critical-Examination of Soviet Development Policy among the Evenki of Southeastern Siberia. Arctic, 44(1), 12-22.
Bogdanova, Y. (2013). Kak utopiya stala real'nost'yu. «Stroitel'stvo BAMa - samoye schastlivoye vremya moyey zhizni». In N. Ssorin-Chaikov (Ed.), Topografiya schast'ya: etnograficheskiye karty moderna: Sbornik statey. (pp. 199-218). Moscow: Novoye Literaturnoye Obozreniye.
Josephson, P. R. (1995). "Projects of the Century" in Soviet History: Large-Scale Technologies from Lenin to Gorbachev. Technology and Culture, 36(3), 519-559. doi:10.2307/3107240
Povoroznyuk, O. (2016). Gorodskie Aborigeny BAMa: Industrial’nyi Bum, Tekhnosotsial’nye Seti i Bor’ba za Resursy. Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie(1), 23-41.
Povoroznyuk, O., Habeck, J. O., & Vate, V. (2010). Introduction: On the Definition, Theory, and Practice of Gender Shift in the North of Russia. The Anthropology of East Europe Review, 28(2), 1-37.https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/aeer/issue/view/79
Röhr, A. (2016). Posyolok Niya (Gruzinskaya) v Gody Gruzstroybama (1975-1982): kommemoratziya i vospominaniya byvshikh rabotnikov i nyneschnikh zhiteley. Paper presented at the Sibir´: Konteksty Nastoiashchego, Irkutsk.
Schweitzer, P., Povoroznyuk, O., & Schiesser, S. (2017). Beyond Wilderness: towards an Anthropology of Infrastructure and the Built Environment in the Russian North. The Polar Journal, 7(1), 58-85. doi:10.1080/2154896X.2017.1334427
Ward, C. J. (2001). Selling the “Project of the Century”: Perceptions of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) in the Soviet Press, 1974-1984. Canadian Slavonic Papers, 43(1), 75-95.