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the north

Valentin Davydyants, captain of Russia’s flagship northern icebreaker, hoists the Olympic Flame before heading to the North Pole.Fedoseyev Lev

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation into the unprecedented change to the climate, culture and politics of Canada's last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth.

It's early afternoon, but the grey sky is already fading to black in this capital of the Arctic as Valentin Davydyants welcomes a rare foreign visitor aboard his pride and joy: a hulking 25,000-tonne nuclear icebreaker painted in the white, blue and red of the Russian flag.

"No one," Captain Davydyants declares after a crushing handshake, "can do what we are doing in the Arctic."

What he says is true. While all eight countries that border the Arctic, including Canada, are making claims – and countries as far away as China are expressing an interest – Russia is the technological and military superpower of the far north. And after two decades of post-Soviet neglect, the region is once again a Kremlin priority.

In October, Capt. Davydyants's ship – the Fifty Years of Victory – set a speed record carrying the flame for the Sochi Olympics to the North Pole.

Although the ship diplomatically carried the flags of all eight Arctic countries, it was an undisguised statement of intent: The torch was lit there by Artur Chilingarov, the explorer who seven years ago provocatively used a submersible vehicle to plant a titanium Russian flag underneath the same ice.

The ceremony "was about the prestige of our country," Capt. Davydyants tells me as we sit in his wood-paneled shipboard office, as the 4 p.m. night lights of Murmansk blink to life through twin portholes over his desk. "All the countries are competing over the North Pole."

A burly man nearly as imposing as the ship he commands, Capt. Davydyants is a fan of Vladimir Putin. They met twice during the president's visits to Russia's unique nuclear icebreaker fleet – both the symbol and the tool of Mr. Putin's dream of Arctic predominance. This goal puts Russia at direct odds with the Canadian government's own plans to claim the seabed beneath the North Pole. Denmark, which holds sovereignty over Greenland, also asserts the North Pole belongs to it.

Mr. Putin's Arctic ambitions are an element of his drive to restore some of the territory and influence lost when the Soviet Union crumbled 22 years ago.

"We see it as crucial to the social and economic development of the whole of Russia," Anton Vasilyev, Russia's envoy to the eight-nation Arctic Council, says in an interview.

Others view it less benignly. "It's imperialism," says Sergei Medvedev, a Moscow-based political scientist. "Putin sees his ultimate mission as [re]assembling the former Soviet Union."

Haunted by ghosts of the gulag

It was Peter the Great in the 18th century who first sent an expedition to map his Russian empire's northern fringes, then populated by a sprinkling of indigenous groups. Murmansk – a uniquely ice-free deep-water Arctic port – was built in 1915 as a conduit for supplies sent by allies to aid the failing Tsar Nicholas II.

But it was Joseph Stalin – having been subject to repeated northern exiles to Siberia in his own youth – who seized the commercial potential of Russia's Arctic. He sent hundreds of thousands of political prisoners north to work in mining camps that grew into today's cities.

The ghosts of the gulag linger over them. The Russian north doesn't inspire the imagination the way Canada's Arctic does for many. It is simply a place of suffering and punishment.

Murmansk, a gritty port on the Barents Sea that is by far the world's largest Arctic city, will be the nexus of Mr. Putin's plan. During Soviet times, it was the subsidized home to more than 500,000 people, who made the Kola Peninsula a hub of mining, military and scientific activity.

But when the economic incentives disappeared after the fall of the USSR, the population began to shrink with an exodus south. The city numbers barely 300,000 today.

"Anyone who can is trying to leave," says Alexander Serebryanikov, a 27-year-old who thought he had a job for life when he was hired out of university by one of the big mining companies that dominate the region.

That future evaporated when he was laid off during the 2008 financial crisis. Mr. Serebryanikov now makes a risky living blogging about corruption in local government. Most of his friends have long since headed south to warmer climes and better economic prospects, Mr. Serebryanikov sighs over dinner at a pizza restaurant.

It will be tough to reverse the decline. Murmansk is an inhospitable place that lives in complete darkness from late November until mid-January and in insomniac brightness in midsummer.

While employment levels are high, salaries are low and life is hard. Alcoholism is startlingly prevalent. The cab driver who meets me at my hotel the next morning keeps a half-finished bottle of whisky beside him as he drives, and gives only a nonchalant shrug when I ask him about it.

"It's not very rational, our economic situation," says Tatiana Sergeeva, a 42-year-old teacher I meet visiting "Alyosha," the massive stone statue of a Second World War soldier that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Standing atop a hill overlooking the port, the sound of the whipping wind is mixed only with the occasional screech of a crane.

"A lot of people come here, get disappointed, then leave," Ms. Sergeeva tells me, looking at her nine-year-old son.

Mr. Putin's efforts to reverse that trend sound better to his nationalist base than to economists and environmentalists.

Northern Sea Route competes with the Northwest Passage

"I would like you to devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic," Mr. Putin told Russian defence officials in December, a day after The Globe and Mail reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had asked for the North Pole to be included in Canada's claim to the United Nations.

A squadron of Russian ice-breaking warships is due to arrive in the Arctic in 2014, and several Soviet-era airfields will be reopened. Russia's bolstered naval presence is necessary to protect its new commercial interests, Mr. Vasilyev says, and to defend a border once guarded by thicker ice and harsher temperatures.

That show of muscle will be accompanied by a broad push that could see Murmansk boom economically as melting polar ice opens the Arctic to increased shipping.

Rosatomflot, the state-owned company that runs the nuclear-icebreaker fleet, claims to have guided a record 65 cargo ships along the Northern Sea Route (Russia's answer to Canada's Northwest Passage) in 2013. Most of them were carrying resources – coal, iron ore and liquid natural gas – from Europe to feed the growing economies in East Asia. Just three years earlier, only four cargo ships used the route.

Meanwhile, the twin pillars of Russia's resource-driven economy – the state energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft – are being given tax breaks and other incentives to explore the warming north and reap previously inaccessible hydrocarbons.

Critics see the Kremlin's harsh response to a Greenpeace protest at a Gazprom oil drilling rig in the Pechora Sea in September – arresting the demonstrators at gunpoint and charging them criminally – as a message to the international community that Russia's plans to develop the Arctic are not to be challenged.

The biggest pragmatic problem with Russia's plans is one that will sound familiar to those working in the Alberta oil sands – it's currently so expensive that it's cheaper to put a rocket into space (where the Sochi torch also recently journeyed) than to drill a single oil well in Arctic waters. Russia seems prepared to press ahead anyway.

Even if Arctic exploration does boost the bottom lines for Gazprom and Rosneft, there may be little trickle-down for Murmansk and the rest of the north as both companies pay taxes in Moscow rather than locally.

"The Russian state budget will get very little from this exploration, but they will loudly say, 'We are exploring the Arctic,'" said Anna Kireeva, spokeswoman for Bellona, a Murmansk-based environmental group. "It's a matter of pride. I can't find any other reason."

There's more optimism about the prospects for Murmansk as a shipping hub, though the World Wildlife Fund opposes the planned oil and gas exploration primarily because of fears Russia lacks the technology to clean up a large spill in Arctic waters.

Moscow calls doubters morons

Watching the Soviet-era cars pushing through the slush on Murmansk's main drag, I find myself wondering if it ever made sense to have so many people living above the 68th parallel.

Even at noon, the sun brightens the sky only a little, providing no warmth. Residents scurry from home to car to office to home as though they're fleeing the elements, rather than living with them.

But, as in Soviet times, the issue is not up for debate. When Mr. Medvedev, the political scientist – and a former resident of northern Russia – suggested in a social-media post that the Arctic (like the Antarctic) should be treated as international territory to ensure its preservation, Mr. Putin publicly called him a "moron."

Mr. Medvedev wears the insult as a badge of honour. He compares the Arctic plan to Mr. Putin's other expensive, legacy-minded megaprojects, such as hosting the Sochi Olympics and overhauling the Pacific port of Vladivostok for last year's APEC summit. Cost and common sense don't matter when the Kremlin decides it wants to make a statement.

"It's not a policy," Mr. Medvedev said. "It's a vision of Russia's sovereignty being spread over the Arctic."

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