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Insights from Siberia

Vesa-Matti Lahti has his eyes opened on a trip to Siberia.


Vesa-Matti Lahti

Senior Lead, Foresight and Strategy


My holiday in Siberia was a real eye-opener. Residents in the southern Siberian city of Kemerovo, which is roughly the size of Helsinki, are living well and have confidence in the future. The cafés sold speciality coffees and the restaurants served Belgian beer and Italian wines. Western music boomed out of the bars. However, differences in the standards of living are greater than in Finland. 

I took a holiday in Siberia. I did this because I’m writing a book (due out in 2017, Into Kustannus) about the international Kuzbas colony that was active in the city of Kemerovo in the 1920s. My grandfather was also part of that colony.

My book tells how Vladimir Ilich Lenin cancelled his speech at the Congress of the Communist International because he wanted to finalise plans for the Kuzbas colony, my grandfather Richard Lahti got frostbite on his nose, Ruth and Frank Kennell – who are among the central characters in my book – were both victims of severe violence, and a middle-aged female couple decided to hitch-hike to Central Asia together. In addition to all this, “pure Communism” was tested, the industrialisation of the “land of the workers” got under way and the reputation of Finns as a hard-working people was reinforced. My book also involves love, divorce, deceit, singing, dancing and making the world a better place.

However, the topic of this blog is not my book – it’s life in the Siberian city of Kemerovo today. Telling this story may dispel some prejudices about distant and little-known Russian cities.

Located on the Tom River in southern Siberia, Kemerovo is nearly the size of Helsinki, so let’s compare the two cities. Like Helsinki, Kemerovo has a large university and the cafés in the city centre serve speciality coffees. The restaurants feature global dishes originating in countries like Italy, Thailand and Japan. French wines and Belgian beers are also available. While sipping a glass of Italian wine, I thought about the import bans that Russia has imposed on Western foods – how convenient that wine hasn’t been added to the list.

Of course, there are also some differences between the cities. Although Kemerovo only recently got its first McDonald’s, it’s more impressive than any McDonald’s in Helsinki. Kemerovo has fewer bars than Helsinki, but it still has a rock bar, a Belgian beer restaurant and an Irish pub. There weren’t any rock bars with video screens the first time I visited the city in 2010, but things had changed by my second visit. The West was strongly present in the form of cultural “soft power”. On the other hand, the only Western TV channels seemed to show pop music, cooking or tourist attractions. Despite the fact that there were dozens and dozens of TV channels on offer, I couldn’t find any Western news channels.

People in Kemerovo city centre appeared to be in good health, and there were fewer overweight people than in Helsinki. I spotted some skateboarding teenagers and slightly older mountain bikers on the streets of Kemerovo. On the other hand, there are relatively few bicycles and no cycling lanes as yet – the roads are ruled by cars. The city centre is clean and pretty – for example, the pedestrian route along the bank of the Tom river is positively idyllic – but the outskirts of the city are shabbier and people look poorer. The pre-fabricated housing on the outskirts is (at least in my opinion) uglier than in Helsinki. Helsinki has nothing to match the size of the factory smokestacks and industrial plants that dominate one side of the city. However, the city also has a large, protected forest area – a kind of central park – near Kemerovo city centre where people can wander about, jog and ski on marked routes during the winter.

Differences in the standard of living are greater than in Finland, but I have to admit that I only saw one beggar in Kemerovo. She was a Roma. And as is rather well known, Helsinki has quite a lot of beggars from this same ethnic group, who come from Romania where Roma people are often mistreated.

It seemed like Russia’s economic woes haven’t had a great impact on the wealthy in Kemerovo. The most expensive homes in a new, higher-class neighbourhood built on the edge of the city had all been sold and had fine cars parked in front of them, but the ordinary homes in the same area were still empty. According to locals, poor sales of these ordinary homes is a sign of the deteriorating state of the country’s economy. Wealthy Kemerovo residents drove large, showy Western SUVs –the local newspaper featured large Mercedes advertisements – while a Lada was often the car of choice for the less affluent who could afford a car. The steering wheels in cars might be on either side, because lots of cars have been imported to Siberia from countries like Japan, where traffic drives on the left.

Nearly one third the size of Finland, Kuznetsk Basin (Kuzbass) surrounds the city of Kemerovo and is one of the largest coal mining clusters in the world. The majority of Kemerovo residents earn their living from things that are related to coal in one way or another. Kuzbass was the second largest coal deposit in the former Soviet Union, exceeded only by the Donbass deposit (Donets Basin) stretching across the eastern Ukraine and Rostov region of Russia. Unfortunately, since 2014 this area has been a battlefield and a hotspot of global politics – in part due to the natural resources in the region. In contrast, Kuzbass is a peaceful place. I felt very safe walking around Kemerovo city centre, even in the dark.

However, trouble may be lurking just around the corner for a city that lives off coal and the related industry. Full realisation of the so-called carbon risk in the future would threaten the standard of living in the city. Kemerovo residents haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this possibility. Their confidence in the future may be best illustrated by the fact that you can see a lot more pregnant women on the streets here than in Helsinki. Another sign of confidence is the brand new direct flight route between St. Petersburg and Kemerovo. Earlier, the only direct flight went to Moscow.

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