To stay and be successful in her Siberian home city of Khabarovsk, where half the other people her age were packing up and running away in search of a better life, Maria Klimova had two options. She could use her naturally long limbs, green eyes, and mischievous smile to become a model, charm men, and find a rich husband. Or she could become a police officer—powerful, untouchable, and self-sufficient. By age 25, Maria has tried to do both.
While she modeled for the local Best agency—whose other talents often moved to Moscow, St. Petersburg, or abroad—Klimova forced herself through two “rotten” universities in Khabarovsk to receive degrees in economics and law. She then got the police job, which at first sounded exciting—she even got to see the world for free, as Russian police received paid tickets to travel abroad. During the day, she investigated murders, robberies, and drug deals in Khabarovsk’s gritty neighborhoods, where most men have served at least one term in prison by their mid-20s. By night she surfed miles of catwalks at local fashion shows and even won the Miss Far East beauty contest. But her monthly salary of $1,200—fairly high for a young police officer—was barely covering her expenses. Prices for food, clothing, and real estate in Russia’s Far East were skyrocketing, far outpacing prices in neighboring China, just across the Amur River. Last year Moscow finally ended the policy of sponsoring free air tickets, and Klimova resigned herself to the fact that she, too, needed to plan to escape Siberia for a better life.
Siberia’s population is disappearing. In a generation, if current trends continue, the vast land—one and a half times the size of China—will have fewer inhabitants than Moscow or St. Petersburg. Today, only 38 million people live in Siberia—2 million fewer than 20 years ago, according to Russia’s Institute of Demography—even though the region constitutes up to 77 percent of the nation’s landmass. Almost three quarters of Russia’s population is crowded west of the Ural Mountains, where the best and brightest of Siberia are flocking, too, away from the crumbling infrastructure, widespread corruption, and lack of opportunities in their homeland. Siberia “shows no sign of becoming the secure, modern, self-sufficient [state] that young people wish they could live in,” says Yekaterina Sokirianskaya of the International Crisis Group.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, is trying to battle Siberia’s brain drain the only way it knows how: by throwing money at the problem. Five years ago, in order to breathe life into what officials referred to as “deserting regions,” Moscow decided to construct a modern complex outside Vladivostok, on the East China Sea, to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which took place earlier this month. But the project was plagued by roads to nowhere (literally—one highway trailed off at the base of a rocky mountain cliff), unsafe bridges, and corruption schemes. By the time the project ended, its budget had leapt to four times the original cost, to more than $20 billion.
Leaders from the 21 countries of APEC, who arrived in Vladivostok last week, saw Siberia’s new billion-dollar bridge, which is the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, arcing from Vladivostok to the mostly uninhabited island of Russki. They stayed in spacious suites on a giant campus that will soon house 11,000 students of the newly created Far Eastern Federal University. (Initially, officials wanted to turn the campus into another presidential residence for Vladimir Putin or make it into an enormous casino, but finally settled on a university.)
The officials surely were not told that in Minki village, just two kilometers from APEC’s shiny glass press center, residents were weeping because Moscow has decided to demolish their homes—or that the village’s new apartments, built ahead of the APEC conference, are so poorly made that ceilings routinely cave down into sitting rooms and inhabitants must install wooden poles inside their homes to prevent a total collapse. “We continue building Potemkin villages, but nobody in Moscow knows what to do about that,” admitted the APEC 2012 program director, Yan Vaslavsky.
The biggest question for Siberia today is whether there will be life after APEC. “Our city could be Russia’s alternative capital in the Far East, a window to Asia,” says a dean of the new campus, Vladimir Kuznetsov, who was also the region’s first post-perestroika governor. “Unfortunately, for the past 20 years, it has been sinking in marshy economic and political stagnation.”
And despite Moscow’s ambitious investments in the region, statistics show that the declining population trend has not changed—perhaps because the money did little to solve pressing problems like corruption and a lack of job opportunities. In the Amur region, just across the riparian border from the fast-growing Chinese city of Heihe, the population has shrunk by 6,000 people in 2011, twice the number of emigrants in 2010. The idea of spending more than $20 billion in Siberia—which went toward, among other projects, constructing bridges to an almost unpopulated island that was already serviced by ferries and building an airport that could service 4 million people in a town of 2 million—“sounded ridiculous” to residents of the region, particularly those in Vladivostok, who suffered from traffic jams on run-down roads and unaffordable real estate, said Alexander Samsonov, an opposition leader in Vladivostok. “But nobody listens to people in Siberia.”
Meanwhile, everybody Klimova knew was talking only of escape. One fellow model was heading off for a “new, dynamic life of big opportunities” in St. Petersburg. The Best model agency’s director was moving to China “to provide her daughter with a future.” Even Klimova’s own mother had found herself a husband in Argentina. When Klimova saw her last, she told her daughter, “I wish you would leave here—there is no future in Khabarovsk.”
This month Klimova finally netted an invitation from Chinese fashion scouts to model in Guangzhou. With her suitcase packed in her room, she sipped on a cup of Chinese green tea and reflected on her new route with self-confidence. “First China, then Italy,” she stated. “I would never fit the Russian ... system anyway.”
Reporting for this article was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.