From edge to centre

Observations on Siberia

I am sitting in the sunshine beneath a sky of perfect blue. The temperature is well into the twenties Celsius and I am surrounded by greenery. Behind me are attractive university buildings where, it being the first day of the new term, students come and go.

I am not in California, but Siberia. Siberia is quite unlike the image most people in the west have of it: a land of permanent ice and snow fit only for exiles. The far north may come close, but Siberia stretches a long way south and I am in the campus town of Novosibirsk, set away from the main city, which is home to about a million people.

The climate is similar to that of Wisconsin in the US - occasionally very cold in winter, but mostly sunny and dry - and Novosibirsk itself also resembles Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin. It is an elite university, established in the 1950s as a centre of scientific research.

I have come to give a series of lectures on globalisation. They are well-attended and the discussions afterwards are lively. Merely being here drives home what globalisation means, for the place is acquiring a global significance. It borders China and India, whose political and economic importance is growing apace, so Siberia is no longer on the edge, but right in the centre. It also has 90 per cent of Russia's vast oil and natural-gas resources.

After Russia's setbacks in the 1990s, President Vladimir Putin is pursuing a path of authoritarian modernisation back to great-power status, and oil and gas are central to that ambition. The country is becoming a petro-state and, for the moment, it is working: the annual growth rate is above 7 per cent.

Yet the history of petro-states is not encouraging, and Siberians are trying to diversify. In Novosibirsk I stay at the home of managers of the local currency exchange, now very successful. The locals are deeply into information technology, and Intel and other foreign firms have arrived to take advantage. A science park is planned.

There are big problems here, as in Russia as a whole. Nothing much can be done without the say-so of officials in Moscow, never a straightforward matter. Many people lament the pervasiveness of corruption: it is impossible for honest people to survive, they say, because they have no option but to cultivate the Moscow officials.

The town is in transition: academic salaries are low and good scholars have moved abroad. More links with universities in other countries are needed, and more foreign students. Russia is also going through an identity crisis, reflected here in a tension between the attractions of the wider world and a suspicion of outside influences. But sitting in the sunshine in such pleasant surroundings, it is hard not to feel optimistic.

This article first appeared in the 11 September 2006 issue of the New Statesman, It must be Gordon, Gordon, Gordon