The day I moved to the North

This November three doctoral candidates of our research group, Elena Gorbacheva, Karoliina Hurri and Sohvi Kangasluoma, taught a master-level course “Contemporary Environmental Issues in the Russian Arctic”. One of the course assignments was to write a blog post, either fictional or non-fictional, on a topic related to the environmental issues in the Russian Arctic. In our blog, we will publish the best posts written by the students. The first text, published in this entry, is written by Alexis Engrand.

I moved to the North on a sudden impulse.

“North” didn’t mean much to me. I could picture an endless cold desert. Harsh weather, wild nature, not much more. What I didn’t expect were the overwhelming darkness and the air that burns your face. I wasn’t looking for much really, I just had been offered a job, the salary was fine, I would get to go home often. I was ready to try it out.

As I stepped out of the plane, I had a feeling. I wasn’t as confident as I still was a few hours before. Something in the air felt wrong. It wasn’t as I had expected a place so far from the rest of the world to be. There was a smell, and I will always remember it. Every time I would breathe in, there would be a light acrid after-taste. It was noon but there was barely any light, as thick clouds would obscure the sky. I was already questioning the reasons of my presence here, but it was too late. I had made a decision, and I wanted to stick to it.

I was sharing the place I lived in with seven other workers. The job was tough. It was intense, long hours. Our bosses weren’t like the people who hired us, who sold this to us as a new life. They were, let’s say, less polite and less concerned about our wellbeing. All I discussed with my co-workers was what we would do once we got home. We were “fly-in, fly-out” workers. We would work in the arctic for some time – then we would go home. Then we would have to come back, and so on.

The city – if we can call it that – wasn’t very welcoming to us. There was very little going on, the bare minimum for people to survive in the region. The locals were neither welcoming nor interested in talking with us. And what would we have talked about anyway? We were coming from thousands of kilometres away. We were too different to their liking.

I didn’t question the work we were doing for the longest time. One day, I connected the dots: we were working in the biggest industry in the region. If the nature looked like it did, it was because of our activity. Pines had lost their needles after years of pollution of the soil, the rains were acid, and the winter would come later every year. I suddenly felt guilt. I had never been much of an environmentalist, but on that day I understood. I was a part of this. I started to read about the problem, the arctic, the environment, the industry. I understood that we were at the very core of a global issue.

Was I the problem?


About a week later, when the pandemic started, some of us had to leave. More and more cases were discovered every day and I was afraid, but it was also an excuse to escape. Is “escape” a poor choice of word? It was how I felt at the time, one couldn’t leave this place easily.

I got home, I forgot about this for a while. I got another job. And then one day I saw images of an icebreaker, slowly advancing through the sea ice. I think it was in a documentary about the

Northern Sea Route. It brought me back to the North. I had a feeling of déjà vu. The feeling that something was wrong, that this wasn’t our place. The feeling that human activities in the arctic were wrong. We have more to lose than to win.