Imagery and Imagination across a Frozen Sea


Writing of the Cold War a quarter century ago, Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan observed: "It is really an electric battle of information and of images that goes far deeper than the old hot wars of industrial hardware...Electric persuasion by photo and movie and TV works, instead, by dunking entire populations in new imagery. "  

In the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, it is tempting to carry McLuhan's metaphor a step further: fought in 30-second clips and press serums, it is Cold War become Cool War, a quite overt clash of PR operatives the like of which has rarely been seen in superpower relations. Glasnost and perestroika, apart from doubling most Westerners' Russian vocabularies, have become the magic words of a new revolution, their mere invocation seemingly capable of invigorating a polity grounded in rigid doctrinairism yet bogged down by growing ideological apathy.


In purely practical terms, openness to the West and the overhaul of inefficient infrastructure are imperatives for the Soviet economy; the alternative is not only alienation from the ever-more-integrated mainstream of industrial and information resources, but also concession to a level of technological illiteracy incompatible with the aims of most industrialized countries.


For the northern regions of the Soviet Union, the effects of reform will not be known for some time to come, but there are signs that this vast territory may serve as a proving ground for new ideas, at both the national and international levels. From a superpower perspective, the Arctic is a region largely uncluttered by the ideological baggage and political machinations that characterize much of the globe. It offers to the Soviet Union a tempting venue for diplomatic sorties that, at first blush, seem designed to seize the moral high ground and to divert attention away from the steady build-up of arms on the Kola Peninsula or the use of the Arctic as a testing site for advanced weapons systems.


In his October 1987 speech at Murmansk, Gorbachev proposed an agenda for demilitarization and international co-operation that would radically alter some of the strategic assumptions currently applied to the region: a nuclear-weapons-free zone in northern Europe; restrictions on naval activities in arctic seas; co-operation in the areas of resource development, scientific exploration, and environmental protection; and the opening of the Northern Sea Route to foreign shipping. The Soviet leader called for the North to become a "zone of peace", and he criticized harshly U.S. and Canadian plans to upgrade northern defences.


For this issue of Northern Perspectives, we invited a number of commentators-Canadian, U.S., and Soviet-to discuss various aspects of the Soviet North, to speculate on the direction of change in light of recent developments, and to examine the possibilities for increased co-operation between Canada and the U.S.S.R.


The acknowledged dean of circumpolar studies, and a specialist in Soviet affairs, Terence Armstrong reminds us of the truly vast expanse of land and see that is the Soviet Union. From the oil and gas fields of West Siberia to the modern city of Noril'sk, development in the region far outpaces that of any other arctic nation, and it would seem that even more ambitious plans may result from what Gorbachev has referred to as a "qualitatively new stage, in cardinally changed internal and external conditions". But relative successes in northern development have not come about without the benefit of foreign technology and expertise, nor have the Soviets been loath to encourage such assistance. As Arkadi Cherkasov, Doctor of Geography at Moscow's Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada, points out, perestroika may serve to further enhance an already fruitful relationship between Canada and the U.S.S.R. on a number of fronts.


Clearly, the Murmansk speech was aimed at two audiences: on the domestic side, it was a signal that northern development will be very much a part of the new thinking, that regional laxity will not be tolerated; on the international level, it posed a challenge to Western leaders, a provocative, albeit cordial, invitation to remake the rules of the game in the circumpolar world. That the Murmansk speech was intended as dialectical was even more evident several months later when the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa called a press conference to criticize the lukewarm response to Gorbachev's proposals from Canadian officials and to state, in the words of minister-counsellor Alexei Makarov, "We are serious. We are damned serious." In a critical review of the Murmansk initiative, Dan Hayward, a researcher with the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, warns that while there may indeed be new talking points, there remain, as well, serious questions about the extent to which the Soviets are prepared to contribute to a "radical lowering of the level of military confrontation in the region".

In many respects the Soviet North epitomizes the approach to development that, until the mid-1970s, guided much decision making in Canada's Arctic. It is a single-minded view that stresses resource potential, establishment of major industrial centres, and construction of an extensive transportation network. Critics charge that the Soviets merely pay lip service to such issues as native rights and environmental protection while at the same time decrying social conditions in other northern jurisdictions. But in contrast to Canadians, who have tended to idealize their North and its peoples, creating a dioramic myth perpetually out of step with reality, the Soviets have made the North an integral part of their country. For this reason, Soviet analysts often find it difficult to differentiate between "northern" and " southern" issues; for them, a specialization in arctic affairs is too arbitrary a division. In the spring of 1986, Nunatsiaq MP Thomas Suluk was part of a C a n a d i a n delegation to the Soviet North led by then minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development David Crombie. Interviewed at his Parliament Hill office earlier this year, he recalled his impressions of a land that, while similar in many ways to the Canadian North, is still imbued with certain constants characteristic of a monolithic system of state control.

 Oil and gas provide the economic lifeblood of the Soviet North; the scale of onshore development dwarfs that of any other region in the world, and major offshore projects are currently underway. In complementary articles, circumpolar analyst John Hannigan and economist Carl McMillan provide a brief survey of the Soviet Union's northern energy frontier, its importance to the Soviet economy, and the range of opportunities that beckon Canadian suppliers of specialized technology.

To a far greater degree than is the case in Canada's North, Soviet industry relies on sea transportation. The Northern Sea Route, stretching from Murmansk to Provideniya, is tied to the great river system of northern Siberia; in 1987, the port of Dudinka on the Yenisey River handled an estimated 7 million tonnes of freight. Although foreign vessels have traditionally been barred from using the Northern Sea Route, Gorbachev has hinted that the route might be opened "depending on progress in the normalization of international relations". Such transits would require escort by the Soviet Union's impressive ice-breaking fleet, which, as U.S. Coast

Guard commander Lawson Brigham notes, could include a considerable number of nuclear-powered ships by the early 1990s. Despite its attractiveness-the Northern Sea Route is the shortest sea route from Europe to the Far East-Gorbachev's offer is regarded by some as a means of bolstering Soviet territorial claims in the arctic seas. Camil Simard points out that "creeping sovereignty" has long been a hallmark of the Soviet Union's maritime legal regime. In fact the adoption of the 1982 Law of the Sea provisions by the Soviet Union may serve to solidify somewhat questionable claims to territory and offshore resources.

Imagery is very much a part of Canada's relations with the Soviet Union. It would be reassuring to think that we have progressed from the time of Igor Gouzenko and the cloak-and-dagger intrigues of the espionage genre, yet recent events fail to encourage such optimism. Still, ours is an age in which Canadians and Soviets have trekked together across the North Pole, and in which, stranger still, the golden arches of McDonald's have risen on Gorky Street. It is interesting then to tum the tables, to see how Soviets have viewed Canada's North since the end of the Second World War. Larry Black, Director of the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, reviews the literature of the past three decades, a time when Soviet perceptions of our North have ranged from a staging ground for U.S. military aggression to the "largest of the last territorial-resource reserves within the imperialist camp".

 If there is indeed substance to the Soviet entreaty in the North, and if Canada and other northern nations are prepared to respond with both prudence and imagination, then there may be cause for some hope when it comes to questions of native rights, environmental protection, and arms control in the 1980s. The circumpolar concept is, to some extent, a counterweight to the more traditional stance of superpower confrontation in the Arctic; yet to speak with credence of a new era of multilateral co-operation without due regard for Soviet dominance of the region is clearly to miss the taiga for the trees. In December 1986, it was Soviet academician A.S. Timoshenko who, speaking before the World Commission on Environment and Development, offered an observation entirely apt for the North. "Today we cannot secure security for one state at the expense of the other", he said. "Security can only be universal, but security cannot only be political or military, it must be as well ecological, economical, and social. It must ensure the fulfillment of the aspirations of humanity as a whole"

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