“In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold.”
So Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote of his years of hard labor in 19th century Siberia, after a jittery Tsar Nicholas I banished the famed writer to the lonely Far East. For centuries, the massive swath of land east of Moscow and north of China has been a place of political and cultural exile, but more for its geographic isolation than its lack of provisions. In fact, other exiles in the 1800s made special note that their hosts seemed to have plenty of everything, and by the turn of the century, industrial towns were popping up across the region as tens of thousands of free Russians headed east to take advantage of Siberia’s deep troves of natural resources.
A hundred years later, Beijing is getting in on the action, striking deals to import everything Siberia has on offer – from oil to gas to iron to timber — to help feed China’s growth and appetite for non-coal energy sources.
In 2009, China pushed Germany aside to become Russia’s largest trading partner. Russia and China have already signed a binding (though troubled) agreement that Russia will become China’s largest supplier of natural gas from fields in western and eastern Siberia; in June, the two governments held the latest in a series of ongoing talks over that deal. Despite their failure to reach an agreement on gas pricing, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said last month the utility is “completely ready to begin pipeline construction.”
Meanwhile, as of June 1, over six million tons of crude have flowed from Russia to China via the recently completed East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, and plenty of plans to increase Siberian hydropower for Chinese consumption are in the works. Today, a fourth major hydroelectric dam is being completed on Siberia’s Angara River, a 1,105-mile long river that flows out of pristine Lake Baikal, the world’s largest lake. The Boguchanskaya dam is expected to start producing electricity by next spring, and Oleg Deripaska, one of the wealthiest men in Russia and the project’s financer, says that will be part of the 60 billion kWh per year that China has asked Russia to send its way by 2020. In 2009, Russia supplied China with 1 billion kWh.
Beijing’s official line is that its growing interest and investment in Siberia will help an isolated and economically depressed part of the world get back on its feet. Indeed, in 2009, the Far East was the only part of Russia where investment did not shrink, but grew. “I believe that in terms of GDP of Siberian provinces, it could be tripled in the next 15 years,” Deripaska, whose EuroSibEnergo is Russia’s largest private power company and produces 8% of the Russia’s energy, told the BBC. “I can’t see how we can miss this opportunity.”
Many, however, are concerned about the impact these vast projects will have on Siberia’s culture and landscape. Residents of many villages that are in the dams’ floodways have been relocated from their pastoral villages to the region’s bleak, Soviet-era cities, and environmentalists fret about the loss of water from the rivers and the flooding of forests.
Still others worry about the rapid increase in trade and interdependence given the nations’ fraught history, and the ‘takeover’ of Siberia’s wide open spaces by Chinese migrants. Tens of thousands of Chinese workers already live in eastern Siberia, both legally and illegally, willing to work for half the wages of Russian laborers. The Russian population of the Far East is expected to drop to 4.5 million by 2015. That’s less than a quarter of the population of Beijing alone. As more and more energy deals are signed, Siberia is about to get a lot less lonely.
Krista Mahr is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.