Should I stay or should I go?

The population in Murmansk has dropped like a stone over the last 20 years. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Russia’s north has a rapid loss in population with serious brain drain. Who are the ones that will stay and take part in the petroleum-boom like the Shtokman-project? BarentsObserver has met with people who can’t wait to leave the Murmansk region and those who for sure will stay.


There are around 400.000 people less on the Kola Peninsula today than 20 years ago. Part of the decline can be explained by low birth rate, but emigration out of the region is exceptionally high.

- When I moved to Nikel 22 years ago, there was one graveyard here. Today there are three filled up. I don’t want to end there, says Vladimir Kucherenko (45) from Nikel. He has now bought land in the Krasnodar region where he plans to construct a small house for himself and his wife.

Vladimir is not the only one who sees no future in the north. The city of Murmansk has today 307.000 inhabitants, down 160.000 since 1989. –The climate and ecology here in Nikel is not good. Within a year or two we will move, says Vladimir Kucherenko, pointing at the huge nickel-smelter that characterize the skyline in the town not far from Russia’s border to Norway.

Vladimir Kucherenko
Vladimir Kucherenko sees no future on the Kola Peninsula. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

- Workers in the fabric and mines have good salaries, but get failed health, he says. Vladimir himself does not work in the fabric, but has some different small businesses. – I hope to get some money for my 3-room apartment in Nikel, but the costs of building a small house in the south is higher, explains Vladimir. He is sure that many more would have moved to the south if they could afford it.

Vladimir Kucherenko’s story is far from unique. More and more people in their best working age moves away from Russia’s north. And young people move abroad. Surveys by the Levada Centre, an independent research institute in Moscow, show the trend. The percentage of respondents who were thinking about living abroad rose from 42 percent in the year 2000 to 44 percent in 2009, despite the fast rise in economy and living standards during the same period.

The majority of those who said they would like to live abroad where under 35 years old.

Buy flats in St. Petersburg
Sergei Filippov (43) is head of sales department in Sberbank in Murmansk. He says more and more of the bank’s private customers that get loan are investing in apartments in the south, mainly in St. Petersburg.

- People have good salaries in Murmansk and they want to secure their age. They buy apartments in the south now, because they are not planning to stay in Murmansk, says Sergei Filippov. He believes 90 percent of people in Murmansk want to move when they get older. Murmansk is a place for working.

Sergei Filippov says life in Murmansk is more relaxed than in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Sergei himself is a whole-hearted Murmansker. – I moved to St. Petersburg some few years ago and stayed there for a bit more than a year working for the bank. We made better money in St. Petersburg, but salary is not everything, he says. – Here in Murmansk you spend time with friends for more than a two-minute coffee, says Sergei. - In Moscow or St. Petersburg there is big money, but you have to work nearly round-the-clock. The rest of the time you are stuck in traffic.

Sergei Filippov however admits that most young people with education want to move out of the region, but he thinks that will change. – A development decision for the Shtokman field will make more young people to stay because of high salaries, says Sergei.

Murmansk waits for Shtokman
Shtokman is the largest offshore natural gas field in the world, located north of the Kola Peninsula in the Barents Sea. Many of the business people BarentsObserver meets in Murmansk are awaiting the investment decision for Shtokman. Bjørn Celius is Senior Vice President in DnB Nor, mostly staying with DnB Nor Monchebank in Murmansk. – The economy in Murmansk is in a kind of lull right now. Everyone is waiting for a Shtokman decision, says Bjørn Celius.

Gazprom, Statoil and Total are the partners in Shtokman Development AG. After several postponements, the financial investment decision is now said to be taken in December this year. Shtokman is the largest industrial project ever planned north of the Arctic Circle. The project can trigger an economical Christmas Eve for Murmansk.

Fabricating the northern future
One of the companies that have established themselves in Murmansk hoping for a positive Shtokman decision is Reinertsen NWR, a Norwegian own fabrication yard. In the huge factory hall on the opposite side of the bay from Murmansk centre, welders are working intensively with producing equipment for both the petroleum- and mining industry.

 - We deliver quality at the right time, says Viktor Brevik, General Director of Reinertsen in Murmansk. The yard is certified for deliveries to offshore sector in Norway and has highly competent skilled workers. Some 100 workers are now busy building modules at the yard. – We are ready to expand if a Shtokman decision is taken, and we get contracts says Viktor Brevik.

The challenge is however to find qualified skilled workers. – There is no surplus access to qualified workers in Murmansk. Plumbers and sheet-metal workers are difficult to get. The good ones move away, says Viktor Brevik. Reintersen are therefore training and certificating own employees. – We have the best, smiles Brevik well aware of the challenges the region has to get qualified workers when Shtokman construction starts.

In an office-building downtown Murmansk sits Daria Kocherga (26) waiting to welcome the Shtokman project. She has no plans to move from Murmansk. – Murmansk is a cross-border city. I have foreign languages and gets a lot of opportunities to practice, says Daria. Today she is working with Murmansk region’s cooperation with Norway for the Barents Secretariat. Daria has English and German from University, and plans to start with Norwegian as well this autumn.

20 out of 30 have moved
- Out of the 30 students in my class, some 20 have left Murmansk. To Norway, Finland, Sweden, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Youngsters are dreaming of moving. They see that doors are more open in the south or abroad, explain Daria.

- I enjoy cold and snow. People are friendlier in Murmansk. If you exclude St. Petersburg and Moscow, salaries are higher in Murmansk than in the south of Russia, so I’m going to stay here, she says.

- Here in Murmansk I get a lot of  opportunities and will not move away, says Daria Kocherga. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Daria Kocherga admits there is a serious brain drain from Murmansk. The best specialists prefer to move. – I myself have started with additional studies, as a preparation to a possible Shtokman project, says Daria. She is now studying Economics and Management at Murmansk State Technological University.

Russian authorities are well aware of the country’s challenge with brain drain. –The authorities are working on an array of incentives to lure back Russian scientists who gone to work abroad, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told RIA Novosti recently.

- I know people returning to Russia
- The intellectual product, well trained people, valuable specialists – it is basically a commodity. I personally know people who have worked years abroad and are now returning to Russia, Putin said, adding however that the reverse trend has not as yet acquired a mass scale.

Inessa Mushinskaya (27) is one of those with university education that have moved out of Russia. Originally from the mining town of Kovdor on the Kola Peninsula, she lives in Helsinki today.

Better education abroad
- I’m convinced that young people can get a better education abroad than in Russia. It is more practical, functional, more up-to-date, Inessa says.

Inessa Mushinskaya lives in Helsinki today. Photo: Private

Inessa moved to St. Petersburg right after graduating from the University in Murmansk. Half a year ago she married a Finn and moved to Helsinki where she today studies at the University of Applied Sciences.

- I moved away from Murmansk hoping for better job opportunities. From talking with Russians who live here in Helsinki I got the idea that people who live abroad feel safe, they know that even if they lose their job they will get support good enough to live on, Inessa says. – Young people go abroad in pursuit of better and safer life. A new generation of young people is here, she says.

American in Murmansk
There are not many foreigners living in Murmansk, but one young man that reverses the flow of youngsters moving away from Murmansk is 25-year old Stephen Webster. Coming from Oklahoma in USA, Stephen works at the regional Art Museum in the centre of Murmansk.

- I moved up here 16 years ago when my father got a job as pastor at the Christian church. Since then I have stayed and have no plans to move, Stephen says. – For me it is a big adventure. I like it here. Murmansk is very different from other places. Half of the year it is dark, the other half sun all the time.

Stephen Webster is one of the few foreigners living in Murmansk. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

- Murmansk is a kind of out of the world. The people, the weather, the atmosphere, it is like a state of its own, explains Stephen. Stephen is today married with a girl from Murmansk and enjoys life with friends in the largest city in the world north of the Arctic Circle. He’s only complain is the salary at the Art Museum where he assists with organizing and setting up exhibitions. 

Stephen Webster explains how Murmansk has changed tremendously over the years since he first arrived. –We got supermarkets, malls, modern cinemas, everything you need. But, people are the same friendly northerners as before, smiles Stephen.