Braving Russia’s Winter Roads

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

While this may look like paved highway covered with snow, drivers on this Russian road are actually traveling atop the frozen Lena River. People in remote ares of Siberia rely on truck drivers willing to drive these treacherous roads to bring them food and supplies during the long winter.

While this may look like a paved highway covered with snow, drivers on this road are actually traveling atop the frozen Lena River in Russia. People in remote areas rely on truck drivers willing to drive along these treacherous paths to bring them food and supplies during the long winter.

Vladimir Kirillin is a truck driver. He has a very important job; he delivers oil to isolated villages and towns in remote Siberia. People rely on truckers like Vladimir Kirillin to survive the harsh Siberian winter.

Siberia is a vast area in eastern Russia. Siberia makes up 80 percent of Russia’s land area, but only a quarter of Russia’s population lives there. Population density is very low, with only about eight people per square mile. One major reason Siberia has so few citizens is because it is very, very cold. The Siberian city of Yakutsk is often called the coldest city on Earth. It has average January temperatures around 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Yakutsk is built on a layer of permanently frozen ground 450-feet thick, called permafrost. The majority of buildings rest on wooden stilts which are driven securely into the frozen soil. It is so cold there that the city’s drinking water is heated before being pumped to homes in order to keep pipes from freezing.

Why would Vladimir Kirillin or anyone else want to live in frosty Siberia? As it turns out, many Russians travel to Siberia from larger cities like Moscow because jobs there pay better than those at home. Yakutsk, a town in Siberia which has 300,000 residents, is the capital of Russia’s diamond-producing Yakutiya region. In order to attract workers to Russia’s cold and remote areas, diamond- and gold-mining companies are willing to pay workers higher salaries. Once there, these workers need people like Kirillin to provide the supplies they need to live.

Recently, the Russian newspaper The Siberian Times followed Kirillin across the frozen landscape. He drove his tanker along the Lena River, the 11th longest river in the world. Surprisingly, Kirillin was not driving on a road paved with asphalt or gravel. He was driving his 20-ton load on top of the frozen river itself!

Winter Roads

Winter ice roads, or zimniks, are important to many people who live in Siberia. After the Lena River freezes each winter, the river itself becomes one of Siberia’s most important winter roads. Zimniks open at the end of the December when the ice is thick and strong enough to support cars and trucks. As the winter gets colder, the ice gets thicker, so increasingly heavier vehicles are permitted to drive on it. A zimnik is typically open until April, when the ice begins to thaw.

Driving Siberia’s winter roads requires caution. Drivers rely on the support of an ice layer only three to six-and-a-half feet thick to keep them, their trucks, and their cargos from breaking through the ice. When the Siberian Times joined Kirillin on a trip last December, all that was supporting him and his 20-ton load was about 5 feet of ice. In some places, the Lena River beneath this ice is almost 100 feet deep. In order to stay safe, drivers are required to follow mandated routes where the ice is strong enough. If not, disaster can strike.

On January 12, two trucks crashed through the ice on the Lena River ice road traveling to the Yakutiya region. One truck was carrying oil while another was transporting a crane. Unfortunately, the two trucks traveled too close together, which put too much pressure on the ice supporting them. The drivers had also driven off the safe route into areas where the ice was weaker.

Kirill Svistelin, mayor of the local Kirensky district, blamed this accident on the trucks’ drivers. “They violated the safety rules by driving off the safe ice road,” Svistelin said. “We are calling a state of emergency in the area.” Although no one was killed in this accident, a state of emergency was declared when oil leaked into the Lena River.

Another zimnik travels 75 miles over the frozen East Siberian Sea. This ice road is open only two months per year. However, the 400 residents of Ayon Island in Russia’s Chukotka region depend on the food, fuel, and construction supplies truck drivers deliver, in order to survive the long winter. After the ice melts, the only way to reach places like Ayon Island is by helicopter or by boat. Boats, however, are able to sail only from August through October. As the Siberian Times reports, without ice roads and the truckers who drive them, “tens of thousands of Russians would be left without food and essentials for months on end.”

Many Russians are willing to relocate to cold and remote Siberia because of higher-paying jobs in the gold- and diamond-mining industries. Pictured is the Mir mine in eastern Siberia. At 1722.44 feet deep, it's one of the largest human-made holes in the world.

Many Russians are willing to relocate to cold and remote Siberia because of higher-paying jobs in the gold- and diamond-mining industries. Pictured is the Mir mine in eastern Siberia. At over 1,700 feet deep, it’s one of the largest human-made holes in the world.

Staying Safe

Truck drivers on Russia’s winter roads rely on each other to stay safe. While trucks cannot travel too close together, drivers still try to travel in groups. The truckers communicate with each other using walkie-talkies. Journalist Bolot Bochkarev has written about the people who make their living driving the vast stretches of ice.

“They usually travel in a group, like four or five trucks,” Bochkarev explained. “If one will be stuck, another will come and help and get him from the ice track, for instance. They can only rely on each other.”

In 2013, photographer Amos Chapple joined Siberian truck driver Ruslan Dorochenkov on a trip to the fishing village of Belaya Gora, located inside the Arctic Circle. Dorochenkov’s truck carried 12 tons of groceries and other household essentials. Although the trip was just 650 miles, it would take the loaded truck a week to make the trip across the ice. Four of those days were spent driving on the Indigirka River, which was then covered with a layer of ice that was three to six feet thick.

One day, as they were driving, the truck suddenly shifted to one side. Then Chapple heard what he thought was breaking glass. Quickly, he realized it was actually the sound of breaking ice.

“I was thinking, ‘This is it,’” he said. “I was scrabbling like a panicked dog to get out.”

Luckily for Chapple, the driver, and for two other passengers, only the topmost layer of ice on the river had cracked. The truck was able to complete its journey safely. To his surprise, his three fellow travelers were used to occurrences like these. They simply laughed at Chapple’s fearful reaction to the cracked ice. “The guys thought it was the funniest thing ever,” Chapple said.

When traveling to Belaya Gora, Chapple and his hosts left the warmth of the truck’s cab only when necessary. With temperatures 30 degrees below zero, no one changed his clothes for the entire week. The group entertained themselves by playing Russian hip-hop music on the truck’s radio. Once in while, the men would pull over in order to cook noodles or squid on a gas stove inside the truck. Surprisingly, Chapple says that drivers keep the air inside their cabs extremely warm.

“They hate the cold, so it’s a sign of hospitality to have this ferociously hot truck cab,” said Chapple. “It’s like a sauna inside—plus, you’re sweating from fear!”

Why are truck drivers like Vladimir Kirillin and Ruslan Dorochenkov willing to make such dangerous trips across the Siberian landscape? The main reason is money. Truck drivers can earn about $600 per trip. This is more money than most Russian workers can earn. Even though their work is often stressful, Chapple said that the truckers he met treated him kindly. “They’re real sweethearts with visitors,” he reported.

Additional Resources

Read more about truckers who travel Siberia’s winter roads at The Siberian Times and CBC News.

See images of life in Siberia at the Atlantic and Bloomberg.

Learn how you can stay safe when on ice this winter at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Canadian Red Cross.

Images and Sources

Lena River Road photo: Natxo Rodriguez
Lena River Road photo license: Creative Commons 2.0

Mir mine photo: Staselnik
Mir mine photo license: Creative Commons 3.0