A tunnel to Alaska?

Russia re-visits plans to build an underwater railway line to North America

It’s that time of the year again, when Russia announces it will build a tunnel all the way to America across the Bering Strait. The ultimate public infrastructure project “is already under way,” an official from the Russian Ministry of Economic Development recently told a local English-language TV station.

In the last couple of months, reports that the Kremlin endorsed building a $90-billion transcontinental railway line linking Siberia to Alaska appeared everywhere from Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper to the U.S.’s Business Insider blog. According to a recent opinion piece in the London Times, “the Russians, Canadians and Americans seem confident that they can muster the political will, technical know-how and massive funds to complete the project.” Washington, however, knew nothing about it, according to the U.S. State Department, and Ottawa gave no comment.

That’s hardly surprising. The Bering Strait tunnel has been a pie-in-the-sky fixture of Russia’s public debate since 1905, when Czar Nicholas II first approved a blueprint for the project. After the Cold War, then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin vowed to build the tunnel to increase transportation links to the U.S., Russia’s new-found friend. This taste for megaprojects is a residue of “the penchant for gigantism that characterized the Soviet Union,” says Aurel Braun, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Soviet officials, he adds, loved to dazzle people with enormous public developments, such as reversing rivers, vast hydroelectric dams, or Magnitogorsk, the largest steel city in the world.

Now, as President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia’s top political duo, gear up for next year’s presidential election, talk of ambitious below-the-sea excavations to connect the world’s two largest continents has resurfaced. With the country drifting further and further away from democracy and the Russian public sliding into political apathy, Braun says, a newly authoritarian Moscow seems to be borrowing a page from Soviet Russia in an attempt to please the masses.

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