Shoyna, a small Russian village located on the edge of the arctic circle is often referred to as the world’s northernmost desert. The sand covers everything as far as the eye can see and the few people living here never dare shut their front doors at night, for fear of being buried alive by the ever-shifting dunes. But it wasn’t always like this…
Shoyna was settled in the 1930’s by fishermen drawn to the coast of the White Sea by the abundance of fish in the area. In just two decades, it had grown into a bustling fishing port with a population of around 1,500 people and a fleet of roughly seventy fishing boats. However, it wasn’t long before excessive trawling decimated the fish colonies and the fishery collapsed. The dozens of vessels lining the shore stopped coming and many of the families that had thrived in Shoyna slowly moved away. Today, the official number of inhabitants is 375, most of whom survive on unemployment benefits and pensions. Hunting is also a way to make ends meet, thanks to the large number of barnacle and Brent geese that use Shoyna as a stopover on their migration course, but the most lucrative job in the village is definitely that of bulldozer driver, as everyone needs their house dug up from the sand at one point.
Modern-day Shoyna lies in the middle of a desert, but historical records show that when the first fishermen settled here in the 1930’s, it was a virgin land covered with moss and trees. No one knows exactly what unleashed the sand upon this place, but experts believe it was either caused by the massive trawling that damaged the seabed vegetation, allowing the sand to rise up and be swept to shore, or by the deforestation carried out by the local population decades ago.
Photo: Sergey Ermokhin
The sand dunes now constantly migrate up and down the coast by action of the westerly wind, and can completely bury houses in Shoyna in a single night. Locals have grown accustomed to the shifting sands and waking up to sunlight penetrating only the top part of their windows, but always leave their front doors open so they don’t get blocked in. Local meteorologist Natasha told English Russia that she now uses a manhole cut into the roof of her house as a door, after geeting sick of constantly having to dig the building out of the sand. “It’s very comfortable” she says. “You get out right on the ground and go wherever you want.”
Shoyna has just one bulldozer to help the people dig out their homes after a windy night, but driver Sasha says he can’t help everyone. It takes ten hours to uncover a house completely, and since one hour of work costs roughly $70, few people can afford his services. The Russian government only subsidizes 40 hours a month, which is way less than necessary. Plus, there aren’t enough hours in a day to help all those in need. “I dig one house out, and the others are mad at me,” he says.
Apart from having seen many of the houses sinking beneath the sand, locals have also developed physiological problems from constantly having to walk on uneven sand, according to the local doctor.
There are no roads or railroads connecting Shoyna to the rest of the world, so the only ways in and out of the village are by sea or air. Despite their struggles with the sand and isolation from the world, locals are reportedly very proud of their off-the-grid settlement and very hospitable, inviting visitors into their homes for traditional seafood feasts, despite the lack of fish in the sea.
Photo: English Russia
Shoyna is now classified as an environmental disaster. Scientists come here to study and understand the phenomenon of sand dune migration and how to stop it.