I returned this week from an excursion to the Kola Peninsula with the Northern Resources masters program. I was the excursion's "academic coordinator," which basically amounted to me giving short background information on the various environmental disasters they would be seeing each day. And believe me, the Kola region has plenty to offer in that area. Nevermind the 200+ nuclear reactors, most of which are in out of service submarines, some in various states of being decommissioned. Or the Pechenganikel and Severonikel smelting operations that collectively pump something like 450,000 tons of SO2 plus assorted heavy metals annually into the air, resulting in massive forest devastation in the surrounding areas. Or the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, for which Bellona claims a 25% chance of meltdown on the two oldest reactors over their 23-year lifespan (these reactors are now 30 years old, and we heard had just been licenced for a further 5 years). Despite all this, I saw many signs of improvement in Murmansk and the rest of the Kola region, at least socially and economically. Living standards have visibly improved, (at least in Murmansk) and much of the Soviet-era service style has been replaced with western-style shops and restaurants. I'm not saying Russia's entry into the world of globalized western capitalism is inherently a good thing, but it is a demonstration of improvements in some areas. There are still huge economic disparities, and I know the Columbia Sportswear and MEXX shops in downtown Murmansk are beyond the budgets of most of its citizens, but they were but the top end of a general trend throughout the city that indicates a growing middle-class. This situation, however, was tempered by towns like Lovozero and Umba where there is literally no main industry (save for Lovozero's Swedish-owned reindeer slaughter house, which operates less than half the year) and most people survive by basic subsistence.