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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Russia's wild east lures UK expats

By Alan Quartly
BBC, Sakhalin

Ten time zones east of London, an oil rig stands isolated in the stormy Sea of Okhotsk.

There isn't much money here, but hopefully we are bringing that
Richard Poulter
As the waves crash against it and the morning mist begins to lift, for a few Britons on board it must seem a long way from home.

This is the Molikpaq platform - a 45 minute helicopter ride from the north-east coast of Sakhalin, a sprawling 950km-long island hugging Russia's Pacific coast.

Many of the men working on board are more used to the streets of Aberdeen than Russia's latest energy outpost - closer to Tokyo than Moscow.

Russian jewel

Sakhalin is the centrepiece of Moscow's bid to transform itself into the world's leading energy supplier of the future. Reserves of oil and gas here are set to rival the Middle East, claim the international oil corporations.

Expatriate housing
Scottish suburbia on a Russian outpost
"My first thought was I want to go home," says Scotsman Norman Bennett of his arrival on Sakhalin. That was two years ago, when he transferred to the island after 10 years on the North Sea.

The island has one of the lowest standards of living in Russia and central heating systems regularly break down in the sub-zero winters.

Russia has always had its own extensive oil and gas industry. But the Sakhalin projects were among the first to employ large numbers of British specialists. It hasn't always been easy for the Brits based here.

"The first time they come here, everybody is so gobsmacked. They can't appreciate the difference in culture, the way of life and how you have to adapt to a big change in environment," says Mr Bennett.

Tough conditions

Located 16km offshore, the Molikpaq is exposed to the worst the Russian winter can throw at it.

Norman Bennett
Your nose and eyes will go numb in seconds, you get splitting headaches
Norman Bennett

The waters around it freeze over for six months of the year. Factoring in wind chill, temperatures outside can plummet to minus 70.

"As soon as you go outside you try and limit the amount of skin exposed so that you've just got your eyes and nose exposed," says Mr Bennett.

"Even then, your nose and eyes will go numb in seconds, you get splitting headaches."

Despite the hardships, the men on Molikpaq seem to think they are getting a good deal.

Far from home

Ken Kennedy, from Aberdeen, is supervising work on the rig's drilling floor. He has 18 years of experience on the North Sea.

Molikpaq platform
Sakhalin is set to rival Middle East supplies, say oil firms
He is one of many expat oil veterans who have realised their skills are in high demand as the international oil companies try to bring their operations in Russia's emerging energy markets up to speed.

"My daughters think it's too far away from home," says Mr Kennedy. But he's signed on for seven years, doing 28-day shifts at a time on Molikpaq.

All the men working on the platform pass through Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the island's capital and gateway to the rest of the world.

Until 1945 the town was under Japanese control and was then turned into a model Soviet outpost, the subject of glorifying propaganda films.

Influx of workers

But by 2000, when many of the foreign oil workers began to arrive in Sakhalin, the city was not a pretty sight.

The energy corporations are now spending millions of dollars erecting a purpose-built village cut off from the reality of Russian life in rundown Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

Foreign workers
More workers are expected to arrive
It contains streets of Western-style family homes - and more are being built to deal with the influx of foreigners expected in the next few years.

Richard Poulter, another Briton, is in charge of the residential construction project.

"Before I came here, I thought Russia was cold and poor.

"Why are you going there?" everyone said. Well, yes it is cold. There isn't much money here, but hopefully we're bringing that," says Mr Poulter.

He is so confident of the future of the Sakhalin oil and gas projects, that he has brought his wife and two toddlers to live there.

One of the companies exploiting the Sakhalin fields this year announced a further $10bn investment into its projects on the island.

With money like that pouring in, Sakhalin could find itself the next expat paradise.

The BBC's Damian Grammaticus
"An isolated and inhospitable place"

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