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Last Updated: Monday, 20 February 2006, 23:38 GMT
Pioneers keep flocking to Russia's frontier
By Alexander Koliandre
BBC World Service reporter on the Yamal peninsula in Russia

Gas field
Pipelines and gas flares litter the vast, frozen tundra

The three hours flight from Moscow to Salekhard, the Yamal peninsula's regional capital, is a journey into a frosty darkness that belies the glow of the riches below the frozen Arctic surface.

From Salekhard, the helicopters are busy shuttling gas workers directly to the source of Russia's vast gas reserves.

Below them lies the vast and largely uninhabited tundra, like a white king-size duvet cover, buttoned with gas flares, stitched with miles and miles of pipelines, and covering the main source of Russia's wealth.

Only half a million people live on this remote peninsula, and had it not been for the petroleum industry the number would probably have been sharply reduced.

The Yamal region produces 90% of Russia's gas, and almost every second family here has some connection to gas production and Gazprom, Russia's gas monopoly.

Serious money

When the first wave of gas drillers arrived on the Yamal peninsula half a century ago, the Soviet propaganda machine was praising their cheery heroism.

At the time, there was virtually nothing here apart from wooden barracks, recalls Alexander Glukhenkiy, one of the pioneers and now a high ranking Gazprom employee.

Boris Semin
Boris Semin works long hours in return for good money

"I was in charge of organising the first convoy from here to the gas fields," Mr Glukhenkiy says.

"It was a long, long line of tractors and sledges, stretching for nearly eight kilometres. We moved very slowly as there were no roads at that time".

On offer were salaries unheard of in the rest of the Soviet Union, and it was this rather than patriotic slogans that attracted them to these hostile climes.

Soon, hot on the heels of the drillers, the geologists and the road builders, people of other trades started arriving, hungry for their share of the promised riches.

Michael, a musician, arrived in the 1970s after friends told him "the land was full of money", and he soon found that some of it would flow from the pockets of well paid, hard working gas workers into his own as he played in local, rudimentary restaurants.

"To ask us to play a song cost about 15 roubles. So sometimes we earned up to 200 roubles [in an evening], with no taxes obviously," he recalls, adding that at the time it would take a month for an engineer in Moscow or Leningrad to make that sort of money.

Proud people

Wages here, especially for Gazprom workers, remain among the highest in Russia, though these days more humane shift patterns mean workers have more time off than they used to.

Fourteen-year-old Alina
Fourteen-year-old Alina is preparing her exit strategy

"I come here for a month of 12 hour shifts, then I have a month off back in Nadym," says Boris Semin who operates the power generator at a purifying station 100 kilometres from the nearest town.

"The company takes us to and from the gas field by bus."

The gas is pumped via a complex network of pipelines, heading westwards to Europe, bypassing Moscow where workers in smart offices rarely earn nearly as much as Mr Semin.

Yet, chances are few of them would be prepared to change places with him.

Those who do arrive in Nadym and other gas towns rarely plan to stay for more than five or 10 years.

But rather than fill their boots and leave, they tend to stay.

Little by little they grow proud of living here, of coping with the freezing temperatures, with the windswept snow, with the lack of daylight in winter, and with the overpriced imported food.

"We like it here, and the ones who don't have already gone back down south," says Tatiana who came to Yamal about three decades ago.

"Yes, it's cold, sometimes below 50 degrees Celsius, but we're used to it.

"There's always hot water and central heating in the houses, all the houses are decent - either new ones, or the old wooden ones - goods are expensive, but there's work. We're satisfied."

Exit strategy

But the idea of leaving this remote peninsula never dies completely, even among second generation settlers.

Fourteen-year-old Alina has already decided what to do.

Rusalim Dimukhamedov, chief geologist, Ritek oil and gas company
With every family and every tribe we sign an agreement, which stipulates how much cash we pay, how much petrol we deliver to their camps, and how many snowmobiles we buy them
Rusalim Dimukhamedov
Chief geologist
Ritek oil and gas company

"I've decided to go and get two degrees, one in law and another in public administration," she declares.

"I need them to be independent and to have the possibility of leaving Yamal."

But, as is common across the Arctic region, the local authorities are working hard to prevent the locals from leaving.

Locals have first choice in the job market, and wages are still rising, as are comfort levels.

New houses are being built, replacing old wooden barracks. Cinemas, libraries and schools help transform the towns. And for the brightest students, who are often the ones most likely to leave, there are scholarships available, enabling them to study in Moscow or St Petersburg, if they promise to return.

But none of this is free, and there are limits to Yamal governor Yuri Neyelov's resources.

"Obviously every governor wants more money for his region," he says.

"But we understand that Yamal's gas belongs to the whole of Russia, so the income has to be shared with the rest of the country.

"The [central] government sets how much we get in taxes, and we don't complain."

But a walk down the streets of Nadym, where new hotels, schools and shops stand shoulder to shoulder with old barracks and ugly prefabricated flats, it seems clear that Moscow has never quite known what to do with this region.

Should it be a desirable place to live for people from mainland Russia, desperate for money and better lives, or should it be treated as a haven for hard working adventurers seeking quick fortunes?

The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other over the past 30 years, and all the while the gas has continued to flow westwards.

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