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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 December 2005, 12:04 GMT
Siberian fortune of Russia's gas giant

By Emma Simpson
BBC News, Novi Urengoi, Russia

Emma Simpson visits Gazprom in Russia's far north, a company supplying more and more of Europe's gas needs and playing an ever larger role in the domestic economy.

Emma Simpson and her team
Emma Simpson and her team brave the freezing temperatures

I knew it was going to be freezing when I saw the ice forming inside the plane.

Even for Russia, Novi Urengoi is remote and very, very cold.

As I stepped onto the tarmac though, the fur clad flight attendant shouted: "It's tropical."

Today the temperature was only minus 15 degrees. It can drop to minus 50 here.

As we drove through the city, I could not help but notice what a lot of buses there were.

There is also a bus stop every 100 metres. Punctuality is a priority in the freezing far north.

People do not expect to wait for more than a few minutes; and if the bus is late, the company gets bombarded with angry calls.

By lunchtime, it was already getting dark, and I was getting sleepy.

In winter time there are less than three hours of daylight, which clearly takes a bit of getting used to.

Our interpreter told us that she wanted to sleep throughout her first year in Novi Urengoi.

Every day she said her mother-in-law had to drag her out of bed.

But the many hours of darkness did show off the city's splendid array of new year lights twinkling brightly from almost every building.

In the city's main square, there is a snow village under construction with great towers of ice which will not melt until May.

Soviet legacy

The authorities here do everything they can to make life as normal as possible for the 70,000 residents of Novi Urengoi.

And that means bringing in by train or plane, everything from furniture to food.

This city is a legacy of the Soviet belief that man could conquer nature.

Gazprom headquarters in Moscow
Gazprom provides a quarter of Europe's gas

There is a sense of romance to it all, but the real reason people live here is the money.

Almost everyone is employed by Gazprom, Russia's giant gas monopoly, a colossus of a company that is now the world's largest supplier of natural gas.

Europe receives a quarter of all its supplies from Gazprom.

Here, the company is the city, an enterprise that still follows the old Soviet tradition of providing housing, schooling and medical care for its employees.

In today's Russia, that is an attractive package, and jobs here are sought after.

From Novi Urengoi, I travelled by helicopter to visit several of the big gas fields, mini-towns in their own right.

Thousands of workers come from all over the country to spend up to two months at a time here.

As I looked down on the sea of snow and ice below, I thought that two days would be enough for me.

How do all these people cope with such extreme conditions?

Sitting inside the rather comfy and very warm barracks, a veteran of the far north, Zelfir Abzallilov, explained that given time, people can get used to working anywhere.

"You just have to adapt," he said.

Of course high salaries help. Zelfir told me that he gets paid about 850 ($1,470) a month - that is five times more than the average Russian wage.

Zelfir and his colleagues know the role they play in helping to keep the world warm.

Perks of the job

They are proud of what they do. They are also helping Russia to become an energy superpower that is becoming ever more important to the West.

The job has its perks: I strolled into one of the medical facilities in Gazprom's newest gas plant and thought I had walked in to a swanky Moscow health spa.

Space age music wafted across a darkened room where tired workers lay on sun loungers wrapped in towels breathing in specially treated air.

They call it the salt cave. It is supposed to be rejuvenating.

Gazprom is the lifeblood of the Russian economy, generating billions of roubles for the state
Next door was a big jacuzzi and a traditional Russian banya or steam bath.

And then there was a very strange looking machine manned by a woman in a white uniform.

She was directing two sprays of water towards a half naked man, who had clearly just come off the nearby sun bed.

This was Ivan Tube, a support staff manager whose home is thousands of miles away in Saratov, on the banks of the Volga River.

It was his day off and he was making the most of the facilities.

Without doubt, Gazprom is a company that takes care of its own.

Its cheap gas also keeps millions of Russians warm.

Gazprom is the lifeblood of the Russian economy, generating billions of roubles for the state.

So powerful is this juggernaut, the rumour is that President Putin fancies becoming boss once he leaves office.

It is already under Kremlin control, though.

In the old days nuclear weapons and the Soviet empire made Russia a superpower to be reckoned with.

President Putin is now hoping that gas, not guns, will be the means by which his country can return to the world's top table.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 December, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
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Country profile: Russia
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