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Life in the oil-rich Siberian town of Strezhevoy

By Bridget Kendall
Today programme

couple walking through a wood

From the air, the lonely settlement of Strezhevoy is a tiny enclave, adrift in a snowy ocean of frozen forests and ice-white snaking rivers.

From the ground, it was less bleak than I had imagined. Side by side with ramshackle wooden barracks from the 1960s were new red-brick blocks of flats with balconies for the summer.

At least the settlement's 40,000 inhabitants looked as though they had proper housing and were no longer forced to live in old shipping containers, as in some places like this 15 or 20 years ago.

Life in the depths of Siberia, it seems, is no longer an entirely desolate existence.

City of Strezhevoy

In the park an old man was feeding a tame tufty-eared Siberian squirrel. Someone had carved delicate ice sculptures - a bear, a dragon and a dinosaur - and built an ice slope for the children.

Several of them, well swaddled against the cold, were whooping and shrieking with delight as they slid down it.

This is an oil outpost, so the plushest office blocks belong to Tomskneft, the state oil company which is the main employer. That used to be Yukos, the company owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

He was Russia's richest businessman until he fell out with Putin, his oil empire was dismantled and he was put in prison for tax fraud. Unusually for a Russian oligarch, he is still remembered with affection here, respected as a generous benefactor and a decent employer.

Other new buildings include a sports complex, and a cultural centre with cafe and indoor playing area for toddlers - an essential refuge when winter temperatures can plunge to minus 30C or lower.

Oil worker
We never get any pay rises and all the money goes to Moscow
Oil worker Sergei

In the cafe you can instantly pick out the "neftyaniki", the oil workers, with their weather beaten faces, heavy clothes and the air of "don't mess with me" about them.

They are the local heroes, the fearless cowboys of this Wild East - and with good reason. Every 15 days they are rotated in and out, bussed over 500km north to the oil fields to spend two weeks drilling in freezing temperatures. The job is hazardous, the journey bone-crunching.

And Strezhevoy's neftyaniki are deeply resentful that - unlike in the Yukos days, they say - the oil price has gone up and up, but their wages have remained static.

That resentment even filters down to the school children. At the local technical college, a group of teenagers were eager to meet the visitors from London. Unsurprisingly, their main gripe was how cut off they felt.

"The government promised us a bridge across the river," said one boy. "Without it we are cut off from the Big Land [the local term for the rest of Russia] except for the 'zimniki', the winter highways."

Winter highways are sandy tracks through the boggy landscape, passable only in winter when the ice hardens. Even then, the icy swamp fights to reassert itself, pushing up through cracks in the frozen asphalt roads of the town centre.

But when summer comes, this place is stranded, a sodden island teeming with mosquitoes, surrounded by marsh and water, reachable only by air or riverboat.

Officially Strezhevoy was founded in 1966, when they first began to pump the oil out.

Communist youth brigades were despatched in the summer months to help with construction. Many stayed on, seduced by the romanticism of raw Siberia and drawn by the generous wages and other perks granted by Soviet law to those working in harsh conditions.

But in fact there was already a tiny settlement here - a small village of ethnic Germans exiled from their homes on the Volga river by Stalin.

Old Russian woman
Mina Merger was 16 when she was transported to Siberia

As Hitler's army advanced in 1942, whole families were rounded-up as potential German enemies and hastily deported to this unlikely spot in the middle of Siberia.

Some still live in Strezhevoy, a reminder that these remote communities are not new. This has always been a place for those living on the margins, Russia's outcasts - being punished, exploited or simply overlooked by central government.

Sitting on her bed in her little wooden house by the river, her cat curled up at her feet, a little old lady in a head scarf is listening to German hymns and reading her Lutheran Bible. Mina Merger looks like a Russian peasant babushka, but she still speaks with a German accent.

She was 16 when her family were deported to Strezehvoy, she said. They were brought up the river by steamer from Tomsk and dumped on the shore without any possessions.

They had nowhere to live and struggled to grow food in the winter frosts and summer floods. She and her sister had one pair of winter boots between them. They only survived because a local peasant farmer took them in and let them sleep with his cows in the stable.

Now 86, Mina is worried about what the future might hold for her 16 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren.

"Look at the state of the country," she says. "We lived in total poverty, but things should have got better. I see on television how deprived some people still are."

"And where's the honesty in life today? I feel sorry for the young ones. I hope history won't repeat itself."

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