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Energy Giant Rules in Northern Russian City

Novy Urengoi residents are divided into two categories: The haves who work for the state- owned Gazprom and the have-nots who don't.

July 30, 2006|Alex Rodriguez | Chicago Tribune

NOVY URENGOI, Russia — Life is far from easy here near the top of the world, where sub-Arctic winters shroud this city of 100,000 in darkness for nearly two months of the year and temperatures can plunge to 80 degrees below zero -- cold enough to freeze skin in half a minute.

It's even harder for those who don't work for Gazprom.

Novy Urengoi is home to Urengoigazprom, a leading production subsidiary of Gazprom, Russia's $240-billion, state-owned natural gas monopoly and the Kremlin's ladder back to the top shelf of world economic powerhouses. That means Gazprom has its hooks in everything here -- the economy, city utilities, the arts, even healthcare.

If you work for Gazprom, you're taken care of, even pampered. If you don't, you may find yourself on the wrong side of the tracks, in firetrap housing such as the Kiselevs' flat on Leningradsky Avenue.

The walls and ceilings of Vyacheslav and Valentina Kiselev's apartment building -- and dozens of others like it throughout the city -- appear dangerously thin, made of material akin to particleboard. The stench of urine fills the stairwell. Novy Urengoi's unforgiving winters have taken their toll; melting snowdrifts on the roofs bow and rot the ceilings of apartments, causing water damage that usually goes unrepaired.

Vyacheslav Kiselev never worked for Gazprom, but as a construction worker he helped build its Novy Urengoi plants, employee housing and other buildings. The money he made disappeared during the financial ruin that accompanied the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Now retired, the Kiselevs are trapped in housing condemned years ago but never demolished.

"Now we're the forgotten people," Kiselev says. "We lost all of our savings, and we are told, 'Well, that's your business.' They don't care about us now."

The line between the haves and have-nots of Novy Urengoi is demarcated by possession of an Urengoigazprom employee badge. Gazprom, which was the natural gas ministry during the Soviet era, is now the world's largest natural gas producer, in control of a quarter of the planet's reserves. It's the sixth-wealthiest company in the world; its executives predict it will become the wealthiest.

The company is no less ambitious when it comes to the welfare of its workers.

At Gazovik, a health sanitarium for employees, workers and their families can soak aching backs in a room full of whirlpools or shed a few pounds at the fitness center. Every year, the company pays for workers and their families to vacation along Russia's sunny Black Sea coast. Average wages at Urengoigazprom are four times above the national norm.

"The people who came here to work for Gazprom initially planned to stay for three or five years," says Anatoly Krupkin, the sanitarium's chief physician. "But as it turns out, they end up staying for more than 30 years and having their children here."

Urengoigazprom workers acknowledge their troubles are few.

"I have friends who don't work for Gazprom, and my salary is much higher than theirs," says Yana Sukhushina, editor of a company TV show that touts Urengoigazprom's achievements. The program -- "always something positive," Sukhushina notes -- airs on the Gazprom-owned NTV network. "I feel I'm well taken care of."

Sukhushina's contentment is something Atikat Satybalova, her husband and three young children can only dream of. The couple recently moved to Novy Urengoi from Russia's volatile North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, hoping to find a decent-paying job, possibly at Gazprom. The hunt was fruitless, and Satybalova's husband settled for $500 a month to drive a bus.

"We will probably go back to my mother in Dagestan," said Satybalova, 33. "Gazprom is big and strong -- why should they care about us? They do care about their employees, but we are of no use."

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