Siberians Struggling in Post-Soviet Era

The former Soviet Union had great plans for Russian Siberia. Hoping to exploit the natural resources, they encouraged a mass migration to the desolate territory. But now, without the Soviet Union's backing, many communities are struggling to stay afloat.

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Here's the aftermath of another catastrophe, which is the word that Russia's presidents once used to describe the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet government encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to move to the brutal expanses of Russian Siberia. State planners wanted them to recover natural gas and other resources. Now that Soviet support is gone, energy companies are making a fortune, but many communities are not.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Siberia.

GREGORY FEIFER: Novy Urengoy brightly painted, concrete slab buildings rise out of vast stretches of tundra. This is a company town. Russia's biggest natural gas fields lie nearby and the state gas monopoly Gazprom is king.

Other Siberian settlements have died out as people moved south. But the local Gazprom subsidiary here is busy constructing new buildings and roads to its gas fields and production units. Workers brave the nine-month-long winter, when temperatures often hover around minus 40 degrees, because of high wages, good benefits and long vacations.

But those not employed by the gas company aren't so lucky. Last February, Gazprom handed over to the city its power plant and public housing. City officials say the company boosted its taxes to cover the new expenses and that the transfer was barely noticeable to residents. But locals say hundreds were laid off.

Novy Urengoy welder Pavil Gavreleuk(ph) says he's now scraping by with piecework and a pension of less than $200.

Mr. PAVIL GAVRELEUK (Welder): (Through translator) Pensions amount to less than 6,000 rubles a month. What can you buy with that? What's the point of living in the north? And who needs you back home, where you came from so long ago?

FEIFER: Novy Urengoy was founded a mere 30 years ago. Many settlers say they came on temporary assignments but ended up staying and raising families. Experts say now residents are no longer supported by the state, some have been left to fend for themselves in treacherous living conditions.

Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution says the policy of moving people to places they wouldn't normally go may be the part of the Soviet economic legacy that will be the most difficult to change.

Mr. CLIFFORD GADDY (Brookings Institution): Because you can restructure a factory and you can bring in new management and produce new products that are hopefully better designed for the market and you can retrain people. But historically, and across all countries, it's extremely difficult to downsize very large cities.

FEIFER: Gaddy says millions of those living in Siberia and the Russian far east probably wouldn't be there if the Soviet Union had had a market economy. He says as much as two percent of the country's gross domestic product goes towards supporting residents of extremely isolated areas.

Novy Urengoy, population 100,000, is chilly even during the brief summer. The city's sandy main street looks little changed from Soviet days. But there are signs of Gazprom wealth: new administration buildings, Japanese cars and large company billboards depicting happy residents and promising a bright future.

Vilely Milelien(ph) of Gazprom's local subsidiary says the company is changing the old Soviet economic model.

Mr. VILELY MILELIEN (Representative, Gazprom Subsidiary): (Through translator) Gazprom used to be involved in everything, from gas production to farming. But to be profitable, companies have to narrow their focus to what they're supposed to be doing. We produce gas. The city should take care of its own municipal services.

FEIFER: But locals complain that claiming to be a private company enables state-controlled Gazprom to do whatever it wants. They point to the new roads outside Novy Urengoy. Gazprom bars most residents from using them, saying they're private property.

Resident Sitlana Koslova(ph) says that shows if you don't work for Gazprom, you're nobody.

Ms. SITLANA KOSLOVA (Resident, Novy Urengoy, Siberia): (Through translator) People live their whole lives in the north, built this place up, developed illnesses and have now been left with nothing. Housing is scarce, rents are high and many are barely surviving.

FEIFER: Koslova says while Gazprom is helping Russia become an energy superpower and officials become rich, it's the average citizens who are bearing the burden of the Soviet past.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News.

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