Published: June 2008

Frozen Assets

Siberian Oil Boom

Send Me to Siberia

Oil transforms a Russian outpost.

By Paul Starobin
Photograph by Gerd Ludwig

It's around midnight, and the couples on the dance floor at the Palace Restaurant are gently swaying to a slow one. "Za nas, za neft—To us, to oil," the singer croons,

Wherever life sends us,
To us, to oil …
We fill our glasses to the brim.

It is Oilers' Day in the western Siberian province of Khanty-Mansi. This annual holiday, honoring the hard labor of the oil workers, the neftyaniki, falls early in September, after the worst of the summer mosquito season and before the first snowfall, in October. Hours earlier, as daylight faded, thousands crowded into a huge outdoor sports complex. A stage was framed by a deep-green backdrop of unbroken forest. Balloons were released, torches were lit, and a troupe belted out a song:

There is only one joy for us,
And this is all we need,
To wash our faces in the new oil,
Of the drilling rig.

Little wonder Russians are toasting oil: These are boom times. Global oil prices have increased tenfold since 1998, and Russia has pulled ahead of Saudi Arabia as the world's top crude oil producer. The Kremlin's budget now overflows with funds for new schools, roads, and national defense projects, and Moscow's nouveau riche are plunking down millions of dollars for mansion-scale "dachas."

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