His party background notwithstanding, Filipenko's vision is a distinctly non-Soviet one. The capital's leading architectural symbols include a shopping emporium topped by an enormous green dome in the shape of a chum, the traditional tent used by the region's indigenous people—the Khanty, Mansi, and others who herd reindeer, hunt, and fish. That symbolism would have been unthinkable in Soviet times, when the state, with its ideological cult of "the worker," denied the very idea of culturally derived identity.
When Siberia's oil lands came under development, native people were forcibly herded into villages and cut off from their hunting and fishing grounds. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the nomads won legal status as "aboriginal people," with the right to roam the oil fields. In spite of their new status and the architectural homage in the capital, their lot has hardly improved. Their numbers are small, about 30,000 in all; their languages are nearly extinct; and they are heavily afflicted by the scourges of contemporary Russia—AIDS, alcoholism, and tuberculosis. Some oil-tax money is being invested in medical ships that stop along the rivers to care for patients. But critics say these floating clinics diagnose disease, then leave patients with no means to get treatment.
Rural Russia is also being depopulated by the flight of young people to Moscow and other cities. To counter these trends, Filipenko has implemented ambitious plans to turn Khanty-Mansi into a place young people will choose to live in rather than leave. And this effort, he boasts, is working. He notes that Khanty-Mansi has the third highest birthrate among provinces in Russia, and unlike the country as a whole, whose population is in decline, Khanty-Mansi's has increased 18 percent since 1989, from a combination of births and immigration.
Oil composes 90 percent of the capital's economy, which is not surprising given the surge in oil prices. But it points to a problem shared by all resource-dependent economies: At some point the resource will be exhausted, and new sources of prosperity will have to be found. Recognizing the need to develop economic prospects beyond oil, Filipenko persuaded some 80 top researchers from Akademgorodok—a famed science and research town in southern Siberia created in Soviet times—to move to his regional capital to staff a new institute specializing in information technologies. The institute provides consulting services to oil companies, but it also takes on projects in unrelated fields such as nanotechnology.
It's the start of a "Silicon Taiga," says Alexander Sherbakov, a 60-year-old mathematician with a gray walrus mustache. As the era of easy oil comes to an end, he says, "we're going to grow our own scholars" by creating information-age jobs for the younger generation. Unlike investment in oil, investment in science, he says, can guarantee an everlasting bright future for the region's economy and its people.
That's undoubtedly an optimistic assessment. For one thing, the touted model, Silicon Valley, is located in temperate California. In Soviet times the Kremlin could simply order top scientists to move to remote research centers. In post-Soviet times Russia's top researchers can live and work wherever they choose, and most are choosing to live in prosperous cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.