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The housing stock of a typical Russian city consists of large (and ugly) multistoried concrete apartment blocks. Surgut boasts a suburban development of single-family town houses, aimed at a new upper middle class of oil company managers, bankers, and entrepreneurs. The redbrick houses, each with its own small plot of land, are being built along a tree-lined stretch of riverfront at an average cost of $400,000. Envious townspeople coined an ironic sobriquet for the elite community: Dolina Nischikh, Valley of the Beggars.

Surgut might have fallen apart, as did some other Russian cities, in the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union. That it didn't is a testament to the rootedness and stability of its political and business leadership.

"I was born in Surgut, my children were born here, and my grandchildren were born here," Alexander Sidorov, the city's longtime mayor, proudly declares. Surgut's economic anchor, the oil company Surgutneftegas, Russia's fourth largest producer, is majority owned by local managers. And unlike most Russian oil barons, who rule their western Siberian empires from Moscow, Surgutneftegas's general director, billionaire Vladimir Bogdanov, makes his home in town. Though now a towering figure in Surgut, Bogdanov started out as a common neftyanik.

Surgutneftegas is using the oil boom to finance an ambitious modernization program. At the oil field management center, computer engineers have custom designed an enormous digital map to monitor and adjust the field's performance. The map displays real-time information sent by coded radio signal from pump stations, active wells, and pipelines. From this display, managers can tell how much electric power is being consumed, whether a well needs repairs, and whether a pipeline is leaking.

Protection of the environment, barely a concern in Soviet times, is becoming part of the new ethos. It's not that the oil industry has suddenly become softhearted toward flora and fauna. Rather, high oil prices provide an incentive to minimize waste, as do license agreements that include big fines for spills. Moreover, as Russian oil firms have become global players, they've also become more sensitive to international concerns about the environment. "Maintaining a good reputation is very important," says Alexey Knizhnikov of the World Wildlife Fund in Moscow. "Otherwise, doing business becomes difficult."

Lubov Malyshkina, director of the environmental department at Surgutneftegas, is a chemical engineer with an advanced degree in the science of corrosion protection and geoecology. She also serves as an elected official in the regional parliament. In Soviet times, she says, the oil ministry in Moscow, oblivious to local conditions, would send chemicals that proved useless to treat oil spills and other hazards. Now Malyshkina's department, drawing on a nearly 500-million-dollar budget, makes its own purchases. She shows me one: a Swedish-made Truxor vehicle with tanklike treads that break up oil-saturated peat so that spills can be cleaned up. The company is also investing five million dollars in a new plant for recycling old tires into fibers that can be mixed into the asphalt used to pave company roads.

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