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Modern city rises up out of Siberia's oil-rich peat bogs

The 'national district' of Khanti-Mansiysk, located in remote western Siberia, illustrates an ambitious effort by the Kremlin to modernize Soviet-era outposts, often with local oil revenue.

By Correspondent / June 23, 2012

Germany's former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, right, speaks with CEO of state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft Igor Sechin during a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia this month. A small region of Siberia has become important to the Russia's energy plans.

AP Photo/Kirill Kudryavtsev, Pool

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Khanti-Mansiysk, Russia

The most surprising place you've never heard of is probably this small "national district" set in the wilds of western Siberia, where fast-paced changes may hint at the Kremlin's modernization agenda for the whole country. 

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Khanti-Mansiysk has twice as much oil as Libya, and accounts for more than half of giant Russia's entire production. It's only "small" by Siberian standards; if it were in the US it would be the third largest state, after Texas. If it were an independent country, it would probably be the richest per capita on earth, since its entire population amounts to just 1.5 million people.

In Soviet times this usually frigid land of peat bogs, lakes, and taiga (Siberian boreal forest) was largely a vast oil-pumping zone. The nominally autonomous Khantys and Mansis indigenous people largely remained in their traditional lives of hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding, while teams of temporary petroleum workers left little behind but vast tracts of oil-polluted taiga. Photographs of the regional capital, also named Khanti-Mansiysk, from as recently as the 1970s show little more than a big cluster of wooden buildings – constructed by political prisoners who started the settlement in the 1930s – connected by wooden walkways and divided by dirt streets.

The Soviet system remains in place, at least in the sense that virtually all oil revenue still goes straight to Moscow and is returned to the region only in the form of Kremlin-approved subsidies. And poverty is still widespread, especially among the indigenous people, but even in the capital city where thousands still live in those original wooden apartment blocs built to house prisoners.

Undeniably changing

Yet much is undeniably changing, and at an accelerating rate. The city of Khanti-Mansiysk now has a graceful modern core, with shopping malls, a convention center, luxury hotels, a university, and sports facilities built to house the International Biatholon, the Chess World Cup and other sporting events that have been attracted to the city by its local administration. In 2007 the region contracted with the English architect Norman Foster to build a 920-ft "Crystal Skyscraper" on a hill overlooking the city, which will be one of the tallest buildings in Russia when it's completed.

The region, which mostly relied on rivers for transport in the past, now has a network of fast and well-kept highways. Local authorities insist that, in partnership with the mainly Russian oil companies that operate here, the Soviet legacy of pollution has been brought under control and will eventually be eliminated.

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