Oil Pipe Dreams

An oil-company town in Siberia, once a draw for profitseekers, is no place to go hunting for omelets

THE dreary collection of monotone building blocks that calls itself Usinsk first rose from the sub-Arctic tundra 20 years ago, when there was one reason for people to live here: money.

And with the proceeds from the oil that built Usinsk, the Soviet government could afford to pay the salaries that the pioneers expected. People did not exactly flock to Russia's far north, but enough of them came to keep the pipelines flowing.

Today, their savings wiped out by inflation and their dreams of an easy retirement shattered, Usinsk's inhabitants are hostages caught in a twin-jawed trap: They are not getting paid for the work they do, so they cannot afford to move anywhere else.

Usinsk is a company town the likes of which have not been seen since America's Wild West.

Here, the company is Komineft, which drills and pumps oil in the Komi Republic, a remote autonomous region of Russia. The firm was in the news this week for allowing tens of thousands of barrels of oil to leak into the delicate Arctic environment.

Komineft is king in Komi. The company earns practically all of the republic's revenues, and the republic's titular president, Yuri Spiridonov, ``hangs on every word'' that Komineft director Valentin Leonidov utters, according to local journalist Yevgeny Rochev.

One way or another, everyone who lives in Usinsk is dependent on Komineft; most of them are on the company's 28,000-strong payroll.

Except that ``payroll'' is the wrong word. The last time that Ivan Yakimovich saw any rubles in his pay packet, for example, was in May.

Ivan Yakimovich, who preferred not to give his family name, works for the building maintenance division of Komineft. He is supposed to earn 700,000 rubles ($230) a month. But for each of the last five months, his employers - pleading poverty - have paid him only pieces of paper.

These coupons, known locally as ``Leonidovki,'' after the Komineft boss, can be spent only in certain shops - shops owned (surprise, surprise) by Komineft.

And since those Komineft shops do not pay their suppliers much more reliably than Komineft pays its employees, they do not offer a cornucopia of goods. For example, they never have eggs, so if he feels like an omelet, Ivan Yakimovich is driven to subterfuge.

Although it is not allowed, he finds someone who has rubles and wants something that the company store sells. Then Ivan Yakimovich will go and buy it for him with a coupon, and sell it to him for rubles. Then he takes those rubles to the egg shop and buys his eggs.

Or he will resort to barter. The other day, he said, he paid for a truckload of turf that he wanted for his dacha with a dozen bottles of Azeri brandy that happened to be on the company store shelves last week.

The way local residents see the recent oil spill and its implications shows their priorities. If Komineft is hit with a fine for its negligence, they say they want the Komi government to pay it. Because otherwise the chances of seeing any money from their employer recedes even further.

``Before, when we had stability, we could expect to come here to work, and then buy something at home for our retirement,'' said Ivan Yakimovich, who moved here from Belarus five years ago. ``Now there is no future.''

When a reporter suggested sympathetically that he was caught in the difficult transition from Soviet socialism to capitalism, Ivan Yakimovich shook his head ruefully.

``No,'' he said. ``This is a transition from socialism to slavery.''

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