- By Howard Amos
- Feb. 26 2012 19:44
Main industries: Oil, gas and transportation
Mayor: Alla Badina
Founded in 1972
Interesting fact: Winter lasts for nine months and the lowest recorded temperature is minus 62 degrees Celsius
Sister cities: Marseille, France; Shanghai, China.
Helpful contacts: Mayor Alla Badina (+7 3466-24-18-81;
Sergei Zemlyankin, President of the Nizhnevartovsk Chamber of Commerce (+7 3466-65-11-57/65-11-85; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; tppnv.ru)
NIZHNEVARTOVSK, Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District — If St. Petersburg was built on a swamp to open a window onto Europe, Nizhnevartovsk arose from the bogs of western Siberia as a tribute to crude oil and human greed.
Celebrating 40 years since it became a city on March 9, this young and vibrant settlement on the mighty Ob River is populated by people looking to make quick money from the black gold nearby.
Many, if not most, of those you meet in Nizhnevartovsk do not plan to spend the rest of their days there. As well as the large contingent of domestic and international oil workers who rotate through the city on tours of duty, there are continuous residents who plan to earn and save — and then move away for an easier life.
Nizhnevartovsk owes its existence and wealth to Russia's biggest oil field, the gigantic Samotlor, located to the northeast of town. Though the volume of crude pumped today is a fraction of peak production, during its heyday in the 1980s Samotlor accounted for one-third of the Soviet Union's petroleum output.
SamotlorNefteGaz (4 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 3466-62-20-24;
TNK-Nizhnevartovsk (67 Industrialnaya Ulitsa; +7 3466-61-48-15;
Nizhnevartovsk River Port (1 Ulitsa 60 Let Oktyabrya; +7 3466-41-57-62) The city's port on the Ob River handles passengers as well as cargo. If it cannot be transported by train, bulky equipment for the oil industry is sometimes delivered here via the Arctic Ocean.
In World War II, there were only about 500 residents in Nizhnevartovsk — fishermen, hunters and timber merchants. But after 1965 — when the crude was flowing and construction brigades from the Komsomol youth league started arriving — the small village began to grow into the city of a quarter of a million permanent residents it is today.
The surrounding environment was also transformed. The bogs above the Samotlor field's oil deposits are now covered with a network of roads, artificial sand "pads" necessary to provide stable drilling platforms and gas flares. The unique man-made landscape is even visible on satellite maps where the three-meter-deep Lake Samotlor, the heart of the field, can be seen crisscrossed by dirt tracks and dotted with drilling "pads."
So far more than 2.6 billion tons of crude have been pumped from Samotlor, enough to fully meet the oil needs of the United States at today's consumption levels for more than three years. There are currently more than 9,000 active wells.
Q: Do you sell your products in Nizhnevartovsk?
A: Our market is the Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district, but we soon intend to enter the Russian market as a whole. Generally speaking, this sort of furniture comes from Belarus and practically nobody in Russia produces it. That's why we decided to start our business.
Q: Is it easy to build a small business in Nizhnevartovsk?
A: It's not easy and it's not hard to build a small business — what's hard is to turn a small business into a medium-sized one. Our problem is that we are located in the far north and the transportation situation is very complicated, particularly with deliveries of raw materials and finished products.
Q: Nizhnevartovsk is heavily associated with oil — is there more to business life in the city?
A: I wouldn't say everything in Nizhnevartovsk is oil-dependent. We do food processing and have other light industrial outfits. Nizhnevartovsk is developing.
Q: What should a visitor see?
A: You have to go to the oil fields because a person should see with their own eyes how difficult it is to extract oil. And you must visit the taiga, which is very beautiful.
— Howard Amos
Those who live nearby, including the native Khanty and Mansi peoples, are only too aware of what the discovery of oil brought in its wake. "God created the earth and the devil created Samotlor," a local saying goes. In the Khanty language, Samotlor literally means "the dead lake."
But the building of Nizhnevartovsk and the infrastructure required to service Samotlor by Soviet pioneers was achieved against tremendous odds. The surrounding marshes were a particularly enormous hurdle to the oilmen: while the lake ices over in winter, some of the swamps — Which can be insulated by a heavy blanket of snow — do not freeze, making access a nightmare.
The average annual temperature is minus 1 degree Celsius, but even the summer respite is tempered by swarms of mosquitoes that appear when the mercury rises. About 90 percent of the city was constructed on sand-filled swampland.
But whatever the rigors of the environment — and unlike many other Russian cities — the population of Nizhnevartovsk is growing. With about 80 percent of local industrial production linked to energy, the economic pull is the still-dynamic oil sector.
The licenses for Samotlor, which expire in 2038, are held by TNK-BP, Russia's third-largest oil company jointly controlled by oligarch holding Alfa, Access and Renova Group and multinational giant BP. Battling depleted reserves and a Soviet legacy of uncontrolled exploitation, TNK-BP is looking to use technological innovation to slow the inexorable production decline.
Not all the oil, however, gets pumped out of the ground and sent on its long journey to consumers. Greenpeace alleges that Samotlor records more than 1,000 ruptures from corroded and aging infrastructure every year.
"I don't see any differences between the companies that have foreign investments and those that don't," Moscow Greenpeace director Ivan Blokov said. "They all behave the same."
Some of the spilled oil lies in surrounding swamps and some of it makes its way into the sediment, Blokov said. About 200,000 tons are carried away by the Ob every year and discharged into the Arctic Ocean.
What to do if you have two hours
Q: What is the business environment like in Nizhnevartovsk?
A: It's a very simple fact that we are the business in Nizhnevartovsk. It's a mono-industry town and it's pretty much a mono-company town — 80 percent of the industrial throughput belongs to TNK-BP or TNK-BP subsidiaries.
We don't see negative influence or pressure in doing business here. There is a very constructive interaction with the local government. We pay their taxes, and they are interested in us being as successful as possible. Any sort of gray area is resolved in a professional and timely manner.
Q: Who do you employ?
A: The vast majority are locals. People are different from Moscow. They are more open, they are friendlier and they like what they are doing for the company. They are proud of their town — despite the fact that it sits in the middle of probably the biggest swamp in the world.
There are 250,000 permanent residents and probably half as many people who rotate through working here every day — 350,000 people plus. They are mostly the field crews who fly in here and work four weeks and then fly out.
Q: What happens when the oil runs out?
A: Although Samotlor's production is going down, there are 720 million tons left to recover, and there are smaller fields that haven't been developed yet — you do the best ones first, of course. We are looking forward to another 100 years of production. Nizhnevartovsk has also become a big transportation hub. The city will decline, but who really knows what will happen?
Q: What sites would you recommend for a visitor?
A: As far as sightseeing is concerned Nizhnevartovsk is quite a challenging place. If you go to Moscow you'll see a city that dates back to the 12th century, but obviously that's not the case here. All of its sights of interest are related to the [oil] business. At night Nizhnevartovsk is like any other big city. There are cinemas, restaurants, clubs and shopping.
— Howard Amos
If you work efficiently, you will be able to see all of Nizhnevartovsk's few sites in less than half a day. A stroll by — or, in winter, on — the Ob River is essential to grasp some of the majesty of the Siberian waterway and see the port's rusting cranes. Entirely orientated toward the oil to its north, there are no bridges across the river in the city and the wilderness begins on the Ob's southern bank.
Visitors should also wander around the central square — decorated by ice sculptures that glitter in the winter sun and life-size statues of musicians and street cleaners — and can pop into the local history museum (9 Ulitsa Lenina, bldg 1; +7 3466-24-53-20;
Of the city's monuments, the one that locals consider of paramount importance is the city's landmark tribute to the "Conquerors of Samotlor." Erected in the 1970s, the giant bronze figure of an oil prospector is known affectionately as "Lyosha." With a flaming torch in one hand and an ice pick in the other he stands on a mound encircled by traffic growling along the road to the oil wells of Lake Samotlor.
What to do if you have two days
For those with time on their hands, there are a couple of other spots of interest in Nizhnevartovsk that might occupy a few more hours. There is the Nativity Church (+7 3466-47-95-80;
And there are various other monuments including an eternal flame to the memory of the soldiers who died in World War II — though Nizhnevartovsk barely existed at the time — and an open-air exhibition of Soviet aircraft just outside the airport. You can also visit a nondescript memorial with a suspended bell that commemorates the Soviet Union's losses in the Afghanistan War. It was here that about 75 people gathered to protest against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and in favor of honest elections on Feb. 4.
But if you are based in Nizhnevartovsk for any length of time it is worth making a visit to the Samotlor oil field that is emblematic of the Russian energy industry and a paean to human endeavor in a pitiless climate. As a strategic asset, the field itself is closed to casual visitors — SamotlorNefteGaz even employs pilotless drones to catch intruders — but tours can be arranged through the local history museum.
As well as being awed by the sheer size of Samotlor, visitors can stop at a small memorial 25 kilometers outside of Nizhnevartovsk to the first well drilled on the site in 1965. As a key reserve of the Soviet Union when oil exports were a vital means of earning foreign currency, Samotlor was formerly strictly off-limits to non-Russians. Even in the mid-2000s foreign oil workers were still given local maps with altered coordinates. Mountain skiing can also be done near Nizhnevartovsk. One option is the Three Mountains resort (+7 3466-6-01-85;
Where to stay
With a constant stream of managers and engineers from Moscow and further afield arriving in Nizhnevartovsk, there are plenty of hotels for visitors. With guests that include pop legend Filipp Kirkorov, one of the most reliable is the Ob Hotel (2G Ulitsa 60 Let Oktyabrya; +7 3466-64-40-75;
Other options are the Venetsia (39 Internatsionalnaya Ulitsa; +7 3466-65-39-86;
Where to eat
For quality food in the city, oil executives recommend top-price restaurants the Golden Bear (6 Prospekt Pobedy; +7 3466-61-53-77) and Aquarium (17 Ulitsa 60 Let Oktyabrya; +7 3466-61-54-54). Many of the main hotels also have reliable eating places — although seafood in Siberia is never a good idea.
If you are hankering after Teutonic cuisine, you could do worse than the Köln Restaurant (17a Ulitsa Lenina; +7 3466-49-18-49;
Among macho oil workers a hobby that many would be willing to talk about is fishing: The greater Tyumen Region has about 400,000 lakes. Ice fishing is even possible on Lake Samotlor, surrounded by drilling rigs and gas flares. Hunting is another local pastime.
How to get there
There are five daily flights to Nizhnevartovsk's airport, Nizhnevartovskavia (+7 3466- 49-21-75;
Although there are no direct trains from Moscow, Nizhnevartovsk can be reached by railway. A ride from the capital with a change in Tyumen will take 2 1/2 days and cost from about 3,000 rubles ($100). The journey from Tyumen, the regional capital, takes just under 24 hours.
Short-haul passenger ferries run along the Ob between Nizhnevartovsk and cities including Khanti-Mansiinsk, Tomsk and Surgut during the summer months.