Ukhta: The Oil Town Where Abramovich Grew Up


11 November 2012


Train cars waiting to carry oil out of Ukhta, a city of 103,340 people along the Ukhta River in the Komi republic. If you drive a car in Moscow, chances are high that your gas came from Ukhta.


Train cars waiting to carry oil out of Ukhta, a city of 103,340 people along the Ukhta River in the Komi republic. If you drive a car in Moscow, chances are high that your gas came from Ukhta.

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Population: 103,340

Main industries: Oil, gas and timber

Mayor: Oleg Kazartsev

Founded in 1929

Interesting fact No. 1: Ukhta is known for its many language schools. As a result, a lot of its residents speak English, particularly young people.

Interesting fact No. 2: Ukhta is the birthplace of the well-known keyboard artist Andrei Derzhavin, a member of the band Mashina Vremeni.

Interesting fact No. 3: Ukhta is nicknamed the “Northern Pearl” because of its northern lights during winter, which lasts most of the year.

Sister cities: Usinsk, Komi republic; Naryan-Mar, Yamal-Nenets autonomous district.

Helpful contacts: Ilya Semyonov, spokesman for the Ukhta City Hall (+7 8216-789-034;

UKHTA, Komi Republic — If you drive a car in Moscow, chances are the gasoline in your tank came from this city located smack in the middle of the northern Komi republic.

Oil springs were found near the Ukhta River during the days of Ivan the Terrible in the 17th century. But the first oil well — one of the first in Russia — was only drilled by industrialist Mikhail Sidorov in the 19th century.

The drilling started in earnest a few years after the 1917 revolution, leading to the founding of the village of Chibyu along the Ukhta River in 1929. In 1939, the village was renamed Ukhta, and it gained the status of a town in 1943.

While the local climate is known for being chilly, even during the short summer, the well-educated, often-English-speaking population is warm and friendly.

But this wasn’t always the case. The Soviet government used prisoners as slave labor to develop the area starting in 1938, and many people died through brutality and torture. This tragic chapter in Ukhta’s history is noted in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book “The Gulag Archipelago.”

These days, Ukhta is called the industrial capital of the Komi republic — and not without reason. It is where much of the regional production of oil, gas and bricks is concentrated. Most of Moscow’s automobile gasoline and diesel fuel comes from Ukhta.

Major Businesses

Sever Gazprom Company (39 /2 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 2167-762605; transports natural gas through pipelines to industrial and residential consumers throughout Europe.

LUKoil-Komi (31 Ulitsa Neftyanikov; +7 2167-55-111; is a subsidiary of the oil giantLUKoiland is engaged in the exploration, extraction and development of hydrocarbons in the Komi republic.

Northern Main Oil Pipelines (2/1 Ulitsa A.I. Zeryunova; +7 8216-76-01-71; is one of 14 subsidiaries of the state oil pipeline monopoly Transneft.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the city’s best-known former residents is billionaireRoman Abramovich, who made his fortune in the oil industry.

Both of Abramovich’s parents died when he was young, and he grew up here with an uncle, Leib Abramovich, who worked in the local timber industry and lived in an apartment at 22 Oktyabrskaya Ulitsa. Abramovich studied at the Ukhta Industrial Institute (now Ukhta State Technical University) but left without graduating to enter compulsory military service in 1984.

After his time in the army, Abramovich moved to Moscow and enrolled in the Gubkin Moscow Institute of Oil (now the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas) — and again didn’t stay through graduation. While in Moscow, he stayed with another uncle, Abram Abramovich.

The famously shy billionaire, ranked by Forbes magazine as the ninth-richest Russian, with a fortune of $12.1 billion in 2012, rarely talks about his days in Ukhta. But after he had amassed his wealth, the director of  School No. 2, Abramovich’s alma mater, asked him to contribute money for repairs. In 2000, Abramovich donated 2 million rubles (worth roughly $70,000 at the time).

What to see if you have two hours

For MT

Nike Willie Taller, 
Co-owner and marketing director of Taller, a consulting company that opened in March

Q: Why should an investor consider setting up a business in Ukhta?
A: Ukhta is one of the most effective places to invest money in Russia. The unique advantages of the city and its infrastructure are favorable to business.

Q: What challenges do investors have to contend with?
A: Ukhta has its share of corruption, and local bureaucracy can be sluggish.

Q: Which sectors are the most promising for investors?
A: Ukhta’s strengths include oil and gas production, refining and transportation, good roads, local geological exploration capabilities, the production and processing of minerals and timber, and support services for all of the aforementioned businesses.

Q: What has the government been doing to attract investors?
A: Unfortunately, the efforts of the government have not been particularly effective — or visible — in involving investors in new projects.

— Ingrid Nevenchannaya

Head straight for the History Museum at Ukhta State Technical University (13 Pervomaiskaya Ulitsa; +7 216-77-44-02;, which is not only the best museum in town but is also located at the most prestigious university in the Komi republic. Here you can see documents from the 18th century mentioning Ukhta Oil Works, one of the first oil companies in Europe, and trace the history of local oil up through modern-day Ukhta. Part of the museum is devoted to the story of the Ukhta gulag, while another showcases the history of the development of the local timber industry.

While on the university campus, pay your respects at a chapel built to commemorate 25 people who died in an arson attack on the local Passazh shopping mall in 2005. Two 20-somethings were jailed for life by a local court after a second trial in 2009. But two investigators from the case made headlines that same year when they said the suspects were scapegoats and appealed to then-PresidentDmitry Medvedevto intervene. The two investigators were subsequently jailed on spurious charges.

What to do if you have two days

For an incredible weekend trip, catch a train to the Yugyd Va National Park (, 225 kilometers away. From Ukhta, take the train to Vuktyl and then travel to Podcherem by ferry for the trip of eight to nine hours. (Timetables and prices change from season to season. In 2012, boats ran on Tuesdays and Fridays and also on Sundays if occupancy reached 70 percent. One-way boat fare is 69 rubles.)

At the park, the Pechora River and surrounding area is the place to try your hand at fly-fishing or hunting. The river is stocked with freshwater graylings, which are used in traditional local dishes. The park also offers many streams and rivers for boating.

For the more physically active, climb up Mount Manaraga, which, at 1,663 meters, is an easy hike depending on the season and the chosen route. On the way up, take a break in Moroshkovy, a national cherry orchard, where you can spot wild deer walking among the trees. Locals believe that this mountain has magical powers, and even if you aren’t convinced, you will be enchanted when you look down on the beauty of the wooded taiga from the top of the mountain.

What to do with the family

For MT

Oleg Kazartsev, 
Top Komi official for construction and public utilities and a former Ukhta mayor

Q: Why should a foreign investor choose Ukhta?
A: Ukhta is open for business. We are looking for new and cooperative projects in industry, science, health care, education, culture and sports. We also wish to emphasize the increasing investment appeal of Ukhta as a place with a highly qualified workforce.
With the cooperation and help of our city government, we hope to demonstrate why Ukhta is indeed the “Northern Pearl.” Ukhta is already the heart of the oil and gas industry in the Russian northwest. In addition to a large oil refinery, we have major enterprises for the repair of oil and gas equipment and for energy research, as well as institutes working on the needs of the energy industry.

Q: What business advantages does Ukhta enjoy over other Russian cities? 
A: We have many strengths and competitive advantages, including the availability of a considerable amount of municipal property for development; the codification of land use and construction rules and a city master plan; and the availability of rich natural resources. We also have a well-developed transportation system of roads, rail and air; a qualified workforce; a developed banking system; a developed community of small and mid-sized businesses; a wide network of educational and research institutions; and cultural and historical attractions including museums, monuments and many parks.

Q: How are you looking to develop the economy?
A: Our first priority is the development of human capital and the improvement of services. We are tackling this issue by constructing housing, introducing a program for energy savings and power efficiency, developing high-tech medical facilities and continuing the advancement of Ukhta State Technical University.
Priority No. 2 is to develop small and mid-sized businesses, primarily by creating conditions favorable to the development of tourism.
Our third priority is to develop technology business by promoting innovation.


With the weather cold for most of the year, locals love the banya, and a stop by the State Banya Complex (47 Prospekt Lenina; +7 2167-72-43-78) for a steam bath will leave you and your family refreshed. Another popular local sauna is the Shaggy Beaver (Mokhnaty Bober, 4 Stroitelnaya Ulitsa; +7 2167 -77-90-41), which in addition to the sauna has a good restaurant on site.

The Recreation Center (26 Prospekt Lenina; +7 2167-72-17-74; offers concerts and performances by Russian stars like Valery Leontyev and Grigory Leps.


If you want to dress up in evening clothes (and perhaps participate in a striptease competition), visit the club White Nights (3a Oktyabrskaya Ulitsa; +7 2167-752-054; The club often plays 1980s and 1990s disco-themed music. A highlight is the striptease contest, in which couples dance and the men compete to see which one can peel off the clothing of his female companion the most gracefully.

For a place to dine in a refined atmosphere, visitPlaneta(24 Yubileinaya Ulitsa; +7 2167-745-696; It is popular among local and foreign businesspeople and has a stage where foreign and local acts perform. Entrance is 300 rubles ($10).

For a disco, pub, bowling center and sushi bar all under one roof, try the Crystal Entertainment Center (3 Pionergorsky Proezd ; +7 2167-700-010; This is a favorite hangout for foreigners, perhaps in part because it offers reasonable prices and a wide choice of drinks.

More places to eat

Dvoryanskoye Gnezdo (2/15 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 2167-73-49-58; id=976) is considered by locals to be the best restaurant in the city center. Just steps from major business and administrative buildings, the place is often packed with city and business leaders. The most popular item on the menu is goulash cooked with vodka (300 rubles). Dishes made with mushrooms from the local forest are also a treat. Including alcohol, the average bill runs between 2,000 and 2,500 rubles per person.

Many locals travel abroad, and when they come back, they say the best pizza is found at Pizza Khata (22 Prospekt Lenina; +72167-41-29-19;, a cafe in the middle of the downtown city market, or yarmarka. A pizza costs about 200 rubles. Also at the market, residents lean toward Sushi Khata, which offers the local favorite, California rolls, for 350 rubles and also serves other Japanese cuisine.

Where to stay

The Chibyu Hotel (38 Prospekt Lenina; +7 2167-278-30;, got its name from the nearby Chibyu River. Chibyu was also the name of the settlement founded in 1929 that was renamed Ukhta in 1939. Former guests include pop diva Alla Pughachyova and rockers from the group Lyube. Room rates run from 1,550 to 7,000 rubles ($50 to $230) per night, while breakfast and dinner each cost 300 rubles ($10).

If you want a cozy, smaller place, try the Hotel on Oktyabrskaya (23 Oktyabrskaya Ulitsa; +7 2167-40-044; This elegant hotel is in the heart of Ukhta and near the popular KIO Park, where you can take an evening stroll. Prices start at 2,000 rubles per night and go up to 4,000 rubles for a luxury apartment. Pop singers Vladimir Presnyakov Jr. and Natalya Podolskaya have slept here, as has the rock band Chizh & Co. Foreign businesspeople prefer to stay here as well.

A new business hotel, the VIP Grand Hotel (7e Stroitelei Pereulok; +7 216-767-980;, is only 200 meters from downtown’s Komsomolskaya Ploshchad. Prices run between 3,000 and 6,800 rubles.

Conversation starters

Ask about people’s work. Residents are ready to work and earn money — the very reason they live here. This is illustrated by a popular local joke: An Ukhta resident travels to the sea for a vacation at the end of the summer, and his lily-white complexion is greeted with astonishment.

“Excuse me, where are you from?” people ask.

“From Ukhta,” he answers.

“Doesn’t Ukhta have summer? You couldn’t sunbathe at all?”

“What do you mean?” the Ukhta resident says. “Of course we had summer. But I had to work that day.”

How to get there

The easiest and fastest route to Ukhta is by plane. The Ukhta airport ( is only 7 kilometers from the city center and is served by two daily flights from Moscow operated by UTAir. The 1,530-kilometer flight takes about two hours, and a round-trip ticket costs about 10,000 rubles ($330).

The train takes 27 hours and costs 2,000 to 9,000 rubles.


For first time since Yom Kippur War: Israel fires warning shot at Syria

IDF responds after errant shell lands in Israeli territory, marking fourth time in just over a week that infighting in Syria has spilled into Israel; Barak threatened this week to respond to any more stray ordnance.

A Tamuz missile fired by the IDF last year.

A Tamuz missile fired by the IDF last year. Photo by Ilan Assayag
Location of the incident on the Israel-Syria border, November 11, 2012.

Location of the incident on the Israel-Syria border, November 11, 2012.

The Israel Defense Forces fired a warning shot at Syria on Sunday, after an errant mortar shell landed in Israeli territory. This was the first time Israel has directed weaponry at its northern neighbor since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

The errant shell marked the fourth time in just over a week that the infighting from Syria has spilled into Israel.

The missile fired by the IDF was a Tamuz, an anti-tank missile with a range of 25 kilometers. The IDF’s use of the Tamuz was first made public last year, although it has actually been in use by the IDF since the 1980s. The Tamuz was used both in the Second World War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

An Israeli security source said the military fired in the direction of a Syrian army mortar crew that had launched a shell which overshot the Golan disengagement fence on Sunday, exploding near a northern Israeli community without causing casualties.

In a statement, the Israeli military said soldiers had “fired warning shots towards Syrian areas”.

“The IDF has filed a complaint through the UN forces operating in the area, stating that fire emanating from Syria into Israel will not be tolerated and shall be responded to with severity,” the statement said.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak earlier Sunday warned that Israel would respond should stray Syrian ordnance continue to strike the Golan Heights, highlighting international concerns that the civil war in Syria could ignite a wider regional conflict.

“The message has certainly been relayed. To tell you confidently that no shell will fall? I cannot. If a shell falls, we will respond,” Barak said in an interview with Army Radio, hours before the incident.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also speaking before Sunday’s mortar strike on the Golan, told his cabinet that Israel was “closely following what is happening on our border with Syria … and [is] prepared for any development”.

Israel last week warned Syrian President Bashar Assad to rein in attacks on rebels near the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Damascus lost to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and which had been mostly quiet for decades.

Three other Syrian mortar shells strayed in the Golan Heights last Thursday, one of which landed on the fence of an Israeli community without exploding. Just a week before that, Israel complained to the United Nations after three Syrian tanks entered a Golan demilitarized zone. Israel also said a stray Syrian bullet hit one of its army jeeps while on patrol.

Israel has tried to stay out of the 19-month Syrian insurgency, reluctant to be drawn into another war and unclear about whether a post-Assad Syria might prove more hostile.

But Barak said last week that he hoped the rebels would win, that Assad would fall, and that “a new stage in the life of Syria will begin.”

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, meanwhile, warned troops on the Golan Heights a week ago: “This is a Syrian issue that could become our issue.”

The Tamuz is equipped with an electro-optic sensor that allows the team operating the missile to monitor the target during the projectile’s flight and guide it accurately all the way to the point of impact.

During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the Tamuz missile saw extensive action, with some 600 missiles of the type fired, mostly in support of ground forces. Even though the strikes were accurate, in the lessons learned after the war, it was decided that in at least half of the cases there was no operational justification for the use of this accurate but expensive missile. With the cost of every Tamuz coming to some NIS 500,000, their use in the Second Lebanon War cost NIS 300 million.


Amid Calls to Open China’s Politics, Party Digs In

Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

A portrait of Mao in a Beijing studio. The Communist Party’s new report emphasized the longtime Chinese leader’s ideology.

BEIJING — As the Communist Party’s 18th Congress approached, Li Weidong, a scholar of politics, made plans to observe a historic leadership battle in one of the world’s great nations.

Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Tourists in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing on Saturday.

Instead of staying in Beijing to monitor China’s once-a-decadetransfer of power, Mr. Li boarded a plane.

“I’m going to the United States to study the elections,” Mr. Li said in a telephone interview during a stopover in Paris. After witnessing the American presidential election on Tuesday, Mr. Li went on the radio for another interview. “I still think China’s politics remain prehistoric,” he said. “I often joke that the Chinese civilization is the last prehistoric civilization left in the world.”

With China at a critical juncture, there is a rising chorus within the elite expressing doubt that the 91-year-old Communist Party’s authoritarian system can deal with the stresses bearing down on the nation and its 1.3 billion people. Policies introduced after 1978 by Deng Xiaoping lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and transformed the country into the world’s second-largest economy. But the way party leaders have managed decades of growth has created towering problems that critics say can no longer be avoided.

Many of those critics have benefited from China’s stunning economic gains, and their ranks include billionaires, intellectuals and children of the party’s revolutionary founders. But they say the party’s agenda, as it stands today, is not visionary enough to set China on the path to stability. What is needed, they say, is a comprehensive strategy to gradually extricate the Communist Party, which has more than 80 million members, from its heavy-handed control of the economy, the courts, the news media, the military, educational institutions, civic life and just the plain day-to-day affairs of citizens.

Only then, the critics argue, can the government start to address the array of issues facing China, including rampant corruption, environmental degradation, and an aging population whose demographics have been skewed because of the one-child policy.

“In order to build a real market economy, we have to have real political reform,” said Yang Jisheng, a veteran journalist and a leading historian of the Mao era. “In the next years, we should have a constitutional democracy plus a market economy.”

For now, however, party leaders have given no indication that they intend to curb their role in government in a meaningful way.

“We will never copy a Western political system,” Hu Jintao, the departing party chief, said in a speech on Thursday opening the weeklong congress.

The party’s public agenda, which Mr. Hu described in detail in his 100-minute address, was laid out in a 64-page report that is in part intended to highlight priorities for the new leaders, who will be announced later this month. Much of the document had retrograde language that emphasized ideology stretching back to Mao and had little in the way of bold or creative thinking, said Qian Gang, the director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

Most telling, there was no language signaling that the incoming Politburo Standing Committee, the group that rules China by consensus, would support major changes in the political system, whose perversions many now say are driving the nation toward crisis.

While Chinese who are critical of the current system generally do not expect a wholesale adoption of a Western model, they do favor at least an openness to bolder experimentation.

“To break one-party rule right now is probably not realistic, but we can have factions within the party made public and legalized, so they can campaign against each other,” said Mr. Yang, who added that there was no other way at the moment to ensure political accountability.

Only in the last few years has the idea of liberalizing the political system gained currency, and urgency, among a broad cross-section of elites. Before that, as the West foundered at the onset of the global financial crisis, many here pointed to the triumph of a “China model” or “Beijing consensus” — a mix of authoritarian politics, a command economy and quasi-market policies.

But the way in which China weathered the crisis — with the injection of $588 billion of stimulus money into the economy and an explosion of lending from state banks — led to a spate of large infrastructure projects that may never justify their cost. As a result, many economists now say that China’s investment-driven, export-oriented economic model is unsustainable and needs to shift toward greater reliance on Chinese consumers.

Constant lip-service is paid to that goal, and on Saturday, Zhang Ping, a senior official,reiterated that stance. But it will not be easy for the new leaders to carry it out. At the root of the current economic model is the political system, in which party officials and state-owned enterprises work closely together, reaping enormous profits from the party’s control of the economy. Under Mr. Hu’s decade-long tenure, these relationships and thedominance of state enterprises have only strengthened.

“What happens in this kind of economy is that wealth concentrates where power is,” said Mr. Yang, the journalist.

The 400 or so incoming members of the party’s Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, as well as their friends and families, have close ties to the most powerful of China’s 145,000 state-owned enterprises. The growing presence of princelings — the children of notable Communist officials — in the party, the government and corporations could mean an even more closely meshed web of nepotism. It is a system that Xi Jinping, anointed to be the next party chief and president and himself a member of the “red nobility,” would find hard to unravel, even if he wanted to.

“There are people who run state-owned enterprises who are Xi Jinping’s friends, relatives and old classmates,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian. “This group is part of his political energy and support base. If Xi Jinping is willing to reform, he must sacrifice the interests of these people for the long-term good.”

The rules have become so unbalanced against private entrepreneurs that even some who have benefited handsomely from China’s growth are denouncing the system. One is Sun Dawu, a party member and the millionaire founder of a rural food conglomerate. He was handed a suspended three-year prison sentence in 2003 for trying to raise capital from local residents. Mr. Sun stayed quiet after his trial, but is now openly critical again.

“The finance system is very corrupt,” he said in a telephone interview. “The country should allow private banks to do financing, especially for peasants and the rural population.”

China’s systemic problems are most evident in the countryside. Land seizures by officials looking to sell property to developers are the most common cause of the growing number of protests.

“Land, finances, medical care and education resources are too concentrated,” Mr. Sun said. “The majority of the nation’s resources are concentrated on welfare for party members and government workers.”

The growth-at-all-costs development model has also led to widespread environmental destruction and a surge of protests against industrial projects from middle-class urban residents. At a news conference on Thursday, the opening day of the party congress, Yi Gang, deputy governor of China’s central bank, acknowledged the problem: “After 30 years of development, there is no big difference from developed countries in what we eat and wear,” he said. “Where we lag behind is in the air and the water.”

But the only way to really address endemic problems like these, critics say, is to create a political system, with checks and balances, that is designed to benefit ordinary Chinese rather than officials and their cronies, and is able to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society.

“It is still possible for China to get on the right track while staying stable,” said Mr. Li, the scholar who observed the American vote. “It is also possible, however, for the party to miss the opportunity and devolve into chaos.”