Fieldwork in West Siberia:

Novyi Urengoi, Nadym, Pangody, the three most important places of gas extraction in Russia

Relocation histories and attachment to place in Russia ’s gas capital

Field impressions by Florian Stammler, Novyi Urengoi, 2007

Florian Stammler went to fieldwork for the West Siberian case study within the MOVE-INNOCOM project in 2007. As a first case site, the world’s gas capital of Novyi Urengoi was chosen. Novyi Urengoi is situated in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, just south of the Arctic Circle , at 66:05 degrees northern latitude, and 76:40 degrees eastern longitude.

naberezhnaia in autumn, Sep 2007              F. Stammler

Stammler was lucky to have recruited senior researcher Lyudmila Lipatova as a research partner. Lipatova is from the Salekhard Museum for regional history, (YNAO, West Siberia ) and has worked for many years on biographies of Russian incomers in the North and their descendants. Through her contacts, we could establish a very fruitful partnership with the Novyi Urengoi Museum and its director Marchenko, who served as a base for our little research team, a cosy place for having talks with city dwellers, and as an expert advisor on our topic. Also very helpful was the vice maire of Novyi Urengoi Vladimir Nyuikin and his deputy for public relations Natalya Livkutnaia. Interesting talks, materials and assistance we also got from the Urengoigasprom museum called “muzei slava truda”, “museum for the glory of labour” and its director Sycheva.

The city of Novyi Urengoi was founded on a place that the local indigenous reindeer herders refer to as “gibloe mesto”, meaning “god-forsaken place”. There had been no indigenous settlement there before, as the place is rather boggy, and very much exposed to the ice-cold northern winds. But it happened so that in 1964-65, a team of seismic explorers discovered a big gas-like formation on that place in about 1 km depth. A year later a team of geologists got stuck in the bogs on their way with their tractors in June, and since they could not move any further, they decided to drill an exploratory well there. June 6th therefore became the famous day when the first well called R-2 released a fountain of 7 million cubic metres gas per day. The headquarters in Nadym and Moscow did not want to believe that, and thought may be the geologists suffered from the heat and hardships in the bogs and therefore went crazy. However, this marked the date of the then world’s biggest gas deposit discovery. It took some years to tackle the challenges of building up industry on this “god-forsaken place”, but in December 1973 S. Orudzhev, then minister of gas industry of the USSR, flew in by helicopter and said, just having landed in the middle of nowhere “here a city will be established”. That’s how several informants remembered the beginning of Novyi Urengoi. The official history of the place does not tell us about the exact how’s and why’s of choosing this place for drilling the first well.

old temporary housing of the early days now gradually disappears

Today Novyi Urengoi is a city of around 115 000 inhabitants, and an exemplar for Soviet model construction of an efficient industrial city. The city is a classical mono-industrial space, where still everything is connected to the gas industry. That raised the question of planning to resettle part of the population, as the giant Urengoi gas deposit is beyond the peak of its production. However, it was decided that the city will become the base for opening up new deposits to the North. Novyi Urengoi therefore indeed became the ‘base-camp’ for developing the Yamburg and Zapolyarnye gas deposits, which count together with Urengoi for most of the Russian gas production today.

Like in many place world-wide, companies in Urengoi try to implement modern ideas of efficiency, ‘lean management’ and ‘outsourcing’. For Novyi Urengoi that has the consequence of many social services being transferred from gas-company ownership to municipality. Employees of kindergartens, schools and houses of cultures have started to feel how privileged they were when they were on the payrolls of Urengoigasprom, the company that established the city. Now their salaries and social services resemble those of any other employees of the municipality.

From that one might assume that there would be a kind of two-class society in Novyi Urengoi, the population employed by the gas industry and the rest. Although this might be true in terms of the standard of social services, fieldwork impressions suggest that there is still a strong sense of social cohesion. It seems to live of the experience of resettlement from the south to this place, and of the experienced hardships, when people lived for years together in tents, then wooden self-constructed barracks, and round barrel-like containers (bochki), before the first concrete apartment blocks were built in the late 1970s, in a quarter that is today still called “dvoryanskoe gnezdo”, the “nest of the nobility”. Interview-partners stress that the early Novyi Urengoi society was not stratified at all, however. The gas company boss could stop on the road and take along hitchhiking schoolchildren. This is different today, where gas company officials are hardly accessible, and there is also a caste of rich perestroika-winners, who made a lot of money with some clever business ideas, finding a niche in this northern market.

During this first field period, we really wanted to find out first what life is like in the city, and the first things that we noticed was

  • that there is still very much a kind of “frontier atmosphere” in town, one of eternal work, movement, and also somehow unrest.
  • that there is a very active policy by the municipality of creating a sense of place and social cohesion. Nowhere else in the Russian North had we seen so many huge posters and actions in this direction. Both the municipality and companies fund gatherings of the city-population, foster civil society associations and actions, establish memorials and monuments about city history, and advertise city-identity everywhere on posters, saying things like: Urengoi, my homeland, happy birthday my dear hometown and other texts. We also saw a lot of effort by the administration to keep the place clean, to create space for social contacts, and to turn the city into a colourful vibrant space where life is enjoyable.

 These first visual impressions were confirmed when we accompanied firstcomers for walks through their city, where they introduced us to places meaningful for city history as well as for their own biography there. We have gathered a good base of life-histories from Novyi Urengoi now, mainly in the form of in-depth unstructured interviews, photography of the first days from personal archives of our partners, combined with contemporary photography, and video-interviews of firstcomers where they comment the development of the city and places of significance for their attachment. Together with locally published literature, this gives us an idea of how the city developed and how people’s senses of belonging are interwoven in this history.

INNOCOM researcher Lyudmila Lipatova accompanying Pavel Savel’evich Grudskoi to early places of the city, which he helped constructing

Some of the interviews we have managed to transcribe word by word, and they will be used by Lipatova for her weekly radio-programme on Yamal Okrug regional radio.

In 2008, some of this material will possibly find its way into an exhibition about Novyi Urengoi in its partner-city Kassel , the German gas capital. The main task, however, is to compare this material with the field data from Murmansk region, and relate this to the available academic literature on sense of place and relocation, in order to find out how movement and places influence identities and biographies in general.

Links for this case site: