The Oil Town Where Abramovich Grew Up
Published: November 14, 2012 (Issue # 1735)
Freight 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 or St. Petersburg, chances are high that your gas came from Ukhta.
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.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the city’s best-known former residents is billionaire Roman 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 an institute now known as the Moscow State Automobile and Road Technical University — 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
Head straight for the History Museum at Ukhta State Technical University (13 Pervomaiskaya Ulitsa; +7 216 774 402; ugtu.net), 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 to the present day. 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-President Dmitry Medvedev to 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 (yugydva.komi.com), 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. The one-way boat fare is 69 rubles ($2).
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
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 724 378) 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 779 041), which in addition to the sauna has a good restaurant on site.
The Recreation Center (26 Prospekt Lenina; +7 2167 721 774; centrlan.net/taxonomy/term/102) 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; uhta-gorod.ru/1150-belye-nochi-klub-uhta.php). 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, visit Planeta (24 Yubileinaya Ulitsa; +7 2167 745 696; planeta-ukhta.com). 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; kristall.uhta24.ru). 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
The temperatures are low year-round in Ukhta, and winter lasts most of the year.
Dvoryanskoye Gnezdo (2/15 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 2167 734 958; uhta24.ru/spravka/spravkaotzyv.php 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, ($10). 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 ($65-80) per person.
Many locals travel abroad, and when they come back, they say the best pizza is found at Pizza Khata (22 Prospekt Lenina; +7 2167 412 919; yarmarkauhta.ru/catalog/cafe/pizza_hata.html), a cafe in the middle of the central city market, or yarmarka. A pizza costs about 200 rubles ($6). Also at the market, residents lean toward Sushi Khata, which offers the local favorite, California rolls, for 350 rubles ($11), and also serves other Japanese cuisine.
Where to stay
The Chibyu Hotel (38 Prospekt Lenina; +7 216 727 830; chibiu.ru), got its name from the nearby Chibyu River. Chibyu was also the name of the settlement founded in 1929, which 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; +7 216 740 044; octoberhotel.ru). 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 ($65) per night and go up to 4,000 rubles ($125) 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; vip8888.ru), is only 200 meters from the central Komsomolskaya Ploshchad. Prices run between 3,000 ($95) and 6,800 rubles ($215).
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. You can fly daily to Ukhta from St. Petersburg with UTAir and Gazpromavia via Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. The flight takes about six and a half hours in total, including the connection in Moscow, and a round-trip ticket costs about 25,000 rubles ($790). The Ukhta airport (aviatablo.ru/ukhta) is only 7 kilometers from the city center.
A direct train to Ukhta (No. 388A) departs from St. Petersburg’s Ladozhsky Railway Station on odd-numbered dates. The journey takes around 33 hours and a round trip costs 2,700 to 7,500 rubles.
Ingrid Nevenchannaya was born and raised in Ukhta.
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.
Roman Abramovich attended the Ukhta Industrial Institute as a young man.
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; mouhta.ru).
• Sever Gazprom Company (39 /2 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 2167 762 605;
severgazprom.ru) transports natural gas through pipelines to industrial and residential consumers throughout Europe.
• LUKoil-Komi (31 Ulitsa Neftyanikov;
+7 216 755 111; lukoil-komi.lukoil.com) is a subsidiary of the oil giant LUKoil and 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 760 171; severnyemn.ru) is one of 14 subsidiaries of the state oil pipeline monopoly Transneft.
Top Komi official
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 businesses by promoting innovation.
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.