In Thrall to Gas


The City Where Gazprom Is King

By Erwin Koch

Sergey Kozmin / DER SPIEGEL

A small city in a remote part of Russia is the starting point for a pipeline that will bring natural gas to German consumers. Gryazovets depends on Gazprom to survive, but for some workers it’s a desperate life.

It smells of lilac at the Uyut Hotel, whose name translates as “Comfort Hotel.” Yevgeny Gurlyov, who has been on the road for the last 11 years, sits in the cold, narrow hallway and waits for the bus that will take him to work. It is 6 a.m. on a dark and wet morning.
The hotel is on the outskirts of Gryazovets, eight hours north of Moscow on the train to Siberia. The city has 15,000 inhabitants, two brothels and a cultural center. A sign on the front door of the hotel reads: No vacancies.
Yevgeny, a metalworker and welder by profession, is a migrant worker from the south. He has been here for three days, waiting every morning to be picked up and driven out to the Gazprom construction site. The Russian energy company, the world’s largest extractor of natural gas, has about €80 billion ($110 billion) in annual sales, 400,000 employees and 580,000 kilometers (about 360,000 miles) of pipeline. It is perhaps the most profitable company on earth.
Seldom at Home
A green bus on six tall wheels pulls up loudly in front of the hotel. Yevgeny and the others with whom he shares room No. 4, Vassily, Sergei and Alexander, climb silently into the bus. It has just snowed. Yevgeny, a 37-year-old divorced father, leans his head against the cold metal.
Two years ago, his wife decided that she wanted to be with a different man. A man who was constantly away from home was not enough for her, she said.
When his daughter visits him, on the few occasions when Yevgeny is at home in Bryansk, a city southwest of Moscow, he has her stand up against the door frame and draws a line on the wood above her head. She is already 1.39 meters (4 foot 7 inches) tall.
She emails him photos and sends him messages on his mobile phone, but she never calls.
When are you coming home? she asks.
As soon as I’m finished here, he replies.
Massive Project

No rooms are available in Gryazovets during these gray days. Gazprom is upgrading its compressor station 17, or KS17, 20 kilometers outside the city. The road to the site is full of potholes. Gazprom is replacing old gas compressors with new, better and more powerful ones, in preparation for the day when the first Siberian gas begins rushing through the Baltic Sea pipeline to Germany. This is kilometer zero of the massive project.

The 917-kilometer section of the pipeline, which consists of three pipes, leading from Gryazovets, one of the most important hubs in the Russia gas pipeline network, to Vyborg on the Baltic Sea, includes seven compressor stations. They ensure that the gas coming from the Yuzhno-Russkoye oil and gas field in Siberia remains constantly under the same pressure, or 9.8 million pascals.

The actual Baltic Sea pipeline, now under construction and expected to go into operation this year, begins in Vyborg, a town northwest of St. Petersburg. The Baltic Sea pipeline, known as Nord Stream, is submerged to a maximum depth of 210 meters (689 feet) below sea level and reemerges from the water after 1,224 kilometers, near the northeast German coastal town of Greifswald. From Germany, the Russian gas will eventually continue through other pipelines to France and Great Britain, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, reaching up to 26 million households.

Trying to Save the Marriage

Yevgeny Gurlyov didn’t sleep well last night, as has often been the case in recent years.

When his wife left him, he did his best to save the marriage. He stayed at home in Bryansk, where he worked in a furniture factory and earned a sixth of what he had been making as a migrant worker. It wasn’t enough to cover the mortgage payments on their expensive apartment, which the couple had bought when they still loved each other.

But it was too late.

He returned to his migrant life, spending 10 weeks here, 12 weeks there, working as an employee of a company called SU-7 RiTM, which hires out its employees to Gazprom to install and repair turbines. Gurlyov traveled all over the country, earning close to 70,000 rubles (about €1,700 or $2,400) a month, depending on the region. It’s a lot of money in Russia — five times as much as a teacher makes. He performed all kinds of work, from hammering to welding to screwing things together, in the south and the north. Once he even worked at the Arctic Circle, at temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit), in a snowstorm so severe that he couldn’t even see his own hand.

Occasionally he would travel home and draw another line on the door frame.

At least the wages are good, he thought.

And now he is working in Gryazovets, in the Vologda region, part of the Northwestern Federal District.

Named for Mud

The name of the city comes from an Old Russian word for mud. Catherine the Great, while on an inspection trip, reportedly became stuck in the mud there and was very upset about it. The incident supposedly occurred in the spot where a memorial to the victims of the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call the war with Nazi Germany, now stands. It features a metal soldier surrounded by plastic flowers, his coat flapping in the wind and his left hand clenched into a fist. Behind the statue are buildings with windows and doors nailed shut. Some of the houses, still occupied, tilt to the side because of the swampy ground underneath.


Lenin Prospekt, the main street of Gryazovets, is full of mud and debris. Streetlighting was only installed in October 2010. Hunched-over men tramp through the mud in rubber boots, pushing wheelbarrows, while old women wearing thick caps drag home their latest purchases from the Sunbeam, Sunrise or Rainbow store. They trudge past a jubilant slogan, written in red brick letters, that reads: “40 Years of Victory 1945 – 1985!” And then they walk past a sign, which reads: “We will buy hair of length 35 cm or more, gray hair of 45 cm or more, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Oct. 25, 2010 only!!!”

Anyone who can, gets out of the city as quickly as possible.

Those who stay live in hope of getting a job with Gazprom, and the lucky few who get through all of the job interviews successfully are hired. The company currently employs 700 men and women in the city, as well as 400 migrant workers like Gurlyov, one of the occupants of room No. 4 at the Comfort Hotel.

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