TOMSK, Russia (Reuters) - About 1,900 miles east of Moscow and sitting on a frozen swamp the size of France, the city of Tomsk has struggled economically since the Trans-Siberian Railway passed it by at the end of the 19th Century.
Now it is at the forefront of a Siberian economic boom, fuelled by the post-Soviet privatization of oil companies and, more recently, by high oil prices.
Oil and gas companies build sports clubs for the people of Tomsk and playgrounds for their children. They fund schools and universities. And their workers and executives spend money in the bars and restaurants that have sprung up in this city of half a million people.
“The oil companies are competitive and jealous, so they try to outdo each other by building new stuff for the city. So, for us, it just gets better all the time,” said Alexei Bykov, who serves drinks at Vechny Zov (Eternal Calling), an upscale restaurant and bar. He patted a pile of tip money left by oil company executives.
To show how far Tomsk has come in the last 10 years, Bykov, a 24-year-old “Tomich,” or Tomsk native, notes that Russian President Vladimir Putin brought German Chancellor Angela Merkel here in 2006 to show off Siberia’s oil assets. He points to pictures of the two smiling leaders, taken in the same establishment where he now works.
The Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs between Moscow and Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, passes 160 miles south of Tomsk through the city of Novosibirsk, a trajectory that consigned Tomsk to relative economic isolation for nearly 100 years.
Tomsk, known for the charm of its brightly colored wooden mansions, survived as Siberia’s university town until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent privatization of the oil companies kicked off its present boom.
Yukos, formed in 1993 and once Russia’s largest oil company, started a tradition of supplying fellowships at the local universities. Although Yukos was declared bankrupt in 2006 and former owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky now sits in a Siberian jail for tax evasion, its assets passed to state-controlled Rosneft and the tradition continues.
Around a fifth of the city’s population attends one of Tomsk’s ten universities and institutes, many of them on bursaries to pursue petroleum-focused courses. Students come from Novosibirsk and other parts of Siberia and even Kazakhstan to the southwest.
The average monthly salary in the city is 13,000 rubles ($531), on par with the national average, and oil workers can earn as much as 50,000 rubles a month, said Vladimir Yemeshev, deputy governor of the Tomsk region.
Parts of Russia that are not so blessed by natural resources, such as the Caucasus region of Ingushetia, can have an average wage as low as 1,800 rubles.
“Of course there’s a big difference between those regions that have oil and those that don‘t,” said Yemeshev, a former oil executive. “Those that don’t have oil, don’t have rubles.”
Russia, the world’s second-largest oil producer in 2006 after Saudi Arabia, is experiencing its longest economic boom in more than a generation, fuelled by world oil prices that have gone to $100 a barrel from around $10 a decade ago.
Russia’s government estimates GDP growth of 7.6 percent for last year.
Though this has helped make Russia the world’s ninth-largest economy, the wealth has not been spread evenly, with much of the benefit being enjoyed in Moscow.
But from a luxury hotel overlooking a large statue of Lenin near the river Tom, where a room costs 7,000 rubles per night and fresh mozzarella is shipped in weekly from Italy, Siberia seems to be surging ahead.
Mercedes cars and new SUVs dominate Tomsk’s rush hour, and ads for newly-opened Western shops Benetton and Valentino hang above the traffic.
“There’s been significant change within Siberia. Downtown Tomsk looks like you are anywhere in Europe,” said Bradford Clark, a Canadian executive working for mid-sized oil exploration and production company Imperial Energy.
“They can now walk into a shop and buy some nice things,” said Clark, who has spent 18 years working across Siberia.
Imperial Energy, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, finances two orphanages, helps students attend university, and even lined an avenue in Tomsk’s centre with lime trees.
In Tyumen, a city 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) west of Tomsk, it is a similar story. Shopping malls selling designer clothes and luxury hotels have sprung up.
The good times have every opportunity of continuing.
The Tomsk region has proven oil reserves of 25 billion barrels, just under a third of Russia‘s, according to Swedish-based West Siberian Resources, which operates four oil fields in the region. The Tyumen region has even greater reserves.
Among those drawn to Tomsk is Rabbi Levi Kamenitsky, who moved here from Israel three years ago and is a leader of a Jewish community he estimates at about 10,000 people.
“The oil money has helped us so much. We’ve built schools, a full Judaism program and provide scholarships for students at university,” Kamenitsky said.
Ukrainian construction workers and Yiddish-speaking Moldovans have swelled the Jewish community over the last 15 years, and send their children to the synagogue’s new kindergarten, which was largely financed by a local energy firm.
The 105-year-old synagogue, which was used as a courtroom in Soviet times, sits behind a birch-covered street in the city centre and is in need of repair.
“Soon we’ll do some work on the synagogue, to make it look nice again, and this will also come from our sponsors in oil companies,” said Kamenitsky, looking up at its whitewashed ceilings.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Eddie Evans