My Visit to Khanti-Mansiisk, Part I
Why is Khanti-Mansiisk the perfect meeting place for the EU-Russia talks?
June 26, 2008
In autumn 2006, I found myself by invitation of some very respectable investors in a high-class Moscow night-club shaped like an amphitheatre. The rake-thin, huge-eyed “models” perched in the tiers above me, and under the flashing strobe-lights, adopted in my inebriated imagination the forms of exquisitely beautiful, slightly predatory roosting birds.
My previous, sober after-dinner speech on Russia’s economic prospects to these international investors had been succeeded by a line of can-can dancers clad only in feathers and led by a bear waving a Russian flag.
The moment reminded me of a British journalist colleague, who a few years ago wrote that Russia needed a new version of John Reed to describe the transformation of the 1990s. As far as I can tell, Fellini would have been much closer to the mark.
The preternatural thinness of the women in the night club also reminded me of another dancer 1,700 miles away and a week earlier during my trip. By contrast, this dancer was the most perfectly spherical human being I have ever met — in fact an accumulation of circles, like a human armillary sphere.
Maria Kuzminichna, an amiable matriarch from the formerly nomadic Khanti people of Western Siberia, had been produced by the local authorities to perform folk dances for a collection of rather bewildered international experts (including myself) on the forested banks of the river Ob.
Although perfectly sober, the scene had its surreal quality. A wooden stage on the riverbank had been erected for our visit, on which performed Maria Kuzminichna and her granddaughter in traditional Khanti dress.
The event also featured a Russian M.C. and pop singer dressed out of 1970s Pittsburgh, some disappointed fur salespeople (they had obviously been seriously misinformed concerning the incomes of Western experts on Russia) — and an array of local staff serving roasted reindeer and some sort of prehistoric-looking monster fish.
The temperature was that of a warm West Siberian old wives’ summer — like a blanket with a knife in it. And yet, we were greeted by the usual dazzlingly beautiful women wrapped up to their necks in mink coats as an advertisement for Khanti-Mansiisk’s second-most famous product.
While Maria Kuzminichna chanted and drummed and the M.C. and pop singer screeched and warbled, in the background the river flowed on quietly under an enormous sky. That river was as broad as a great lake, but moving steadily northward towards the Arctic. On either side of our tiny island of jollity, the forest stretched away forever.
In a more than 100 mile ride north in our fast hydrofoil from the regional capital of Khanti-Mansiisk (in Tsarist days, Samarovsk), we had seen not one town or village. Just endless trees, tinged with the brown and gold of autumn, and flood-plains so limitless that they defeated all sense of perspective.
When I took a walk along the beach to get away from the pop singer, a tell-tale sign of human endeavor along the river became immediately apparent. With every step, my shoes broke through the crust of sand — and came up coated with an oily sludge.
Oil is Khanti-Mansiisk’s most important product, dwarfing by some distance fur and folk-art, and the reason why we had gone to Khanti-Mansiisk this year.
Come to think of it, the whole of the immense apparatus of the Russian state — with its nuclear arsenal, still-powerful army, public services, giant bureaucracy, vast and overstretched transport network and geopolitical influence — could be described as a huge inverted pyramid whose tip rests on Khanti-Mansiisk.
How could that be? Well in 2005, Khanti-Mansiisk produced 267 million tons of oil, or 57% of Russia’s total production: If it were an independent state, it would have 7.5% of the world’s oil production, second only to Saudi Arabia. With about 1% of Russia’s population, the region contributed 22.7% of the total tax revenues of the Russian Federation.
Khanti-Mansiisk is therefore one of the spots on the earth through which flows the indispensable life-giving heroin, called oil, that permeates the present world economy.
It flows similarly through the Persian Gulf, the Niger Delta — or, in smaller ways, the North Sea and the bayous of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. This raised an interesting question in my mind: When it comes to the things that make life worth living for the people who live there, where to place Khanti-Mansiisk on that spectrum?
The town of Khanti-Mansiisk itself looks like a small, very prosperous town in Finland. That is the case for a very good reason — to a considerable extent, Finns built it. When the regional authorities in recent years gained a greater share of their region’s immense revenues, they decided to turn their small capital into a magnificent regional showcase.
They chose mainly Finnish firms to do this, partly because of the excellence of Finnish design, partly because of a desire to create a regional style with references to the Finno-Ugric origins of the Khanti and Mansy. Those peoples have given the region its name and autonomous status.
Pure Kanti and Mansy now make up less than 5% of its population, though to judge by many local “Russian” faces, their contribution to the local gene pool is very much larger.
The result is rakishly-angled buildings, often brightly coloured against the gloom of the Siberian winter, and often furnished inside with simple but strikingly elegant woodwork.
This being Russia, however, a certain surreal element is not lacking. The center for the performing arts is modernist on the outside — but neo-baroque on the inside.
It also includes a row of immense, writhing, tropical-looking trees, festooned with creepers — all of which turns out on closer examination to be made of plastic. Facing these curious growths are plaster roundels of old Soviet cultural icons like Pushkin and recovered ones like Diaghilev.
Dominated by a magnificent new Orthodox church, and a rebuilt one from Tsarist times destroyed under Communism, the small town of 70,000 people boasts an array of magnificently furnished new schools, hospitals and sports centers, much new gleaming public housing, a very attractive theatre-cum-opera house and a fine civic park.
It also has an arts center with training facilities for local artists, including dancers (beautiful) and musicians (brilliant).
The new gallery of painting boasts an array of icons and works by great Russian 19th and 20th century masters, contributed by a mixture of the state and oil magnates anxious to display their civic-mindedness (including the now-imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the green and yellow colors of whose former Yukos company still adorn local petrol stations and some buildings).
Editor’s Note: You can read part II here.
The whole of the immense apparatus of the Russian state could be described as a huge inverted pyramid whose tip rests on Khanti-Mansiisk.
In 2005, Khanti-Mansiisk produced 267 million tons of oil, or 57% of Russia's total production.
My speech on Russia's economic prospects had been succeeded by a line of can-can dancers clad only in feathers and led by a bear waving a Russian flag.
The preternatural thinness of the women in the night club reminded me of another dancer 1,700 miles away. By contrast, this dancer was the most perfectly spherical human being I have ever met.
The event featured a Russian M.C. and pop singer dressed out of 1970s Pittsburgh, some disappointed fur salespeople and an array of local staff serving roasted reindeer.