Once sidelined, Siberia's Tomsk enjoys oil boom
(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.