By Andrey Yushkov, Graduate Student, O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs
On September 23, Truba (Pipeline), an award-winning documentary by Vitaly Mansky, became the first screening in the RSW Documentary Film Series Power, Poetics, and Play: Documenting Soviet Legacies. The documentary explores the lives of various communities along the pipeline which transports gas from the Ural Mountains to Europe, from reindeer herders of Yamal to Ukrainian World War II veterans to café cleaners in Cologne. In addition to deep metaphysical and cultural meanings, the travelogue captures two main socio-economic messages: 1) the pipeline, despite transporting huge energy wealth, does not benefit the lives of its neighboring local residents, and 2) westernization is shown to be almost synonymous to welfare improvement and a more civilized way of life.
The first idea is captured visually through a discrepancy between the modern and well-maintained gas-processing plants and pipelines and dilapidated country houses where locals try to survive during long and chilly winters. From the economic point of view, it is striking to see how rural communities in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, one of the wealthiest Russian regions (its per capita GDP is almost four times higher than Moscow’s) with the largest endowment of natural gas in the country, do not differ drastically from rural communities elsewhere in Russia. They often lack access to water, electricity, and (ironically!) gas, live in abandoned places where even basic services are only provided occasionally (in one scene, a priest occasionally comes to the village to christen a newborn child), and suffer from uncompensated environmental damage (in another scene, we see a frozen river full of dead fish). Compared to other communities depicted in the documentary, residents of Yamal are probably the poorest and most neglected. Considered a donor for the federal government, the region has such miserable living conditions partially due to Putin’s policy towards extreme centralization, both economic and political. By 2003, tax revenues from natural gas had been completely centralized in the federal budget. Prior to this reform, 60% of mineral tax revenues from oil and gas went directly to regional budgets and could be used both for infrastructure improvement and various social programs. Furthermore, local executives, now mostly appointed and not elected, lack sufficient powers and political will to change the situation in any significant way. Another reason is that not many people, except for the vakhtoviki (shift workers who usually are non-locals attracted by high wages) and the indigenous people of Siberia, are willing to live in the Urals’ harsh weather conditions with limited access to infrastructure and public services.
The second message becomes clear as the film crew moves west. Poor villages of the Urals and Central Russia give way to more populous and economically active rural communities of Ukraine and Belarus (although still seriously underdeveloped) and then the European cities of Poland, Czech Republic, and Germany where we can finally see the middle class. In Mansky’s film, movement across the continent seems equivalent to movement in time: while Yamal herders still use reindeer for transportation, we start seeing old Soviet bicycles, tractors, and trains as we travel west, and then find ourselves in a modern Volkswagen truck that transports gas tanks across the Rhineland.
The documentary was followed by a Q&A session with Margarita Balmaceda, moderated by Michael DeGroot. In her introductory remarks, Balmaceda pointed to the contradiction between the image of Gazprom as a provider of wealth and the actual wellbeing of the Russian people. “Life goes untouched [in those communities] even despite the presence of this tremendous natural resource wealth,” she added. DeGroot asked whether the concept of the value chain analyzed in detail in Balmaceda’s recent book Russian Energy Chains is relevant to the discussion of the Russian gas industry and also reflected in the documentary. In response, Balmaceda noted that we need to understand the gas sector value chain, which includes production, processing, transportation, and marketing of this natural resource by numerous external and internal actors (Gazprom and its contractors, local governments, foreign players, etc.). Many things happen between extraction and export, she added, and numerous choices are made at various stages of the value chain that determine who will ultimately benefit and who will suffer. Responding to some further comments from the audience, she compared the cases of Belarus and Ukraine from the perspective of the energy value chains. Belarus, being an active player in the oil supply chain, has managed to extract huge benefits from its cooperation with Russia by constructing and modernizing refineries and using political bargaining. Ukraine, on the other hand, mostly active in the gas value chain (being a transit monopoly), has suffered a lot from internal corruption and unstable relations with Russia, which have manipulated gas prices and attempted to cut Ukraine out of the value chain through the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The session also discussed the deep sound produced by the pipeline that Mansky uses as a repeating intermezzo between different parts of the documentary (Balmaceda called it the “heartbeat of the pipeline”), the labor aspect of gas transportation in Russia and beyond, the Soviet legacy that runs through the whole film, and the cultural history of the pipeline’s construction, among other issues. To end the session, Balmaceda stressed the importance of increasing environmental activism against Gazprom and its subsidiaries and recommended another book on the Russian energy sector and its complex relations with Europe, Red Gas: Russia and the Origins of European Energy Dependence by Per Högselius.