Signpost to natural gas sources in the vastness of tundra © University Vienna/Saxinger

Oil and gas extraction sites are gradually shifting to the Arctic north. Depending on the method of calculation, about 20% of worldwide oil and gas reserves and immense deposits of other minerals are now to be found under the expanses of the Arctic. This leads to a situation where an increasing number of people who work for the petroleum industry accept to travel over long distances to work on remote extraction sites under the extreme conditions found in north-western Siberia. The distance between Moscow and Novy Urengoy in Russia’s far north is about 2,500 km. The so called ‘Russian gas capital’ lies close to the northern Arctic Circle. This is exactly the place where Europe’s natural gas comes from. More and more workers from southern regions earn their income in shift-work. In total, about a million people in Russia are employed in the oil and gas extraction industry. Several hundred thousands of these are mobile workers. The number of women in this commodity industry is also on the rise. They work in the field as engineers and in service sectors.

Migration movements and their impact

Headed by migration researcher Heinz Faßmann, the team consisting of the anthropologists Gertrude Saxinger and Elisabeth Öfner and the geographer Elena Nuykina conducted a five-year FWF project at three research sites to explore this specific workforce-provision method, which involves complex interactions from the level of the individual up to various levels of regional and urban development. The researchers studied the strategies developed by the workers to cope with such a multi-local and mobile lifestyle and how the industry systematically steers these human resources to the north-western Siberian peripheries. In the central Russian Republic of Bashkortostan, the Austrian researchers studied the impact of such migration movements on the socio-economically weak home regions of the oil and gas workers. Using the example of the coal-mining town of Vorkuta, which had suffered greatly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the scientists showed how an urban community seeks to benefit in its economic recovery from the momentum created by its situation as an Arctic transport hub and distribution node for long-distance commuters to the new extraction sites even farther north. In numerous publications in English, German and Russian, the team provided valuable insights into the political and economic dynamics of modern-day Russia.

Life on the move becomes normal

In this interdisciplinary project of the FWF, social anthropologist Gertrude Saxinger from the University of Vienna focused on work mobility and long-distance commuting, and in her investigations she included the previously largely unknown perspectives of the workforce, as well as the points of view of companies and administrations. On her numerous train trips between Moscow and Novy Urengoy the scientist travelled more than 25,000 km. together with the commuters. She was interested to see how this mobile lifestyle worked under extreme conditions, how the workers themselves perceived their lives between two or more worlds and how they coped with the difficulties involved. Long-distance commuting is a phenomenon on the rise internationally, since it is cheaper to get people to their workplace and back again than to build settlements in new extraction areas. “The long-distance commuters conveyed to me that while the travelling was strenuous, it became normal for them and they were used it”, recounts Gertrude Saxinger from her field research. In the public debate, but also in the media and in science, long-distance commuting was often portrayed as an excruciating and socially problematic form of making a living, explains Saxinger. The scientist challenged this public perception of a group that is often called “shadow population”. Her outcomes show that the circumstances of long-distance commuting do not necessarily have a negative impact on the commuters’ social life and environment. “Divorce rates are within the national average”, is one example Saxinger cites. Conversely, it was shown that even under conditions of hardship people were able to bring normality to their life of commuting.

Living in different worlds

More than the fact of forced mobility itself, the issue of multi-locality turned out to be a problem for the workers. Creating meaningful activities and building a social environment for yourself both at home and at the far-away workplace needs profound reflection and a deliberate decision to embrace this type of lifestyle. In turn, this decision has an impact on personality. “It is not so much the ‘tough’ guys, an attribute often ascribed to the long-distance commuters, who stay the course, but men and women who see mobility as part of their working life without fretting about the circumstances. For some it is certainly an adventure, but the majority develop a sense of achievement and social advancement”, is how Saxinger describes the flexible way in which many workers deal with the challenging conditions.

Working conditions and human resource policies

One important parameter that will determine how satisfied people are with a life ‘on the move’ are the working conditions. In large companies such as Gazprom or Rosneft, working conditions are regulated by collective and company-level agreements, and the investigations have shown that the workforce is highly satisfied. The construction of plants and infrastructure, however, is often outsourced to general contractors and widely ramified sub-contractors, where compliance with legal provisions is frequently inadequate and where corruption is not unknown. “Although rare, there is some research in this field conducted by Russian scientists, funded, for instance, by trade unions”, says Saxinger.

International research networks

In 2013, the project team organised a conference on this topic with a focus on scientific exchange between researchers from Russia, North America, Scandinavia and Australia. Long-distance commuting is not a particular phenomenon found only in Russia, but happens in all corners of the world. “This is why international science networks are central, and with this project we are now part of them. Co-operation with enterprises is also important, however, when you consider the development of large-distance commuting as a system of human-resource provision”, emphasises Saxinger. The interdisciplinary FWF project Lives on the Move was conducted from 2010 until 2015 under the lead of Professor Heinz Faßmann at the Department of Geography and Regional Research and the Institute for Urban and Regional Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Personal details

Gertrude Saxinger, PhD, works at the Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna. Her research focus lies on the natural-resources industry, particularly in the Arctic region. Central issues in this context are mobility, multi-locality as well as urban and regional dynamics of local communities in resource-extraction areas in the global context. Her investigations take her to Siberia, Canada and the Nordic countries. She is a founding member of the Austrian Polar Research Institute (APRI) and since 2015 adjunct researcher at the Yukon College, Whitehorse in Kanada. Her book on the FWF project with the title "Unterwegs – Mobiles Leben in der Erdgas- und Erdölindustrie in Russlands Arktis" will be published by Böhlau Verlag in the autumn.

More Information

FWF E-Book Library: Lives on the Move – Long-distance Commuting in the Northern Russian Petroleum Industry (English Summary), Böhlau Verlag 2016
List of Publications: