In the backyard of Russia’s oil paradise

Pavlovo village was once a quiet backwater in the forest-steppe of Perm Region. In 1997, however, ecological disaster struck, with oil and chemicals entering the local river and food chain. The culprits of the catastrophe were both rich and obvious, but justice was a long while in coming, writes Roman Yushkov

Roman Yushkov
27 October 2011

Everyone in Europe is aware that Russia has been living on oil and gas and that the current high price of oil has been pouring golden rain on the country, turning it into an oil paradise. Everyone is also aware that it is oil and gas revenues that have maintained the fabulous fortunes of Russia's billionaire oligarchs, enabling them to buy up European mansions, yachts and football clubs, their gilded grandeur catching the attention of the West. I can easily imagine the lovely picture conjured up by the Western mind of the fulfilling and prosperous life in the provincial settlements of Russia's oil-mining regions in distant Siberia and the Urals. They know all about this kind of prosperity from Kuwait or Norway. So today, my friends, let me tell you of one small Russian village to which my environmental duties often take me.


The village of Pavlovo is situated in the Orda District of Perm Region, amidst the glorious countryside of the Kungur forest-steppe, in a hollow surrounded by green hills strewn with picturesque karst sinkholes. The landscape is full of caves and other natural caverns. In several places, the small Turayevka river that flows through the village disappears under the rocks only to surface again momentarily. Pavlovo originated around what had been the only known deposit of selenite, a unique ornamental stone (a semitranslucent gypsum) in the Eastern hemisphere.

The New Kuwait

Right from the start Pavlovo was established as an artisans' settlement: the majority of the locals have always been stone-cutters, crafting little bears, hedgehogs, frogs and Easter eggs out of the soft and malleable selenite. However, the discovery of rich deposits of crude oil in the 1970s brought great  exhilaration to the little backwater in the middle of taiga and steppe. The Soviet press at the time proudly announced that the Kokuy deposit – named after the neighbouring settlement – was the new Kuwait!  Pavlovo turned out to be right in the middle of the deposit. For a while – until the collapse of the Soviet Union – the impact was purely beneficial, since part of the local male population found jobs in oil production and also because, in line with Soviet tradition, the oil industry supported the development of the localities it exploited in terms of education, libraries, sports clubs and nursery schools.

Pavlovo village in the south-east of the Perm region. In 1997
it suffered a major ecological disaster, when oil and chemicals
from a Lukoil field nearby polluted the local Turayevka river.
Life in Pavlovo became a living hell.

All this changed in the 1990s. The enormous Soviet oil production and refining empire was taken over by LUKOIL, a private company. The legality and fairness of the privatization of the oil industry, as well as of other kinds of major national property, is a separate and huge issue that I cannot go into in this article. Soon after the takeover, however, information about unusual technological changes taking place in local oil production began to leak out from workers at the Kokuy deposit. The local crude has always contained a large amount of paraffin, which tends to get deposited inside the pipes. As a result all the machinery had to be taken apart from time to time and hot steam blown through the pipes. It was a complex and costly procedure and so, in the mid-90s, the company started pouring chemicals in powder or liquid form into the oil wells. These so-called complex action inhibitors dissolve the paraffin, cleaning the pipes and protecting them from erosion. This innovation went hand in hand with a number of other extreme cost-saving measures:  the equipment, including the pipes, needed to be replaced much more rarely. In fact, whenever possible, it was not replaced at all and, indeed, some of the equipment dates back to the Soviet times.

'The local crude has always contained a large amount of paraffin, which tends to get deposited inside the pipes. As a result all the machinery had to be taken apart from time to time and hot steam blown through the pipes. It was a complex and costly procedure and so, in the mid-90s, the company started pouring chemicals in powder or liquid form into the oil wells.'

This resulted in a huge increase in the number of leaks from local pipelines, which fracture regularly, as well as from the actual oil wells. The leaked crude was collected with difficulty and quite often, in violation of all environmental standards, it was poured back into the karst sinkholes – why shed tears over it, there's a lot more where that came from!

Life after the death of the village

The disaster came in late April 1997. The surface of Turayevka river was covered by a 15 cm layer of oil, which flooded the villagers' gardens. But it wasn't just oil. As every chemist knows, oil is not excessively toxic. But this was oil mixed with chemicals – the very same inhibitors that had been pumped into the oil-wells. Geologists subsequently discovered that the leaking oil, mixed with the highly toxic chemicals, had gradually filled the underground karst cavities. During the spring melt the elevated groundwater pushed this toxic mix into the river and carried it into the village.

At that point, however, the locals were in no mood for scientific findings. The people of Pavlovo were overwhelmed by a horrendous stench, their eyes started watering, they suffered from splitting headaches and nausea. Children started fainting and developed nosebleeds. Chicken, dogs and other small animals that move closer to the ground, in the most poisoned layer of atmosphere, would drop dead.  The village elder, Marina Vakhrusheva, rushed to the district centre to sound the alarm about the dreadful accident in Pavlovo. After visiting the site, district authorities and the local branch of the Ministry for Emergency Situations organized basic medical treatment and evacuation of the local population.

For many years Victor Bakhrushev fished in the Kamenka, another crystal-clear local river. After the 1997 ecological disaster, all forms of life disappeared from the river. Bakhrushev lost his job when he appealed to his Lukoil superiors for an efficient clean-up operation.

LUKOIL soon interfered. Local officials were told to stop panicking. Doctors in the municipal hospital were instructed to remove all documents containing the diagnosis 'poisoning'. The regional media were muzzled. After pumping away some of the oil and removing the most visible signs of accident, people were brought back to their homes to prevent unnecessary fuss, even though the air was still filled with a horrendous stench. The most vocal locals, including the village elder, were given a stern look and a reprimand, to remind them who was the real master of their land and against whom it wasn't advisable to make waves. 

This was the beginning of the dramatic story of Pavlovo's inhabitants' struggle for survival on behalf of themselves and their children, a struggle that many had considered pointless and doomed, for in present-day Russia, what is a bunch of inhabitants of an unfortunate village, even with environmentalists on their side, when compared to His Majesty, His Mightiness, His Holiness LUKOIL...?

For the first few years, the situation did indeed appear to be hopeless. Officials, not just at district but also at regional level, and including staff at environmental oversight agencies, hung on LUKOIL's every word. The media dared not print or broadcast a word of criticism about LUKOIL.  Regional Ombudsman Sergey Matveev explained to environmental activists that attacking LUKOIL was pointless and could only get them into serious trouble. Some time later, by dint of cheating and intimidation, LUKOIL managed to influence the local election and the Pavlovo village elder Marina Vakhrusheva was replaced with a more accommodating person. Alas, our people, especially in the villages, are weak and downtrodden, and pathologically incapable of uniting (at least until things get really bad).

'The disaster came in late April 1997. The surface of Turayevka river was covered by a 15 cm layer of oil, which flooded the villagers' gardens. But it wasn't just oil.  As every chemist knows, oil is not excessively toxic. But this was oil mixed with chemicals – the very same inhibitors that had been pumped into the oil-wells.'

In this case, however, things went from bad to worse. At night the smell of chemicals would fill the air and people would wake up in the morning foaming at the mouth. Nearly everyone in the village was ill: all sorts of chronic internal conditions became aggravated and people started suffering from respiratory diseases. They complained of fatigue, nausea, violent falls and rises in blood pressure accompanied by nosebleeds, severe headaches, vertigo, a bitter taste in the mouth, painful convulsions at night, all-over pains, and failing memory, speech and vision. Every few years, particularly after winters with heavy snowfalls, the Turayevka river would bring terrible floods of oil, but this time nobody bothered to evacuate the local population.

Nevertheless, a group of indomitable locals supported by environmentalists from Perm did manage to arrange for comprehensive tests to be carried out and later, following further titanic efforts, by fair means or foul, they succeeded in securing the test results.

Harbour booms by Lukoil on the Turayevka turned out to
be totally inadequate, so the concentration of chemicals
was not reduced.

They showed the water and air in Pavlovo to be appallingly poisoned, with the maximum permissible concentrations of chemical elements exceeded by a factor of ten or twelve. The locals were also examined. The blood and urine of Pavlovo children was found to contain significant quantities of benzol, xylol, phenol, formaldehyde, toluol, acetaldehyde, and heavy metals. The children have been diagnosed with numerous skin and respiratory allergies, various kinds of dermatitis and 'ecological de-adaptation' syndrome. The children are often racked by severe non-specific itching, making them scratch until they bleed. Adults have been diagnosed with a range of diseases of the liver, stomach and intestinal tract and pancreas; women have suffered miscarriages.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to obtain measurements for the level of pollution of the local soil and of agricultural production. The precise chemical composition of the reagents LUKOIL has been pumping into the oil-wells to reduce the costs of oil production is kept a trade secret. The only thing that is known are their commercial names: meaningless brands such as Stabikar, Fleck, etc. Their economic effect is supposed to be amazing. 

Fighting for rights

But very slowly, things began to move. The internet, which in Russia has been developing fast since the early 2000s, has contributed to breaking the information barrier surrounding the continuing tragedy of Pavlovo. Very gradually the most courageous general media also started covering the issue. As of today, Perm TV is the only one that shamelessly continues to accept LUKOIL's pieces of silver, telling the people of Perm that the village of Pavlovo did have some environmental problems but everything is all right now. The only happy TV exception happened when a journalist became interested in the issue – naturally, he wasn't a local reporter but the courageous Robert Karapetyan from Yekaterinburg. He covered the Pavlovo story in a 15-minute factual documentary which was, of course, never shown in Perm, but was broadcast in Yekaterinburg. After the film was shown Robert started receiving strange phone calls and strange people started showing interest in his life, forcing him to move house for a while...

'Eventually, a permanent centre of resistance also formed in the village. It must be pointed out that the participation in the struggle for survival required extraordinary courage. '

What also helped were the protests and vigils periodically held in Perm to show solidarity with the tiny dying village. The inhabitants of Pavlovo made several trips to the far-away city of Perm to stand outside the head office of LUKOIL's Perm branch with their placards to draw the attention of the oil barons to the fate of their children. The protests were dispersed with the help of police and LUKOIL's security service, and some of the protesters were locked up in police cells for several hours.

Eventually, a permanent centre of resistance also formed in the village. It must be pointed out that the participation in the struggle for survival required extraordinary courage. Not just because of the barrage of abuse and threats that the LUKOIL puppet village elder unleashed on the protesters. At times things looked much more serious: for instance, a helicopter would hover ominously above the Vakhrushev family home and when their children left the house they would be filmed from an unmarked car with darkened windows... 

For years the inhabitants of Pavlovo, with the support of local environmental campaigners, organised pickets and protests in an attempt to force the fabulously rich Lukoil to deal with the consequences of a disaster they caused in 1997.

At the same time the oil company was beginning to demonstrate that they were dealing with the issue: harbour booms were installed on the river. However, these were only able to collect some of the surface oil while all the dissolved chemicals continued to flow down in abundance.

Sometimes, to show how open and democratic they were, the LUKOIL people would sit down with us around a table for talks. In the protest actions, and  in these talks, we have presented LUKOIL management with the same demands:  relocation of the village to a safe place, beginning with families with children; medical rehabilitation of the local population and then, as far as possible, revitalization of the land. It wasn't only Pavlovo that LUKOIL had poisoned but also a great number of streams and a great deal of land in the vicinity of the Kokuy deposit. An example is the dead Kamenka river, full of oil patches, with its bottom covered in a layer of sulphur and oil residue (as seen in this video).

Resettling the village would not cost LUKOIL very much; after all, the total population of Pavlovo  amounted to just over a hundred at the turn of the century. House prices in neighbouring villages are lower than in cities and you can buy a house for several hundred thousand roubles, on average. Do I need to point out that this sort of money is beyond the means of the average present-day inhabitant of a rural hamlet in the Urals? Our calculations show that the cost of resettling the village would roughly equal one day's profit from the Kokuy oilfield.  But... information leaked from LUKOIL suggests that management does not regard this as an expedient solution. Resettling a village would be very bad precedent in terms of public relations. The LUKOIL Chairman himself, one of Russia's richest men, Vagit Alekperov, is said to have ruled it out. I am unable to say how credible this information is.

What I can say, though, is that he is a frequent and welcome visitor to the Perm Region and that  regional governor Oleg Chirkunov receives him happily, even with servility. Of course you're welcome, our dear major tax payer.... Given this, the influential LUKOIL lobby in the regional parliament and the regional branch of the ruling 'United Russia' party, and the fact that the LUKOIL-appointed vice-governor never leaves Chirkunov's side, it becomes quite obvious that LUKOIL has become a second government in this region. Not to mention local authorities in the Orda oil-producing municipality, who are just a minor subdivision of LUKOIL.


That said, over the years it has been possible to shake up the status quo a little bit. At one stage the Perm Clinical Research Institute for Child Ecopathology was commissioned to examine the local children. The official results showed that the inhabitants of Pavlovo run a risk of contracting cancer that is almost four-and-a-half times higher than the maximum permissible level. Generally, the health risk arising from hydrocarbon pollution in the atmosphere was found to be 10 times above permissible level, while the impact of chronic inhalation indicates an extremely high risk of the entire organism being affected. For instance, the permissible risk level was exceeded by a factor of 2.82 for the immune system; of 4.52 for the central nervous system; of 5.92 for the respiratory organs; and of 13.67 for the blood circulatory system.

LUKOIL ignored the results, held out and refused to resettle the locals. The company even began commissioning its own research from various scientific institutes, informing the public that the ‘issue was being investigated’. One way or another, all the research confirmed what had been obvious for years: as a result of the leaks from the pipes and boreholes, both oil and chemicals are finding their way into underground cavities and from there into rivers; the gaseous products of the disintegrating chemicals that have ended up in the boreholes constantly leak to the surface, where they are inhaled by people. The underground karst cavities and the naturally higher fissuring of the soil are an additional factor stimulating this process.

‘Oh,’ exclaimed a clever LUKOIL PR-man, ‘so you see, it’s just natural factors, it’s all because of this fissuring, it’s got nothing to do with us!’

‘Hang on a minute, these are your leaks, this is your oil and these are your chemicals,’ we responded. ‘The village has been in this location for 300 years and nobody had ever been ill!’

‘We’re not aware of anything. It’s just natural fissuring!’

And for a long time all the media in LUKOIL’s pay would just sing variations of the same song: yes, there has been an undeniable environmental disaster but research has shown it’s all due to natural causes, so, alas, sadly there is nothing to be done!

'But look!' we tried to retort: 'Your own research shows unambiguously that the massive leaks of crude oil and chemicals are the result of the grossest violations of technology in the course of oil extraction: '...uneven construction of individual extracting and supercharging cavities', 'low quality metal in the tubing pillars', 'bad quality of cement and its faulty cohesion with the pillars or the rock', 'lack of cementing in the upper part of the operating pillar'!

Barely anyone would listen to us: our voices were drowned out by the concentrated noise of the mercenary media.

A happy ending?

The LUKOIL approach is probably based on economic expendiency alone: the company waited for the task of resettling to become easier, and less numerous. For statistical data show that, since the late 1990s, mortality rates in Pavlovo have been anomalously high. Whereas in Orda district as a whole the mortality rate was 17.1 per thousand per year, in Pavlovo it amounted to 23.8 per thousand per year, i.e. it was nearly 1.5 times higher.

'The LUKOIL approach is probably based on economic expendiency alone: the company waited for the task of resettling to become easier, and less numerous. For statistical data show that, since the late 1990s, mortality rates in Pavlovo have been anomalously high.'

Well, we've reached our finale. I'd love to call it a happy ending but can't quite bring myself to do so. Has LUKOIL responded to the years of our pressure by starting to resettle the inhabitants of Pavlovo? Yes, in 2009 it gradually began doing so. Declaring Pavlovo an environmental disaster area and launching an official resettlement programme was, of course, out of the question. Instead the village was first taken apart: one after the other the stone cutting factory, the medical-obstetrics centre, the school and the library were closed. As a result the village was declared to have no economic prospects and resettlement began. As of now, in the autumn of 2011, the majority of locals have fortunately been resettled, including all families with children. The resettlement is being  carried out under the auspices of the district authority; LUKOIL is not formally involved. Never mind, damn you, or rather, I should say – thank God for that. 

Sasha Orlov (5) with his grandmother. Sasha has epilepsy, cancer and suffers from fits. Something for Lukoil to investigate: is this not a result of the presence in his blood of traces of benzene, acetone, formaldehyde, manganese and lead, to name but a few of the chemicals?

The rest are just details. It's just a detail that nobody has even mentioned LUKOIL's obligation to provide the former inhabitants of Pavlovo with medical help, even though many of them are seriously ill. It's just a detail that to cut costs LUKOIL and the district administration have moved many Pavlovo families into leaky, tumbledown houses: these were desperate people, beggars who could not be choosers, and all they wanted was to escape from the death zone. It's just a detail that, for example, 5-year-old Sasha Orlov, one of the last children to be moved from Pavlovo, has been diagnosed with epilepsy, symptoms of cancer and several other dreadful diseases. Or that Sasha is now living with his mother and grandmother in a ramshackle, freezing, hundred-year-old school that has been assigned to them in the village of Orda.

'So now what?' -- people, sprawled in comfortable leather armchairs in LUKOIL's offices ask me languidly. 'The resettlement of the village is drawing to a close, what else do you want from us?' 'Well, what we want to do now is to put you all in a cage, spend a long time pouring all kinds of oil products over you, and then set you alight,' I reply. They laugh. They think we're only joking.

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