TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Februar 2010

Sektion 4.5. Arctic, Antarctica, Alps, Art – Imagining the Extreme / Natural Sciences, Humanities, Arts – Dialoguing
SektionsleiterInnen | Section Chairs: Knut Ove Arntzen (Universität Bergen), Gabriele Rampl (Scinews, Innsbruck) und Victoria Joan Moessner (University of Alaska)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Commuting to the Siberian Far North –
when Extreme becomes Normality *

  Gertrude Eilmsteiner-Saxinger (University of Vienna, Austria) [BIO]



... growing commuting distance does not necessarily
cause lower job satisfaction.
Instead, more important factor with
this respect is the organisation of long-distance commuting
in a way that meets the understanding
and needs of the involved employees
and gives room for individual coping strategies.

Matthias Spies (2006)


At first thought, distance appears to be a very relevant idea for conceptualising the lives of vakhtoviki - long-distance commuters in Russia. However, distance is a subjectively experienced category and there are collective assumptions about distance among this particular social group in addition to individual perceptions of distance.

The lives of vakhtoviki are organised around a strict time regime. Workers frequently describe their life realities as split into two separate spheres. Nonetheless, they have a strong feeling and idea of being attached to both places simultaneously.  A continual negotiation within the social space of vakhtoviki therefore takes place.

Vakhtoviki is the Russian term for labour migrants, both men and women, who commute to remote workplaces such as extraction sites for mineral resources, construction sites for railroads and motorways, timber harvesting etc. Their shifts are mostly based on a schedule of 30 workdays and 30 days of holiday (shift regimes may differ between professions, companies and individual contracts, e.g. 15/15, 60/30, 45/15 etc).

There are two types of vakhtovyi metod (shift method): inter-regional and intra-regional. The first group regularly travels several thousands of kilometres from the Russian mainland to workplaces in the tundra and taiga of western Siberia, often by train.  The latter refers to permanent residents of so-called ‘base towns’ close to oil and gas-fields. These workers still need to commute several hundreds of kilometres by bus and helicopter to extraction sites.

This article is based on fieldwork carried out in September/October 2007 and February/March 2008 for my doctoral dissertation in Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Vienna, Austria. The dissertation project focuses on vakhtoviki working in the oil and gas industries in the Russian North and Far North – namely Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District/Jugra (KMAO) and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District (JNAO), which are both in Western Siberia.  The information was collected by such classic anthropological techniques as participant observation, informal talks and semi-structured interviews. I visited vakhtovikis’ home-regions in southern parts of Russia (the Republic of Mari El and the Republic of Chuvashia) as well as urban centres in the oil and gas regions of KMAO and JNAO, for example Nizhnevartovsk, Surgut, Raduzhnyj and Novyj Urengoj. My fieldsites are also the trains that take vakhtoviki to and from work in the North, on which I have travelled more than 15 000 km.


Life on Vakhta

There is universal agreement that the working conditions of vakhtoviki are hard. The swarms of midges that inhabit the marsh in summer time make the workers look forward to autumn and winter, even if work processes are usually stopped only when the temperature falls below minus 55° C. The quality of accommodation for workers greatly differs. Vakhtovyje poselki (worker villages at the oil and gas fields) such as Jamburg and Zapoljarnoe – both with several thousands of commuting inhabitants - provide hostels with single, double or dormitory rooms, shops, gymnasium, swimming pool, hotel, library, hospital and in the case of Jamburg even an archaeological museum. The other extreme of housing is the mobile trailer-settlements, called vagon gorodok.  Standards of trailers have often not changed much in fifteen years. However, on new sites the standard of vagonchiki was described by my interview partners as satisfactory, even if in many cases eight workers live in a tiny space on a rotating system: four of them are twelve hours outside on the worksite while the others have their rest. Sanitary conditions are often regarded as unsatisfactory, especially when the walk to the next toilet trailer turns out to be a special adventure with wind blowing up to 150 km/h and snow freezing not only the face.  Housing standards differ for blue and white collar workers. The latter are provided with single or double rooms with bathrooms inside the trailer. Reliable heating, food supplies, pure water provision, communications and transport networks are of crucial importance to safety in small vakhtovye poselki and vagon gorodok, bearing in mind their remoteness, dangerous weather and working conditions.

Vakhtovye poselki are closed areas, patrolled by security staff and only accessible to visitors such as family members with permission from the company. Although alcohol is strictly prohibited, it is sold there in shops and consumed illegally. Privacy can only rarely be enjoyed. Living and working together day and night in a closed area for long periods (one or two months) may provoke serious tensions, for example due to sharing small bedrooms with colleagues and being controlled day and night as part of strict security procedures. Such conditions exacerbate personal competition and hierarchal conflicts, which are often connected with denunciation. At the same time, this setting generates positively perceived social relationships that often last for decades and are described as both helpful and similar to family ties.  Mutual support and friendship are regarded as crucial to cope with the wide range of difficult circumstances on Vakhta, from psychological pressure to dangerous labour conditions.

Switching monthly from the relatively soft climate of Russia’s southern areas to the harsh climate of oil and gas fields close to the Arctic Circle is an enormous challenge for human physiology. A worker from Krasnodar region told me that the temperature difference between home regions and the workplace in the North can be as large as 60° C.  It can happen that he leaves home at  + 15° C and arrives North in the Article Circle at - 45 ° C. Workers find darkness in winter and permanent daylight in summer to be very demanding, not least because it causes sleeping disorders. Care of workers’ health is essential to maintain company productivity and workplace safety. The provision of such care varies greatly from company to company and contract to contract. It is also an important matter for job satisfaction and limiting staff turnover. In comparison to its cultural, social and societal aspects, the medical and physiological dimensions of the vakhtovyj metod have been studied extensively in the last decades, as a result of which companies pay high attention to occupational medicine and health care provision for staff ( see Matjuhin/ Krivoshhekov/ Djomin 1986, Krivoshhekov 1998, Gorbunov 2006).  

Nevertheless, there are large differences in the wages and social/health care for workers who have been employed since Soviet times and for those who started in the era of privatisation. Competition for jobs at companies such as Gazprom or Rosneft is therefore fierce as both companies still provide many extra services in the form of a sozpaket (package of social benefits), e. g. supplementary company pensions, access to company hospitals, benefits for employees’ children to study at university, free flights to central Russia and subsidised holidays.


Vakhtoviki at home

A typical example of a vakhtoviki home region is the Republic of Chuvashia, in particular the city of Ibresi, which I visited in 2007.  Men and - to a smaller extent - women from Ibresi work for Gazprom in the Jamalo Nenezkij Avtonomnyj Okrug. Every second month they fly with Gazprom Avia to their workplaces around Jamburg. They work for one month at the gas-fields and then have one month of holiday at home.

The city of Ibresi has around 9000 inhabitants and a high unemployment rate because the local cement and concrete factories were closed in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. Vakhtoviki are therefore important to economic life in Ibresi. They invest money in the construction of private houses and renovation of flats. As Vakhtoviki regularly stay at home for one full month, they can do a lot of this construction work themselves.  The remaining enterprises in the village can survive due to these construction activities. Towns such as Ibresi are of special interest to Gazpom, which is currently building a vocational training institute there. Its purpose is to train young people for various professions in gas production and extraction. It is cheaper to teach them at home than directly in the Russian North. Gazprom can count on local people’s loyalty to the company and the company has a very good reputation in the region.

The wages of vakhtoviki greatly vary between companies. Conditions frequently change, even in state-owned companies, and contracts among workers with same duties differ widely in all companies due to continuous re-structuring, changing company policy and ownership.


On the way to Vakhta

If wages are low and workers must cover their own travel expenses – which is increasingly becoming standard practice - many of them cannot afford to fly to the North. Instead, they travel by train. Trips take up to several days, which is a significant reduction of their holiday.  For example, the trip Novyj Urengoj – Krasnodar or Moscow lasts approximately three days one way; Novyj Urengoj – Kazan takes 2,5 days on the train one way. Vakhtoviki must also factor in a few additional hours to reach their home towns and villages. Cheapest tickets for a distance like Moscow to Novyi Urengoj and back cost around 120 Euro(1). This is a lot when considering a monthly salary is approximately 1000 Euro for blue collar workers and white collar workers at a lower hierarchical level(2). Why do vakhtoviki accept such a heavy burden? One must keep in mind the high unemployment and average salaries of 200 to 300 Euros in their home regions. In JNAO and KMAO average income is around 1000 Euros (Federal State Statistics Service 2008)  In 2006 only 26.5 % of the Russian population had an income above 300 Euros (Federal State Statistics Service 2007).

How do vakhtoviki spend time on the trains? Sleeping, eating, talking, smoking.  Also, recovering from hard construction work at home or from hard work in the tundra or taiga, where a working day lasts twelve hours; seven days a week. Another activity is drinking. This is to celebrate the end of a shift in the North or being away from duties and life at home. Nonetheless, the trains to and from the workplaces in the North are surprisingly calm: the atmosphere is friendly and only in rare cases do drunk people make real troubles such as loud arguments or sexual harassment. Workers told me that they generally use the hours and days on the train for contemplation and relaxation: looking out of the window, chatting, eating, reading or completing crossword puzzles. Others study books for their next exam, like a part-time student from a technical faculty in Samara I met, who works on a seasonal basis in the North.

The train journey is an opportunity to switch gradually from one life to another. Many interview partners talked about conflicts at home resulting from what they described as “too much spare time at home” Days at home are not structured and it takes a lot of self-discipline not to get drunk regularly and to find satisfying activities. Another issue is that vakhtoviki encounter pressure at home due to their long absences and expectations from wives/husbands and children. Working as a long-distance commuter is especially challenging for young women and men just starting this way of life. Here, support from older, more experienced vakhtoviki is needed. I met multi-generational families of vakhtoviki on trains, with fathers and uncles travelling with sons, nephews or neighbours’ sons to and from the North.


Second life

Whether commuting by train or aeroplane, switching from one life to another also means in many cases moving from one family to another. Surprisingly many workers – mostly but not only men - talked about their second life: having one family and partner at home and another in the North. I met a woman who spontaneously visited her husband during his shift in the North. She learnt that he had long ago established another family with children there.  Another woman told me how her husband asked her to look after the child from his long-term relationship on Vakhta in the official family. Stories of this kind abound. The opposite situation explains a well-known joke that the flag of KMAO is the flag of vakhtoviki. The district’s flag shows abstractly the antlers of a deer, which is relevant because Russian popular wisdom holds that men with antler are cheated upon by their wives. In cases of second or third families, the train journey also represents the shifting of responsibilities.  It has so far not been possible to study the lives of female long-distance commuters in depth. However, it is already clear, for example, that single mothers on Vakhta face multiple struggles. Yearning for their children creates psychological pressure. Social networks and stable embedding in families or communities is therefore of great relevance. Single mothers are almost exclusively dependent on the income from Vakhta and even if they talk about quitting the job in the near future, they admit that actually they have no equivalent opportunities to support their family.



I had two starting points for this essay.  First was the notion of the “extreme” - referring to the panel title of the last INST conference in 2007 where I presented my fieldwork on the lives of vakhtoviki.  Secondly, I was interested in the question that Mattias Spies (2006) raised of whether “distance” matters to the job satisfaction of vakhtoviki   Distance and extreme might be very closely connected, at least from the viewpoint of those who do not engage in long-distance commuting, particularly to the cold and mosquito-inhabited areas of the Russian Far North.  Spies concluded that what matters more than distance for job satisfaction is “the organisation of long-distance commuting in a way that meets the understanding and the needs of the involved employees and gives room for individual coping strategies” (Spies 2006). My field research unearthed some of the coping strategies used by workers travelling distances that an outsider would regard as extreme.

First of all, there is no extreme. Extreme is deconstructed by workers into normality through coping strategies as well as through incorporated ideas. The normality of leading a part-time life at a remote location in the tundra or taiga stems first of all from the fact that the vakhtovyj metod has been practiced in Russia for decades (Sapognikov/Chudnovskij 1988). These jobs are still highly competitive and have a certain prestige. Working on vakhtovyj metod often has a long history within communities and families.  Fathers, mothers, neighbours, uncles, aunts, cousins and in many cases numerous inhabitants of an entire village or town are involved in the vakhtovyj metod Many southern Russian regions have a long tradition of sending workers to the North.  This normality is passed down by older people: experienced workers introduce younger ones to life far away on the Vakhta. This refers to ordinary organisational matters as well as to emotional and social aspects. The vakhtovyj method has therefore become a normal way of work-life for many people.

Extreme seems to be also deconstructed through coping strategies with this complex way of life.  It is undoubtedly challenging for workers to live away from home, partners and children for several weeks, travelling thousands of kilometres by train, plane, helicopter (often paid by workers themselves), especially when they must struggle with hard working conditions and, not least, the long periods at home without a regular daily time regime. Results from Spies have shown a higher job-satisfaction among workers who can choose their shift-length according to their personal needs, for example longer shift lengths in order to simplify commuting efforts. Distance in terms of kilometres had no negative impact on their job satisfaction. At the same time, the reimbursement of travel expenses raised job-satisfaction, but did not produce significantly higher job satisfaction in comparison to workers who pay themselves. His conclusion is that job-satisfaction depends on the organisation of long-distance commuting in a way that accommodates individual coping strategies (Spies 2006).

My preliminary ethnographic field material gives examples of what I identified as individual and collective strategies for coping with distance.  It turns out that while distance initially appears to be a very relevant concept for vaktoviki, distance means for workers at the same time absence. The following summary of coping strategies refer to both categories of absence and distance:

Up to now, I have not come across distinctive coping strategies for women beyond those common to all vakhtoviki mentioned above. Regarding absence, mothers definitely want close relatives to care for their children while they are on Vakhta. Particular gender differences therefore need to be studied in greater detail.

At this stage of the research, it is clear that the arrangement of family/private and work life is very important for how vakhtoviki experience distance and absence. It is crucial for the successful organisation of labour by the vakhtoyj metod for both employees and employers, who strongly depend on qualified workers resources. Coping strategies are linked not only to labour organisation in a company, but also to social practices within vakhtoviki communities that reflect societal values on a broader level “Extreme distances” are deconstructed into “normality” due to the collective ideas of vakhtoviki and their individual coping strategies.



Ethnographic data was collected during field research in September/October 2007 and February/March 2008.

I thank Michael Rasell for his comments and checking the language of the manuscript.




* This article was already cited in a few publications as forthcoming 2009. Sorry for potential confusion - the author
1 100 Euro = 3600 Rubles (rate 8th Feb 2008)
2 In the case of specialists or managers salleries rise up to several thousands of Euro. Their travel expenses are usually covered by the company.

4.5. SektionsArctic, Antarctica, Alps, Art – Imagining the Extreme / Natural Sciences, Humanities, Arts – Dialoguing

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For quotation purposes:
Gertrude Eilmsteiner-Saxinger: Commuting to the Siberian Far North – when Extreme becomes Normality - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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