03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Putin's Global Ambitions Hinge On Oil From Former Siberian Gulag

Even in August, a visitor to Sakhalin Island, off the eastern shores of Russia, can detect a chill in the air. The pine and birch forests are still a brilliant green, the sky azure and cloudless, but intimations of the island's savage Siberian winter are already here. Katerina Lekomtseva, a veteran of 28 such winters, shivers as she stands on a hill above Aniva Bay, on Sakhalin's southern coast. When Lekomtseva was a child, during the death throes of the Soviet Union, there were constant electricity shortages, and she and her father would sit in the candlelight playing a game called In Town. He would name a city, and she would name another beginning with the last letter of the city he mentioned. After her father, who hadn't yet given up on the U.S.S.R., would say "Moscow," Lekomtseva, who had accepted her country's eventual demise, would counter with "Washington." Then she would imagine how wonderful Washington must be: no electricity shortages, no candles. "I hated that game," she tells me.

Lekomtseva's life has changed vastly since then. At one time, she might have fled to Western Europe--or Washington--in search of a better life. No longer. Lekomtseva now lives in a nice apartment, drives her own car, and wears designer jeans. She works for Sakhalin Energy Investment, and as we stand in the cold wind, she points, cigarette in hand, at her firm's latest handiwork: a colossal liquefied-natural-gas plant. Its steel tanks and miles of pipes have consumed the weatherworn dachas that used to be here, and it sprawls along the bay like a monument to Russia's new economic might. In fact, to Lekomtseva, that's exactly what it is.

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