Brian Crossman’s service rig crew working in Siberia in the 1990s. Photo courtesy Brian Crossman

It seems as though the last few weeks everything is going to hell. I was going to make some more commentary on the latest antics of our prime minister and how it affects the energy industry, but that seems a bit trivial compared to what is happening in the Ukraine. It is heart-breaking to watch people losing their homes, jobs and lives because a Russian leader has a world domination complex. All this has brought back a very interesting, albeit sad experience from 27 years ago. This has made me think of one person in particular, whose story is relevant today.

Back in the mid-nineties, I was lucky enough to get a job with a Canadian-Russian joint-venture project. That was the good news. The bad news was the project was in west-central Siberia. Not the edge of the earth, but you can see it from there. Basically we were tasked to perform work-overs on many oil wells in a fairly large field in the Tyumen region of Siberia. Our job was to repair the wells, and improve production using Canadian equipment and technology (and good-old Canadian know-how). While we were doing this, we were also to train Russian workers on how to use our equipment to be more efficient in getting to wells back online in a timely fashion. (Side-note: when I say Russian, we had men from Kazakhstan, Belarus, Chechnya, some Slovaks, and yes, Ukrainians) Our interpreters were mainly from Moscow, well-educated and spoke excellent English. They probably spoke it better than I did.

This project began only a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War. Capitalism, or the Russian version of it, began to creep in to the former Soviet Union, and the oilfield was no exception. I soon discovered nearly everyone I met had at least two years of military service, most had even more than that. Most of the men I worked with over there were great people. They all want what we do, earn a good living and give our families the things we didn’t have. They were just like us.

We were using Canadian service rigs, nice iron capable of performing heavy work as the wells were all 2,600 metres and deeper. We ran the rigs on 12 hour shifts, day and night 365 days a year. Go hard or go home. But it was a hell of a long walk home so you toughed it out to the end of your hitch, no matter what.

I was drilling on Beta Well #49, using a nice Canadian heavy double, and we were on our two weeks of night shift, in the dead of Siberia winter. We always had our regular crew, but once in a while the company would send out a new man to start out with us before he moved on to another rig. This particular hitch they sent me out a man who was around my age, and his name was Slava. (As we have seen, “Slava Ukraini,” meaning Glory to Ukraine, has been used of late. Slava means “Glory” in Russian as well) The first thing you noticed about Slava was his movie-star good looks. I thought they had sent out Ivan Drago from “Rocky 3.” He was even more handsome than Dolph Lundgren. Blue eyes, short blonde hair, a square jaw and looked like he could bench press a Lada. He was a good worker, eager to learn, but very quiet.

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Right after crew change, we were all getting our warm gear on for the cold Siberian night. I heard my derrickman ask him about his right arm. (This is all through our interpreter) I turned to see that his forearm had a horrible-looking scar running from his wrist into his bicep. Alex, my interpreter, told my derrickman that Slava was injured in the Soviet/Afghan war and did not wish to talk about it. My derrickman pressed further and Slava turned red and was not impressed. I grabbed my derrickman by the shoulder, pulled him back and said, “It’s none of your f—king business and to leave Slava alone.” It got quiet, but we all went out and got to work.

The next night, we were waiting on kill fluid, so we were out doing some maintenance on the rig. Alex came up to me and said that Slava wished to speak to me. So, the three of us went to the doghouse, and mixed up some coffee and hot chocolate, a favorite of ours, especially on night shift. We sat in silence for a few minutes, and then Slava looked at me and began to speak. He told me that because I stood up for him last night, he felt obliged to tell me his story. He was in a squadron that was patrolling to fight the Afghan rebels. It was pretty nasty in the area of operations they were assigned to.

They got into a fire-fight with some well-armed rebels, his arm was very badly injured and he barely made it out alive. I won’t go into gory details, but suffice to say it was not pretty. He then told me some details about the war, some of it having to do with planting land mines and leaving toys for the Afghan children, except they were rigged with small explosives. As he spoke I noticed the spoon he was holding was bending as he pushed it into the table top. He was shaking, and turned red and was visibly upset. He said that he never wanted to be there, but as a conscripted Russian soldier, he had no choice. I told him that I sure appreciated him sharing this with me, and I was honored that he thought enough of me to share his story. We finished our coffee/chocolate mix and went back to work. On our way out he looked at me, shook my hand and said in English, “War is shit.” I laughed and said, “Yes, war is shit.”

The current plight of the Ukraine is unforgivable. People fighting and dying to save their homeland. Their friends. Their families. Their future. My sympathies lie with them, and I hope we can help them with our government’s support, but also as individuals. We must all do our part.

But I also feel for many of the young men on the Russian side. I promise you a large portion of them do not want to be there. I’m sure they would rather be home with family and friends, not destroying property and killing people. I think of Slava and how his wartime experience affected the rest of his life, and not for the better. I often wonder how his life turned out. I hope he was able to make a good living in the oilfield, as I have done. But honestly, I just don’t know. But Slava was right about one thing, “War is shit.”

To put this in context, Canada hasn’t had conscription since the Second World War, so we don’t have a concept of what that’s like. Our grandparents, or great-grandparents did, but we certainly don’t. We don’t understand what it means to be forced into the army, no matter what. And now, to be forced into a war you might not believe in, as Slava was, is even worse.

 

Brian Crossman is a partner with Independent Well Servicing where he does field supervision and marketing.

 

  • 0029 Latus Viro updated Latus phone
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  • 0027 TED_NA Helium 2021_30
  • 0028 SIMSA_Energy_Forum_2022
  • 0025 Kendalls
  • 0026 Buffalo Potash Quinton Salt
  • 0023 LC Trucking tractor picker hiring mix
  • 0022 Grimes winter hiring
  • 0021 OSY Rentals S8 Promo
  • 0019 Jerry Mainil Ltd hiring dugout
  • 0018 IWS Hiring Royal Summer
  • 0014 Buffalo Potash What if PO
  • 0015 Latus Viro PO Ad 01
  • 0013 Panther Drilling PO ad 03 top drive rigs
  • 0011
  • 0006 JK Junior
  • 0004 Royal Helium PO Ad 02
  • 9001
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