The End of the Line in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Over 29 days I had travelled 15,000 km, starting in Glasgow and going across Russia all the way to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Some of it has been good, some of it has been great, but at the end of every chapter there’s a bit of reflection, and as I sit here in the departure area of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport there’s a fair few thoughts going through my mind. It’s hard to really describe what my expectations for the city were; written material about it usually focuses on the oil and gas industry, or on the nature and scenery, and you get the odd mention of Chekov’s journey and his brutal description of the place. Perhaps with that in mind I expected to see a bit more vibrancy and wealth on show in the capital of the island, or at least some kind of energy and excitement about the place. I’d been told at different times it was expensive, or full of expats, or an island with increasing revenues to spend on the place…but that’s not what I found here.

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I’m getting used to flying into minimalist regional airports in Russia, getting onto the bus and sitting in a cramped seat for at least half an hour, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was no different. The sky was grey and rain was threatening, but it looked like I had avoided the storm that battered the island only a few days before. Evidence of its impact was everywhere, from trees and branches strewn across pavements and streets, to bus stops that had been mangled and blown over walls. However the city lived on, the buses ran, people found their way to work, and shops were open as normal. I would be staying with a guy called Maxim in the city, he works for an international company and was kind enough to offer me a room for a couple of nights. I dropped off my bags with him and set out to explore the city on foot, though I’ll admit I wasn’t too impressed with the weather on this occasion. The conditions were as close to Scotland as I’ve come across in Russia, with temperatures at 7C at the best of times, with gusts of wind and the odd shower of rain a constant presence. My first impressions of the streets were a sense of depression and sporadic development; the pavements were non-existent at times or lost beneath decades of muck, other times there were gaping holes every few steps. Dirt and debris covered every roadside and cars would speed past missing parts of their anatomy. I can accept that the storm caused damage and a lot of the debris is likely from that, but the rest has been there for the long-term and really is in need of repair. Whatever the money from the Sakhalin projects is being spent on, it’s not fully making its way to the benefit of the general population. I continued walking away from the main streets of the city, hoping to see some of the Japanese architecture that is said to remain, but even this seemed an exaggerated claim at best; some of the sites I visited were crumbling. I tried the botanical gardens, but the storm had seen it having to close for a while. A walk through Gagarin Park was a mixed bag; the storm had damaged a few kiosks and rides, but it’s hard to imagine great weather bringing much more beauty to the area. As I walked back towards the centre from the north, the streets blurred into a mish-mash of decrepit wooden buildings and peeling flats covered in Soviet murals from yesteryear. I began to wonder if I was entering the local equivalent of a favela. Maxim would later tell me of an area called ‘Shanghai’ which in the 1990s was the hotbed of crime and poverty in the city, though there is at least a greater sense of safety than in those days.

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As I headed back to meet Maxim I had started to completely write the city off as a dead-end, that the city could turn up all of the Tsar’s missing gold and it wouldn’t make a single difference to the development of the city. I tried to remind myself that you can’t just fly into a city for a few hours, make a quick judgement and head off again with a few sensationalist headlines. For all the negatives I had seen, I wanted to find positives amidst the gloom, even if it was only one or two. At worst, I would be able to tell myself I had given it a fair crack of the whip. Maxim’s grandmother cooked a meal for us, and I’ll give my compliments to the chef as it’s one of the few times I’ve been satisfied with a bowl of cabbage soup. I asked him about his life in the city, he told me that he was born and raised here with a few spells abroad including the USA and China, and had been to Europe a few times on holiday. He told me that although he still likes Europe and the UK for music and culture, he was comfortable living in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and was in no rush to move. I enquired about the reasons why, usually those who are such big fans of foreign cultures want to go there, but he described a sense of local pride. It was in sync with Russia, but people had their differences. At this point Alexei arrived and he added to it, feeling that the sense of humour in the city had differences to that in the west of the country, more intelligent and less direct. He said people on the island were more hospitable and helpful than the mainland, with people willing to do a favour even for someone they didn’t know. I won’t pretend to know for sure if that’s the case, but the next day we would see an old woman lying on the ground, and there was no shortage of help and a willingness to stay with her until help arrived, despite lots of those workers previously rushing to make it to the office by 9am.

After dinner we went on a tour of the city, taking in a few of the local monuments to the war heroes, the Lenin statue and best of all a trip to the top of the nearby hills for a view of the city. In the winter the place turns into a great place for skiing and snowboarding, with both Maxim and Alexei telling me it rivals nearby Sapporo for the experience. We would then meet Katya and head off for Korsakov. I asked them about the Japanese cars, and the fact that many vehicles seemed to be bashed, broken or looking the worse for wear, and they told me, quite expectedly, that the second-hand car market here is huge, with most cars from Japan, some from Korea, and even fewer from Russia. However the run-down nature of the cars is because everything delivered to the island is raised in price, even from the Russian mainland. Maintaining a car in perfect condition can be an expensive business, especially with the poor quality of roads. Maxim in particular wasn’t too happy about the degradation of the roads, and it’s something the city really needs to sort out. Korsakov itself is dominated at night by the flaming gas and the lights of the facilities. You can see tankers creeping out or arriving from Japan, and there are usually a few people at the peak of the town looking out on the view. If you’re ever in town it’s something to do when the sun goes down.

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We talked more about the development of the island, and all were in agreement that it was lopsided and usually the benefits were in areas important to the gas industry. This I can understand, international companies don’t get into business for the benefit of the average citizen, but it sounded like the regional government had work to do to win over the hearts of the populace. There didn’t seem much optimism about seeing results, though I should add that it didn’t make them want to leave, they still felt comfortable here despite the problems. I asked my obligatory question about the fortunes of the local football team, FK Sakhalin, who had just earned promotion to the second tier of the Russian system, and with it a crazy schedule of matches stretching as far away as Kaliningrad; they weren’t too interested in the team. Football just didn’t seem too popular in general; even hockey was of limited interest for the league on the island. People were more interested in individual sports, winter ones in general, and the forthcoming World Cup matches were more of a novelty than a deep concern. I took a walk to the stadium the next day; it’s a really small place with one stand and it’s hard to imagine it hosting bigger games next season, though it had strong links with local youth programs which was good to hear.

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The weather the next day was just as dismal as the last, but I endeavoured to keep up my walking and reach the 10km mark. I paid a visit to the regional museum, set in an old Japanese building that really is a marvel on the eye. The grounds were kept in great condition despite the storm, with only a few signs of disturbance. Inside there’s two floors, covering some fauna and archaeology at the bottom, through to exploration of the islands and life during and between the wars. It’s not the biggest museum I’ve ever been to but it’s definitely the best one on the island and worth a visit. If nothing else the price is an example for all of Russia, 70 rubles to get in, no extra cost for foreigners and 100 if you want to take pictures. Afterwards I tried the local art museum, with some interesting work there from a local artist and even a room of works by North Korean artists. However if you come here as a tourist be aware there’s a very limited amount of things to do and see. Even the local brewery had shut its restaurant doors, and many cafes or restaurants never opened before lunchtime. Either you live and work here, or you find yourself a hobby during your visit and get out to see the surrounding nature.

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I met Maxim and Alexei again, as well as a few others, and this time we went out for a beer. They opened up a bit after a while and I began to get more of an insight into the local culture. There was a good sense of solidarity as I had begun to see earlier, and people looked out for each other. However the one thing I had noticed on the streets was the divide between the Koreans and the Russians. There was a bit more mixing than in Yakutsk, but there was definitely a divide there. I asked the group about it, and they agreed that there was a social divide between the two races. The Koreans were born here, they spoke Russian, but they still retained their own cultural preferences, the social structures still related to the Korean mainland, and the Russians could feel that. Not that they complained or held resentment, they understood it as normal, different peoples have different ways of life. There was a bit more resentment for immigrants from Central Asia, though it wasn’t as strong as I’ve come across in other Russian cities. The numbers are very limited and hasn’t reached any sort of tipping point, and interestingly enough a number of construction works have North Korean workers here. I didn’t see any, but I’ll have to take the group’s word for it that they’re there. Indeed one non-Russian group who got the most flak were Americans, with a disappointment that some would stay for several years and learn barely more than a few words of Russian in that time. The numbers are so small that it is unlikely to become an issue, but even here on Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk people like long-term visitors to make an effort. With the beers starting to add up we left the conversation there and called it a night.

With that my stay was at an end, the next day taking the lunchtime flight on to Sapporo in Japan. I’d like to offer firm conclusions and thoughts about Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, but I feel like I was only scratching the surface. The problems that exist there are very visible, possibly permanent, and I couldn’t imagine any Russian moving there unless it was for the energy and resource industries. At the same time the people I spoke with were comfortable living on the island, they had a basic sense of regional pride and there were a number of sub-cultures going on that just didn’t have any obvious outlet. Life will continue to amble along here no matter whether there’s investment or not, and perhaps appealing to foreign investors and even tourists is just completely unnecessary here outside of the nature and adventure tourists. What the island did give me was a few things to chew over about the Russian Far East in general, and I’ll try to approach those issues in future articles.

For now it’s on to Japan and a few other Asian countries. I won’t be posting the same articles as I have done so far, but I do aim to get talking to the natives and find out what people in Asian countries think about Russia and the Russians. It’s time to see Russia from the outside, through the eyes of others.

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Two Tribes: Khabarovsk and Vladivostok

The first time I ever travelled to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok was five years ago in the winter of January 2009, the last legs of a Trans-Siberian journey that also took in Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Ulan-Ude. The winter wasn’t particularly vicious but I sure as hell felt the cold, and endless days of snow and ice meant that while I could see the cities and talk to people, any underlying beauty remained hidden. This time I was hoping to see both cities in full bloom, and despite some rain I got to see just that. Both cities would probably consider themselves the big dog in the far eastern yard and I wanted to try and get a better idea of whether that manifests itself in everyday life.

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          My first stop was Khabarovsk, fresh from another red-eye flight out of Yakutsk. The airport greets you with a message telling you that it’s the capital of the Far East, a not-so-subtle reminder to anyone who was ever in any doubt. A cheap ride on the trolleybus later and I’m set up in my flat and ready to explore the city. At least, that’s what I thought. It turns out I’m not immune to jet-lag; jumping numerous time zones and taking several flights over the space of a few weeks was catching up with me. After closing my eyes for ‘forty winks’ I woke up several hours later and the day was mostly gone. Given I was only going to be in Khabarovsk for a few days I kicked myself for not being able to stay awake. However the lesson is always have a ‘Plan B’, and I set off for a shorter walk through a few of the parks. I already knew a Korean-Russian girl called Ola before I arrived, and she met me for a walk and afterwards a beer. I wanted to ask about life in the east, but it seemed like I was the one being interviewed at first, with the conversation revolving around what I thought about other cities in Russian, and whether I noticed any difference in dialect and accent between Khabarovsk and Moscow. For the record I’m honest enough to admit I’m not good enough at the language to detect any subtle differences, but at a basic level there’s little or no difference to my ears. Eventually I get the conversation back towards the east, and Ola tells me about her thoughts on Khabarovsk. She likes it, it’s her home city, she’s very proud of it. But as with so many, there’s always a ‘but’…Ola wouldn’t mind living elsewhere, preferably in southern parts of Europe. The climate is terrible, and she has dreams to fulfil with her boyfriend. I ask about her the development of the region, is it making a difference to life there for the average citizen? She thinks certain things have improved, but the important things aren’t; housing is still a problem, both in costs and availability. Wages aren’t high enough for the cost of living out east, and variety in opportunities is lacking. The politics and management of the development are out of people’s reach, and there’s a resigned tone to her voice. I push a little deeper, I ask her if she likes Vladivostok, if there’s really a rivalry between the two, but she’s not really interested in any rivalry. She prefers Khabarovsk; even Vladivostok is too far away to inspire a competitive instinct. I let the conversation drift again briefly, but the night is young and soon enough I would get a chance to talk to her boyfriend Roberto about life in Khabarovsk.

          Roberto isn’t ethnically Russian either, he’s a Serb who moved out east after he met Ola, and he ended up going to the local university for a few years. He’s the outsider on the inside, and he tells me about his life in the city. He gives the almost mandatory complaint about the climate, saying he prefers to be elsewhere when the snow and ice arrive. He loves his homeland but after enduring the east for years to be with Ola he’d be happy with anywhere in Southern Europe as well. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that his answers began to resemble Ola’s, long-term couples often agree on these things. I let the beer kick in a bit more and turn to entertainment in the city; he tells me that not much happens out east, it’s not a popular spot for music and famous performances. He nods at the beer and the pub around us, smiles, and says drinking is a local pastime when there’s nothing else to do. We raise a toast to that and I turn off my interview mode and enjoy the rest of the evening.

          I meet Roberto again the next day and we head for a trip to the museum of regional history. I had somehow missed it the first time I was in the city and I was interested to see how deep it went into the earliest history of Khabarovsk. It’s empty aside from the staff, which in Russia I usually take as a good sign of the content. Some of the history is well-known to me, of Nikolay Nikolayevich Muravyev-Amurskiy, its founding as Khabarovka, early conditions and the strategic value beside China. They even had a small display about the disastrous Khetagurova campaign to populate the east so props to them on that front. There’s a great collection of posters and documents throughout the various rooms, and I’ve now got over a dozen pictures which I need to work on translating. In the second room we get talking to the middle-aged lady who keeps an eye on things from her seat. She’s passionate about local history, and she tells us more about the Japanese and Allied presence in the Far East and Siberia during the Russian Civil War. She’s impressed that a Scotsman would go all the way to Khabarovsk for more than just Trans-Siberian tourism, and jokes about a Scot and a Serb being the only two visitors of the day; she assures us however that it’s usually busy with Russians. We talk modern events, and she’s happy living her life in Khabarovsk. She sounds hopeful on the future, and that since the city has an interesting past, it can also have an interesting future. There’s a hint of ‘love is all you need’ about her outlook, but I’m happy to hear some real positivity. Sometimes it’s easy to drift into resignation instead of doing something positive.Image

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          I talk to Roberto about sport afterwards, and ask him if he’s found a place in his heart for SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk, or Amur Khabarovsk. He looks a bit sheepish and says he’s not really interested in them, and that in general people in the city only get interested in the teams when they’re doing well. The worldwide phenomenon of choosing a Spanish, German, Italian or English team instead has crept up even in this corner of Russia. Individual sports are more popular, though it’s hard to say if any one individual sport is more popular than the rest. At this point we meet Ola again, and I need to offer a huge amount of thanks to her for what happened next; I had wanted to get a scarf of SKA-Energiya, but with the season over it was nigh-on impossible. Just when prospects looked bleak, she made a phone call, and that someone made another phone call…well it only turned out that they knew the managing director of the club, who had a brand new scarf sent over for me free of charge. A great gesture and one I’m extremely grateful for.

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          Later that day Ola introduces me to Vladimir, a Siberian lad who has made Khabarovsk his home and who knows a lot about local history. Given that most people aren’t too interested in the topic I’m looking forward to talking more with him. We discuss the progress of Khabarovsk over the years, and the conversation drifts towards the modern era. Despite not being born and bred in Khabarovsk, Vladimir has come to enjoy the city. He’s lived and worked across the country, served in the military for a while, and settled down with another Korean-Russian girl from the city. He says Khabarovsk is definitely a better place to live than Vladivostok, and he wishes more people would stay to try and improve the region. Given the cold nature of his own home city he doesn’t get scared off by cold winters here, he just grins and bears it. As with almost everyone else he wonders why the hell I’d be interested in researching the Russian Far East, but respects the fact that I’m giving it a go. We talk a lot more as the evening draws on, but with the beer flowing some of the details of our conversation by then drift from memory. As we walk the street during the evening I realise how good this city is for a pedestrian as compared with other Russian cities; wide pavements, well-maintained and generally in full repair, combined with decent-looking buildings and efficient services. It’s a refreshing sight, and something that the local authorities and planners in other cities should learn from.

          My final day in the city was a bit more pedestrian, but it picked up near the end; I finally got around to eating some dogs. I have to thank Ola again, (if you need something done in Khabarovsk, talk to a Korean!) she was able to find an unregistered restaurant who served the dish, and an interesting meal was had. (Apparently there are three in the city, though I’ve no idea where the dogs come from) Afterwards I got a lift to the train station from the owner of the flat I had stayed in, and I talked to her a bit more about the city. Much like Vladimir she was happy here; she operated a number of small businesses and appeared to have a successful job on top of it all. She lamented the quality of Russian goods, and one look at her car and the contents inside told you that Japanese and Korean products were preferred. She felt that the development of the region wasn’t resulting in many changes on the ground for ordinary people, and she was concerned about whether things would ever really change. Once again there was a hope and desire for improvement, but a sense of resignation that there was little she could do individually to make a difference. As we reached the station I repeated the question I had given to others, and asked her about Vladivostok; Khabarovsk was better, but she didn’t really see it as a rivalry. Khabarovsk happened to be more professional whereas Vladivostok was dirtier and less organised. In the end they were all Russian though, and both cities just happened to be close to each other. An interesting perspective, and at that we said our goodbyes as I headed to Vladivostok on the overnight train.

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          The sun was already shining bright as the train pulled into Vladivostok station, and it inspired me to take the walk to where I was staying. It was a move I almost regretted, lugging my case uphill virtually all the way for about 3km, then again up several flights of stairs. Compared to Khabarovsk the city is a logistical nightmare, with houses and buildings strewn across a wide area. The main difference I noticed right away is that Vladivostok looks very similar to the way it did five years ago, from the Lenin statue opposite the station right down to the roads and pavements off the main streets that are often in need of solid repairs. I’ve heard it said that it adds to the charm of the city, but they don’t have many excuses for letting things get to this stage, especially with the drive to modernise the city structures during the 2012 APEC conference. Nevertheless the two bridges constructed as part of those preparations loom large in the skyline and are an imposing feature of the landscape.

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          I was staying with a Korean-Russian for the first night of my stay, and we got to talking before she had to go to work. Olga works in the medical tourism industry for a South Korean company, and for those of you who don’t already know South Korean companies are aiming for growth in the Russian market, with rising success in a short period of time. She was born in the Primorskiy region and has lived in some cities abroad, but despite her time away she still loves her city and enjoys living there. I told her my first impressions of the city and asked her how she would compare Vladivostok to Khabarovsk; her response was far more favourable to Vladivostok, saying that it had more culture and events happening. She admitted the place could be tidied up and repaired, but didn’t worry too much about it. I moved on to the APEC legacy, and posed that the bridge was obvious but had anything else changed? Again she seemed positive, but couldn’t really specify anything else significant that had occurred, and after a while mentioned the Russkiy Island developments for use by the Far Eastern Federal University. I didn’t press on the issue, but I got the impression that whilst obvious changes weren’t easy to point out, there may well have been a boost in morale amongst the city, a positive outlook pushing through amidst several years of pessimism as shown by Olga’s feeling that things were on the up.

          After our chat I took a walk along the main square and down to the docks to see the fleet. If there’s one thing that definitely hasn’t changed, it’s the prominent presence of the monuments on the main square, celebrating the partisans who defended the revolution in the east and brought the Far Eastern Republic back into the fold once the Whites and foreign forces were pushed out. They’re huge and dominate the street, though the image is lessened slightly when you see donkey rides and children hiring out electric bikes around the square. Further on at the dock area there’s some work being done, though the submarine museum is still there, and the fleet still looks imposing.

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          For lunch I fancied a game of bilyard, but it was hard to find a decent place. I settled on a dinghy looking rock bar that showed some potential, and even though there was no bilyard table I got talking to a guy at the bar who told me his thoughts on the city. Unfortunately I forget his name, but he was a musician (it’s a rock bar!) who trained at university. He was a bit more pessimistic about the economic direction of the region and felt that there was a lack of opportunity to get a solid career. I asked if he thought about setting up his own business since he had ideas, but he complained of too much paperwork and regulation. At this point I should admit I felt a bit unsympathetic, here he was in a bar at lunchtime complaining about not finding good work, however he moved on to cultural life in the city and things picked up a bit. He told me that despite his previous pessimism he still loved the city dearly, and had more regional pride than he did national pride; Vladivostok first, Russia second. I expected him to be opposed to Putin and United Russia at this point, but he was relatively happy with them, it was simply a mentality he said existed in the east. He spoke of the creativity in the city, the tendency to be different, and that Khabarovsk by comparison was a dull and sterile place. He suspected they were in greater favour with the federal government, and would never move there. He became more wistful of his future musical dreams at this point, but I shared a drink with him before heading back out into the city.

          It never fails to amuse me that Vladivostok has a series of beaches; yes it’s by the sea but the water always looks dirty and the weather is only occasionally inviting for ‘taps aff’ sunbathing. However I ventured on down to the beach anyways with the consolation in my mind of taking a wee look at the stadium of Luch-Energiya. I hate to be critical but it felt a bit soulless again, the highlight being a fountain that sprayed its water in tune with piped music. Songs by ‘Busted’ and dance remixes of Celine Dion’s song from ‘Titanic’ just don’t work for me I’m afraid, and it looked like they didn’t quite work for the sparse crowd either. There are some factors that the city can’t control when it comes to their beaches, but the public entertainment can surely improve. After the trek to the beach I met up with another local called Anna, this time a twenty-something PR worker who was born and raised in the Primorskiy region. She had been to Khabarovsk and a couple of other cities, and even lived in Komsomolsk-Na-Amure, but for her Vladivostok was better than the rest. It seemed to be a theme amongst the natives, there’s a definite feeling of pride no matter how good or bad things are. Like my first host she struggled to think of any visible changes beyond bridges and other infrastructure development, and after thinking about it she raised some exasperation at how money was spent and decisions reached in the region. She told me that although there was development in some sense, it was not a development that was benefiting ordinary people, and was primarily for the political and business elites to benefit further from foreign investment and domestic kickbacks. Housing was a big complaint, with tales of high costs and limited availability. Things were so bad that even as a full-time worker with a university education, she was staying in shared accommodation akin to a dorm in order to save money. I asked if such circumstances meant she would be looking to move elsewhere, but aside from the dream of a trip to Manchester to watch some football, she was content staying in Primorsky. A very tasty Armenian and Azeri style dinner later and I was spent for the day, but I still had time for one more brief chat with a local PhD student who was working on Korean history. Her experience mirrored that of the rest, a strong local pride, a concern about opportunities and costs, and a desire to see the region fulfil its potential.

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          My second day in the city turned to more academic matters when I met up with a local professor and PhD student to talk all matters Russian Far East. I won’t go into too much detail on all their views as they were numerous and detailed, but it was good to have the opportunity to sit and talk away about the region, a situation that unfortunately doesn’t arise too often back in Scotland. I got the impression that even in Russia specifics about the development of the Russian Far East aren’t too common, with more focus on Russian relations with Asian countries. We agreed that whether Russia will remain focused on Korea, China, Japan and India, or whether their relations start reaching out more towards Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and other South-East Asian nations, will be very interesting in future. I spoke about my desire to spend more time in the Far Eastern regions, whether to learn Russian language, carry out fieldwork or both, and it’s something I’ll be following up in the weeks and months ahead. After dinner I was given a tour of the campus on Russkiy Island, and I have to say it looks better than any other facility I’ve seen in Russia. It was of course designed to host the APEC conference and house the attendees, but the fact it’s being put to good use is a positive sign for the city. Combine that with the gorgeous scenery all around the island and you have a great environment for students in the years ahead. Russia could do with a lot more construction and development in the university sector, especially if it wants to attract paying students from other countries such as Korea and China.

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          The rest of my time in the city was devoted to more walking and sightseeing, with the highlight a trip to the top of Sparrow Hills to look out over the bay. You can see the panorama picture below this paragraph, but if you ever make it to the city you should climb up and take a look out there for yourself. (If you’re not up to walking the funicular can take you up) On that note I also noticed by the end of my stay that I’ve been losing some body fat, despite indulging my taste buds on a few occasions out here. I guess keeping up my workouts, walking at least 10km a day and a few beers here and there is a great way to keep in shape!

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          As a bonus to this article on Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, I spent half a day in Artem. I didn’t go out exploring the town, instead heading straight for the hostel before an early flight the next day, but it was a really depressing sight from what I did see. I don’t know if I just happened to see all the bad parts, but from exiting the train station, getting a taxi to the hostel, and taking a look around the area at the streets and buildings, everything and everyone just looks utterly depressed. Even the taxi driver said the place was dire. The cafe worker at the hostel couldn’t think of anything nice to say about the town. If that’s the state of affairs across all of the second tier towns and cities of Eastern Russia, it’s going to need more than a wee bit of development to sort out. However when it comes to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, there are definitely some differences between the two cities, whether it’s the architecture, the industries and prospects, regional pride with Vladivostok more competitive towards Khabarovsk than vice versa, and expectations for the future. I think both of them can still make something of themselves, and probably they’re the only two real contenders to develop serious urban hubs in the Russian Far East, but it’s still going to take some work. People from the west don’t want to go there, and those from the east want to stay but can’t always do so due to limited opportunities. Fresh ideas are needed from those with the ability to implement change, but I’m pessimistic about it in the immediate future.

          Next up is Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where the weather has been hurricane-esque. Hopefully all will be well when I arrive, but rest assured I’ll let you know my thoughts on the city sooner rather than later.

A Long Weekend in Yakutsk

Over the past few years my interest in Yakutia has grown. At first I only came across the usual articles on Oymyakon, a cold and God-forsaken place at the arse-end of Russia where people live and toil through a brutal winter that lasts most of the year. It makes for a sensational headline, but I wanted to see the republic for myself and get an idea of the pace of life. Recent times have only added to my interest, with stories ranging from the big-money industries of gold, diamonds, oil and gas, to grand dreams of resurrecting the woolly mammoths, and the potential role of Yakutia in opening up the Northern Route through Russia’s Arctic waters. So it came to be that in the early hours of a sleepy Thursday morning I stepped out of the airport and looked out on the city of Yakutsk, still draped in sunlight and conveying the contrast of modern buildings with old wooden shacks that still had people living in them.

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I was met at the airport by my friend Alina and her uncle (both Yakuts), a level of hospitality that would continue over the following days, and I’ll be forever grateful for their help during my time in the city. I was able to take a look around the streets while the city slept, wide roads covered in dust, pavements pocked with bumps and divots where the permafrost was moving, puddles and dirt almost ever-present. Most buildings were colourful, but uniform in style, the practicalities of protecting themselves against the winter more important than aesthetics. There was something quaint about the city; despite the appearance there was a sense that people here had made it a home. Just when I thought the row of buildings would continue on forever, an area of park or stretches of the river would appear to remind me that nature still reaches out here during the summer months.

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I had few firm plans for my time in the city and spent the first day exploring it by foot with Alina. We took a trip to the university, and whilst you normally need to show a student card to get in, when I told them I was a foreigner just coming to visit they laughed and waved me in. As with most places you get a wee bit of leeway when you say that you’re from Scotland! The university isn’t much to look at, built for function, but the students work hard and there’s a positive atmosphere about the place. As we walked around the campus I asked Alina more about her studies and where she sees her future, and her outlook was to be repeated to me by most of the people I met in the city. She talked about wanting to get out of Yakutsk while she was young, to visit European countries and use her English and German language skills, and see more of the world in general. She saw little hope for a professional future in Yakutsk, but as a Yakut she wanted to return when she was older and live the rest of her life in her homeland. Apparently there was a fad in the city for a while for UK-themed clothing and London was a local favourite, though she laughed and denied it when I asked if she had joined in. When I asked her about the development of the city and whether things were changing, she was more pessimistic. I’ve mentioned the problems that the weather and the permafrost bring, and she felt that life in the city was unlikely to change much no matter how much money was spent on development. To be fair I could understand her point, you can build roads and bridges, but you can’t change everyday life in the city by government planning. If Alina and others study languages, or indeed most other subjects, they’re going to need to leave to use those skills. I didn’t see any other foreigners during my time there, and only heard two foreign voices around the airport. Tourism is still at an absolute minimum, even by Russians.

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After the university we took a stroll around some of the local museums, and were joined by one of Alina’s friends. I asked her a few of the same questions, and she was absolute in her desire to get out of Yakutsk once she had finished her university education. Western Russia and Europe were once again mentioned, and there was a sense of inevitability about her future. I asked her what she liked best about Yakutsk, at which point she screwed up her face, laughed and simply said nothing was best about Yakutsk. She appreciated that it was her homeland, and that she could lead a comfortable life there, but to do anything with her life she felt she would have to move sooner rather than later. We finished up our walk around the museum and headed back out onto the streets. The old town looks great in the summer, old-style wooden buildings inhabited today by bars and shops, and there’s a large monument to the founder of the city, Pyotr Beketov, who got the ball rolling here in 1632. As with most Russian cities there’s a large monument to the war heroes, including a warrior on a horse which is an important part of Yakut folklore.

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Later on I would get a chance to meet Alina’s grandmother and try out some reindeer meat. As a man who eats meat for most of his diet, I loved it. There are more succulent meats out there, but it has plenty of chewing in it and fills the stomach. As I ate she asked me about what I do and where I come from, and she seemed confused as to why anyone would visit Yakutsk for fun. She didn’t believe that anyone would get funding to study the Far East, and she would later ask Alina if I was some sort of spy! In some ways it’s understandable to wonder why anyone would go out of their way to visit the city, but as we talked more I got the sense it was another reflection of how far away everything seems from Yakutsk, and that development is something that does not affect everyday people. Why go to Yakutsk when you can go to the beach in Europe or in Asia?

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My second day in Yakutsk saw me fulfil one of my goals on the trip; make a visit to the Tuymaada stadium. I’m a big football fan and being able to get into the stadium, walk about (and if you want you can also exercise on the athletics track and use the pitch) was good value at only 20 rubles. I didn’t bring my football boots on this occasion, but it was great to sit in the stand and look out on the pitch. I missed the last game of the season by a day, so unfortunately my quest to see the team play and get a scarf will have to wait for another visit. Near the stadium there’s also a theme park of sorts, but if I’m being honest it was probably the most depressing theme park I’ve ever seen. It was around lunchtime so I didn’t expect many people to be about, but to give you an example there was a lonely-looking tent which claimed to be a house of horrors. A picture of the clown from ‘IT’ was featured on the door, and the sounds of canned screaming from within did not quite get the adrenaline flowing. Afterwards we took a trip to a facility within the nearby hills, it’s frozen inside all year round with mammoth remains, ice sculptures and gives you the chance to eat stroganino and drink vodka from an ice glass. The best part though is a slide made of ice, good fun until it freezes your arse! Once you’re done you can take a walk up the hills and look out over the city, well worth doing to see the view. Later on we would meet another friend of Alina’s, also a student at the university. As with others she wanted to get out of Yakutsk, though she was inspired to go and live the rest of her life in Romania because she loved the stories about Transylvania and vampires. I can’t say I was expecting that response, but fair play to her for dreaming of something a wee bit different! She liked Yakutsk, but she didn’t see any future in the city and didn’t expect development to change that. I asked her if she knew much about the plans for the city and what the money was to be spent on, but beyond a vague notion that a bridge might get built over the Lena she hadn’t heard anything.

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The third day saw me fulfil my second dream in the city, a trip to the mas-wrestling and my very first lesson. For those of you who haven’t heard of it mas-wrestling is a Yakut sport, you basically have two people across from each other with legs pressed against a wooden divider, and both with a grip on a wooden stick. The goal is to pull the wooden stick away from the other person or at the very least pull them over to your side of the divide. It’s straightforward and each round is quick, but it’s great fun. Don’t let the description fool you either, the sport requires a lot of strength and determination. Even warming up I could feel muscles being used that rarely get much action, and that’s despite me doing pull-ups, push-ups and various other bodyweight exercises on a regular basis. I lost the stick almost every time, but I’ll put that down to the 30kg weight difference between me and the trainer! Next time I’m in Yakutsk I’ll be doing it again. The trainer was also pretty happy and surprised to see a Scotsman giving it a try, though he seemed crest-fallen when I told him that no one in Scotland, or most other countries, has heard of the sport. If there’s any justice in the world he’ll get to see it as an event at the Olympics one day.

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If there’s one good way to recover from a bout of mas-wrestling, it’s with a trip to the Lena to cook some shashlik and do some fishing. The roads there are akin to a bouncy castle and are in perpetual need of repair, but it’s a great scene when you finally arrive. The Lena is a mighty river, and there’s history in the area too with the 1912 massacre of goldfield workers. On this occasion it was quiet and peaceful, with pockets of Yakuts enjoying the sunshine, picking wild spring onion, and cooking up plenty of meat. I took the opportunity to talk more with Alina’s uncle, a middle-aged man with a successful career and a different perspective on life in Yakutsk. He had travelled around the country with his work, and enjoyed visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as trips to other cities such as Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk. No matter how far he travelled though he loved Yakutsk the most and had no desire to leave the city. He pointed out to the river, to the endless fields around, and asked why he would need to live anywhere else. He was happy about the future construction of the bridge across the river as it was only in winter that you could drive across instead of a huge detour, and he was comfortable with exploiting the various resources of the republic to bring in money. He reminisced about the Soviet era, saying that even in Yakutsk the lengths of Soviet power had made its presence felt. He welcomed the political and economic changes after 1991, saying capitalism and opening the markets had brought roads, infrastructure, goods and development to the region. It was a stark contrast with younger people who wanted to leave, though it’s hard to say if it’s simply generational, a sense of homeland or his experience in other cities which had given him that outlook. Perhaps it’s all three. It was refreshing though to hear someone who saw a future for the city, and who wanted to be there to help it along.

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My final day in the city was spent talking with more locals, all younger people, and there was almost a unanimity about the desire to leave at some point. One guy had previously studied in Yekaterinburg and was looking to move to another city in Russia when he had finished his studies in Yakutsk. Others were less fussy but saw their future anywhere west of the city. There wasn’t much interest in Asia at all, either for work or travel, and there was a strong wariness of immigrants who had arrived from Central Asia. Some of the group loved rock music, but said that Russian bands rarely ventured to Yakutsk to play, never mind foreign groups. Even the local beer didn’t have a good reputation. (EDIT: I was told of a Chinese presence in the city although I only saw a couple of Chinese people walking around. You can buy ‘Harbin’ beers in some of the shops and bars though which means there’s probably some kind of presence!)

Overall the atmosphere was one of inevitability and a resignation that leaving was the only way forward. Returning later in life to see out their days was rarely considered aside from Alina. As we ended the day at the main hang-out area beside the Lenin statue, I got the sense that whilst industrial development of the region may bring dividends, and the opening of the Northern Route may benefit the Arctic parts of the republic, social development would find little traction here. The local youth may well find their dreams elsewhere, and it’ll be a hell of a challenge to attract anyone else to set up shop here for even a few years.

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Next up is Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where I’ll aim to find out the local outlook from the more populated and prosperous cities of the Russian Far East. Until then, enjoy some political graffiti from Yakutsk.

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Looking East from Moscow and Yekaterinburg

The last time I travelled to Russia was six years ago, during which I spent nine months abroad as part of my time at university. My first experience of the country was daunting, arriving into a jam-packed airport at the same time as several other flights, waiting in a massive queue to hand in my migration card form, and waiting another lifetime at passport control, before heading into a sea of people beyond the arrival gates. I was not looking forward to a repeat performance, but to my surprise, it was a completely different story this time. There were no other flights, there was no need to fill in the migration card myself, and after waiting a couple of minutes in line for passport control, I passed through the gates, received my migration card, and stepped into a virtually empty arrivals area. Sure, a few taxi drivers were touting aggressively for a fare, but in a matter of minutes I was heading into the sun-kissed city on the express train to Paveletsky station. If the airport can keep up that kind of standard in future, there will surely be more repeat visitors to the country.

My trip on this occasion is of course partly about just travelling, relaxing and seeing a few sights, but I also made the time to talk to some of the people I met about their thoughts and ideas of the Russian Far East. The questions weren’t detailed or conducted interview-style, just a few minutes each on the topic. The sample size is quite small, twelve people in total, a fairly even split of male and female, and most of them in the 18-30 age-ranges, so I would stress that the opinions I’ve heard should not be considered as definitive or necessarily representative of the entire population. However it’s still interesting to hear what people think of Russia’s eastern lands, even if, as you will see, the results are maybe to be expected. In addition, I’ve left out the names of the respondents. The main limitation in going further was my language ability; whilst I can get through the day and talk for hours about simple things, I’ve not yet reached the stage where I can talk or understand in detail about complicated topics. It’s one of my main priorities for the rest of the year, and hopefully next time I’m in Russia I can provide more detailed observations than on this occasion.

The first couple I spoke to were of a mixed-marriage, the guy from western Russia and the woman from Italy. They had visited the east a year ago, heading as far as Lake Baikal and Ulan-Ude during the summer-time. They had enjoyed the visit, and inspired a desire to see a few more cities in the country, but their knowledge of the east did not spread any further than the trip. They confessed to knowing little about the region, and the only events they could recall were the recent deal with China and the Amur floods of last year. They had vague recollections that the region was being developed, but had no idea of the cost, and when I asked if they would consider living in the eastern regions the answer was a definite no. They were happy near Moscow, with a preference to move a bit further away from the city and nearer the surrounding countryside. Adding something extra to their salary would not make any difference in their choice.

The second couple I had the chance to speak with were both natives to Moscow, their families mostly from the region too, and both had finished university in recent years. As with the first couple their knowledge of the region was limited. The woman had a classmate from Sakhalin and had heard of the great nature there, as well as in Kamchatka. She said she wouldn’t be against going to see the region one day, but expressed regret that the cost was far too high, and with a baby on the way, it was unlikely it would ever happen in the years to come. They both expressed a desire to remain in Moscow, to live and work there, and no amount of extra money would change that. Once again the floods of last year were something they knew about, and they remembered the numerous appeals for donations on TV. The gas deals with China were fresh in the news, though they admitted they only listened to the headlines of the deal. The only other major events they could recall were spending on the APEC 2012 conference, and there being reports of poor construction standards on the roads.

The third couple I spoke with had a more eastern-oriented background; although the man was from the Moscow regions, the woman was born in Yakutsk, spending her early years there. She’s an ethnic Russian, and had moved to Moscow with family when she was still a child. At this point I expected to hear some more detailed opinions on the region, but as it turns out the woman had absolutely zero interest in the city anymore. She had little desire to go back, and only did so once every several years around New Years’ time to visit older relatives. Particularly interesting was how deep the desire not to go back was, with their intention to live and raise children in Moscow. The woman had heard they wanted to develop the east, and knew about the various mineral and hydrocarbon reserves in Yakutia, but did not know much about the details. Outside of Yakutsk their knowledge was even more limited.

As well as talking to couples I spoke with some single people in the city, firstly with a girl who had moved to Moscow from Tatarstan. She knew there was talk of developing the east, but as with the others she had little idea about the details and expenditure. Her interest was firmly in the west, being very happy living in Moscow and occasionally visiting relatives back home, as well as a love of the New York area after spending some time working there. When asked whether she would consider moving east if the job and money were right, she responded with a laugh and a firm ‘nyet’, unless moving east carried her all the way back to New York. The second single person was from the Moscow regions, in his late-20s and what could be considered as a more liberal representative of the city, with one eye firmly on Europe. He was comfortable talking about events in Moscow and Russian elite politics, but when it came to the east he also had little idea of what was going on in that region. He was aware of the development, but was surprised by the amount of money being spent, albeit he was happier for the money to head east than to the Caucasus. As with all the previous respondents mentioned, he found it highly unlikely that he would move to the region, even for a better or higher-paid job. His preference was Moscow or the UK, and even a holiday east seemed time-consuming, expensive and not particularly interesting.

Perhaps the most interesting set of respondents was on the train from Moscow to Yekaterinburg. I didn’t take the much-feted platzkart option, having done it several times before, and on the previous occasion having enjoyed the atmosphere of a train full of young army conscripts living it up on the 25-hour ride from St. Petersburg to Murmansk…it was definitely kupe this time! It provided less people to talk to, but I had a lot more time to talk to them individually. One of the other passengers in my cabin was a middle-aged surgeon from Kazan, who had experience of living in other countries and travelling to a few cities. He knew of Sakhalin, having visited a friend there, and he spoke warmly of the nature and scenery you can find when you move beyond Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. He was interested in seeing Kamchatka one day, but admitted it was unlikely since he had to work, his relatives were all in Western Russia, and he was at the stage of his life where he enjoyed the quiet life, which he said also meant he was unlikely to ever consider moving to the eastern cities. He knew about the development of the region without having heard many details, but believed it was ultimately fruitless and that the region was unlikely to benefit much, as was usually the case with grand initiatives. As an added bonus he was eager to talk about Scottish independence, and couldn’t understand why Scottish people would want to leave something like the United Kingdom. It was an interesting discussion, but I’ll leave that for another day.

The other passenger in my cabin was an older woman, curious about other countries despite never having travelled, and born and raised in Yekaterinburg before heading to Moscow after university for a work assignment. Her answers ranged from the Far East to the Urals, but she was very bitter about the situation in the country with regards to wages and social benefits such as healthcare, particularly when she was asking about what older people received in the UK. She said that buying train tickets to visit her relatives in Yekaterinburg every now and then was far too much for someone like herself who was making a basic wage in Moscow, so even imagining going to the Far East was just crazy. She loved her home-region, but felt it needed development as much as the east did. As with the surgeon, she mentioned how trying to develop the Far East, and even researching it as I do, was a dead-end and would lead to nothing. She confessed that she didn’t have much knowledge of the region, but from the rare piece of news she had heard it was not a place she would have moved to even as a youngster. Overall it was interesting that the two older people I spoke to on the train had more knowledge and opinions of the east, or regional development in general, than any of the younger people in Moscow. It’s often said that the capital lives in a bubble, and my conversations seemed to reinforce that stereotype, even for those who had previously lived or travelled to the region.

Finally I spoke with two people in Yekaterinburg about the east, with hope that residents of a very proud region would know a bit more about events around the country than those in Moscow. Unfortunately that was not the case, as both had very limited knowledge of the east. The first did not know much more than the names of some cities, though expressed a love of the ocean. I asked if she was referring to the Pacific Ocean, but alas no, it was the Atlantic Ocean after having worked in the USA. Her interest was definitively about preferring to go back to the USA rather than moving to the Russian Far East. The final person I spoke to had a more interesting background, with ties to the region through her mixed Tatar and Mari heritage, a local girl whose father had lived in a small town in Primorsky Krai called Olga. She said he sometimes spoke about his life there, but the stories were short, and the overwhelming impression she got was that it was a place for soldiers and the navy. Given the time-frame involved, her father living there decades ago during the Soviet era and early days of the post-Soviet Russia, this is only to be expected. However once more she did not know much about the region beyond those stories, and had never visited. Whilst she had no desire to move to Moscow, Europe or the USA, she loved the Urals area, and would stay there as long as her relatives did. Holidays were a possibility, but cost, time and distance were once again raised as an issue.

Overall I think there was a clear pattern to responses, with zero interest in relocating to the region, limited or no knowledge of the development plans in the east, limited interest in taking even a holiday there, and any interest restricted with the distances, time and costs involved in getting there and back. It’s perhaps no help that the region rarely features on the national or regional news outside of the east unless there is a catastrophe or energy deal, and it’s viewed as almost a faraway country at times. If the Russian government is serious about developing the region and encouraging skilled workers to relocate there, particularly the married ones when you consider that Russians commonly settle down relatively early and meet their future husbands and wives during their university years, then it will need to utilise far more of its new-found soft power abilities on its own internal projects. Without serious internal initiatives to raise awareness of the region, all the energy deals, mineral extractions and infrastructure development won’t change the demographic and workforce issues that are ever-present.

My next stop is in Yakutsk where I’ll spend five days exploring the city, and where I’ll be taking advantage of the trip to talk to more people; it should be really interesting to hear how people in the northern parts of the Russian Far East think about developments, and in particular if there’s any difference in opinion within the city between ethnic Yakuts and ethnic Russians.