Sakhalin, today (2001)

INVESTORS from Japan and the USA are eyeing the oil and gas fields off Sakhalin’s east coast and squaring up to the technological challenges they pose. Nestled between Japan and the elbow of Sakhalin, the Sea of Okhotsk is under ice for most of the year, then ripped with waves during the open-water season a sea more suitable for surfers than oil rigs, the Sandwell website says. 

Perched on the edge of the Pacific ring of fire, it is also one of the most seismically active regions in the world. Whether they go for bottom-founded rigs or free-floating ones, drillers need to design for earthquakes. 

Flights now leave regularly for Alaska and Japan, from the airport at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, which is the island s biggest employer. But despite this nodding acquaintance with the global economy, Sakhalin s infrastructure has barely improved since Chekhov s visit. A railway built on the East coast by the Japanese in the 1920s has a different gauge from lines on the west, leaving one side of the island cut off from the other. Life still seems to pass Sakhalin by. Although it was an island of exiles, today there is no local memorial group to compile histories of the people who served sentences there and died. The only human rights group to visit from Moscow was on its way to Magadan in 1999, and grounded by cancelled flights. Internet users are rare on Sakhalin and so are foreign funders. 

In other ways Sakhalin has had its share of the traumas that have gripped the rest of Russia since 1991. It has privatised coal mines and laid-off miners. Nearly 60% of the population lives below the official minimum wage. Local politicians and businessmen own 35 of its newspapers, and the two they do not limp from civil suit to civil suit. Rare birds descended from the exiles of an earlier age such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Old Believers living in the south of the island the Chibisan of Chekhov’s diary have been ridiculed in the press and restricted in practising their religion. In 1998 a local environment inspectorate was closed down after it criticised Exxon for dumping waste in the Sea of Okhotsk. 

A mixture of cosmopolitan tawdry and home grown bleakness is conveyed by Sakhalin s websites. One screen shrieks about the Rancho Santa Fe Niagara Falls sex club on Sakhalin island. Another solemnly invites you to click on a 1995 train timetable, where you can also find a picture of a passenger ticket.

Marjorie Farquharson, The British Journal of General Practice, June 2001