Sakhalin Thriving, Or Just Surviving

MTConstruction workers preparing a new building site in Nevelsk, Sakhalin.
NEVELSK, Sakhalin Island — On one side of Sakhalin, foreign oil workers are paying $5,000 per month for apartments and their Russian landlords are driving Bentleys and Humvees.

On the other side of the island, it took an earthquake — not oil and gas — to start a construction boom that is turning around lives in a forgotten town.

In a land of sharp contrasts, Sakhalin offers a startling microcosm of Russia on the country's far eastern fringe.

Raisa Martyshenko, 78, was in her apartment making jam out of berries she had picked at her dacha when the earthquake struck just after lunchtime on Aug. 2, 2007.

Measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale, the quake ripped through Nevelsk, a quiet port town of 17,000 residents on the southwestern tip of Sakhalin island, leaving more than 3,000 people, including Martyshenko, homeless and briefly drawing the nation's attention to this area.

Now, almost 11 months later, the town is a building site. Amid the rubble and grim Soviet-era apartment blocks that remain, several dozen new prefabricated two- and three-story houses have gone up, incongruously reminiscent of suburban America.

After opting for federal compensation rather than a new home, Martyshenko used the 1.3 million rubles ($55,300) she received to recently buy an apartment "with only some cracks in it" in a surviving apartment block. But her daughter and her family of four still have not received their money.

"I haven't got the compensation certificate either, and I'm not the only one," said Galina Pronina, a determined, middle-aged woman. "I submitted everything in March, and they promised to have it ready in 45 days. But out here we are a very long way from Moscow."

Across town, on the steps of their new homes, a gaggle of elderly women spoke of their trauma following the earthquake. They complained that the 25,000 ruble additional compensation that they had been given for spending about six months in temporary accommodations was too low. A white-haired pensioner, Lida, said most of her teeth fell out because of the stress.

Local authorities came in for criticism from then-President Vladimir Putin in the immediate aftermath of the quake, and Governor Ivan Malakhov was replaced.

Most residents seem pleased with their new houses and the eventual support, including psychological counseling, provided by the state. But they all agreed that the earthquake was a tragedy that they do not want to go through again.

"It was absolutely terrible — very, very, very frightening," said Lyudmila Ignatyeva, a stout pensioner with a walking stick and a walleye.

Nevelsk's disaster and current struggle to recovery are a far cry from the multibillion-dollar oil boom that over the past decade has transformed Sakhalin from an unknown outpost to a potential treasure island for a host of Russian and international energy giants.

"If you want to know whether the normal people have felt any of this new wealth, then the answer is definitely no," Martyshenko said, her two remaining silver, lower teeth sparkling. Her pension has recently been raised to 5,800 rubles, she said.

On the other side of the island, in the capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the influx of money is more evident. Rows of Soviet-era buildings are studded with new shopping malls, hotels and the sparkling headquarters of international oil firms. A new ski lift has been built on Mount Bolshevik overlooking the town.

Through the gleaming marble foyer of the 148-room, Korean-owned Mega Palace Hotel, where the presidential suite costs 51,300 rubles a night, men with accents from Aberdeen to Amsterdam to Adelaide sip 250 ruble Foster's beer in the bar.

Burt Herman / AP
A gated community for expatriate oil and gas workers in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.
Russian author Anton Chekhov, who visited Sakhalin in 1890, characterized the typical life of the tsarist-era convict laborers being sent to the island as one of "vodka, sluts, more sluts, more vodka." But despite their reputation for hard-living, it seemed that life in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for the foreign oil and gas workers nowadays is one of room service, expat bars and relative comfort.

Some frontier spirit still remains, though. For two nights in June, Niagra, "one of the highest-paid strippers in Europe," will be performing at the town's Duke Night Club, says an advertisement in the island's English-language newspaper, The Sakhalin Times.

"It's like a playboy mansion out here — it's open house," said Daniel Landereis, an unmarried Dutch manager at Cameron, a service company for Sakhalin Energy, as he stood in the 27 degree Celsius heat on the steps of the four-star Santa Resort hotel.

Wearing oversized RayBan sunglasses, a tweed blazer and designer jeans, Landereis was adamant that the locals were cashing in on the foreign influx.

"With the oil companies here, the money is flowing in, and they are building like crazy in the town," said Landereis, who has been in Sakhalin for 18 months. Foreign companies on the island are contractually obliged to hire a significant quota of locals and buy a certain amount of supplies and spare parts from local businesses, he said.

Landereis said he pays $5,000 a month for his apartment and that one local landlord has bought himself a Bentley with the money he has made, and a number of Humvees have started appearing on the island.

But not everyone in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, which has a population of 180,000, appeared to be profiting from the presence of the foreign workers.

Students Anastasia Abdrakhmanova, 18, and Tatyana Chyornaya, 17, said the English exam they had passed at the university that day probably would not come in useful, as they led the way across town to expat hangout Mishka Pub on a recent evening.

"The foreigners don't really mix with the locals. They all live together and go to the same bars," Abdrakhmanova said.

"You can always recognize them though," she said, giggling, as two Americans merrily stumbled past in matching outfits of open-necked, long-sleeved shirts and pants.

Asked if any local women had found long-term love with the foreigners, the teens were skeptical. "A few do, but most of the foreigners are already married," said Chyornaya, with an air of resignation.

Once inside Mishka Pub, a Russian-owned haunt plastered with English football shirts and scarves, a table of British workers sat complaining about their Russian colleagues. In the opposite corner, two local girls in their early 20s sat, sipping beer and eyeing them anxiously.

With the disparity in wealth around the island, it is little surprise that the populations of far-flung towns and villages have continued dwindling over the past few years, as people leave in search of greater opportunities on the mainland or in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

Back in Nevelsk, as children played around the town's World War II memorial, residents said they are still coming to terms with the physical and psychological impact of last year's earthquake.

"Lots of my friends and acquaintances have left since it happened," said Olga, a 24-year-old coquettish blonde in tight, bright orange pants and oversized earrings. "There is nothing to do here — not even a movie theater — and that's why all our young men just drink or take drugs."

In the aftermath of the earthquake, prices for houses in the town shot up sixfold, she said, meaning that many locals had cashed in and packed up.

"The people are leaving because they are scared — that's it," said burly Valentina Dudacheva. "But maybe that means that people actually benefited from the quake, as it finally gave them a push to leave this town."

With Sakhalin perched on the northern edge of the so-called "ring of fire," an area of extreme seismic activity that includes Japan to the south, people fear for the future.

"Who knows what will happen if there is another big earthquake," Dudacheva said.