Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The B&B That Thrives Next to Nowhere

MTIrina Rud, 43, standing next to her husband Vladimir at the gate to the astonishingly successful hotel she runs in a small town on the far eastern island of Sakhalin.
Nogliki, Far East -- President Vladimir Putin likes to talk about how important the development of small business is for the country. So the astonishing success of a small bed-and-breakfast hotel in a dead-end town on Sakhalin Island may well be the type of thing to make him prick up his ears.

Called Kuban and located in the outskirts of Nogliki, an unsightly oil and fishing town 550 kilometers north of the island's capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the hotel is surrounded by muddy roads and huge piles of timber that have lain there since Soviet times. Even the town's name seems designed to keep visitors away: Nogliki takes its name from the word noglvo, meaning "stinking settlement" in the local Nivkh language.

And yet the 36-bed family hotel has thrived since it opened seven years ago -- mainly thanks to owner Irina Rud's hard work and hospitality.

For 180 rubles a night (just under $6), visitors get a bed in a cozy room, shared toilets and sinks, a kitchen where they can cook and a canteen where they can eat prepared meals. Most of the time, the homey hotel is packed, and every so often guests are even willing to sleep on the floor in two lovingly decorated lounges.

"It's pretty unbelievable, but occasionally we run out of spare mattresses," Rud, 43, said.

Carpets and wooden panels cover the walls of the lounges, Christmas decorations hang from the ceilings and artificial plants and flowers complete the eclectic decor.

"Almost everything here is designed and done by me," Rud said as she chopped vegetables to put in the day's borshch.

The hotel is filled with the squawks of six parrots -- part of Rud's extensive, and growing, animal and bird collection. As one visitor pointed out, the place looks like a weird mix of a Buddhist temple and a kindergarten.

Rud's life is an unlikely tale of a strong woman who managed to overcome grinding poverty, an alcoholic husband and a near total lack of opportunities to build up her own business, become a mother of three and a grandmother and happily remarry, to a man called Vladimir who walked into her life about four years ago as one of hotel's many visitors.

Born in a small village in the southern Stavropol region, Rud got married in 1979 and moved to Nogliki with her first husband. Her days dragged by like those of many Russian women -- stuck in a small apartment in a shabby residential block, with three kids and an uncaring husband -- until 1995, when her life virtually ground to a halt.

"At some point around that time I had nothing to feed my kids for about six months but pasta," Rud said. "I remember my little daughter sitting in the kitchen and consoling me. She said that she loved pasta and didn't want anything else. It felt horrible."

In the same year, an earthquake practically leveled the nearby town of Neftegorsk, leaving Rud wondering whether her own home and family would be next.

It was then that she decided to turn her life around.

The family moved to a rented house with a leaky roof on the edge of the 10,000-person town. Along with her teenage son Anatoly, Rud started work repairing the roof with the intention of turning the house into a small hotel.

"[We] were working on it at night, after we had finished whatever jobs we had during the day," she said.

Soon enough a few rooms were ready for guests and people began coming in. The first 30 rubles Rud earned from a guest left her family with a tough choice.

"I remember the kids asking if we could buy some apples," Rud said. "We hadn't seen apples for a long time by then. But instead I tried to talk them into buying wallpaper to have another room ready for guests."

About four years ago, Rud's former husband, who barely participated in her struggle to build up the business, left for good. He took everything he could with him, forcing Rud to look for new beds and other furniture. She solved the problem by buying second-hand items and painting over them and by welding metal beds herself from scrap.

Rud said she had never advertised her hotel.

"Our clients just tell their friends and colleagues, and the word spreads further and further," she said. Although the town has two other hotels, Rud said she never seems to run out of customers.

In an area where the main industry is oil production, Rud's hotel attracts a wide range of clients, from engineers and construction workers to scientists, ecologists and the occasional visiting journalist.

Rud has such a close relationship with some of her more frequent customers that their visits entail a lengthy chat about mutual acquaintances who have also stayed in the hotel or about the guest's family life.

"We don't have any relatives around here," Rud said. "My husband is also from southern Russia. So our clients are the closest friends we have."

Some of the visitors have grown so fond of the place that they voluntarily help Rud make further improvements.

A couple of years ago a group of Canadians who were building some nearby oil production units brought over their equipment and laid a wide, sturdy mud road to the hotel. Other clients drilled a well that now ensures a round-the-clock water supply to the building -- the rest of Nogliki gets its water rationed.

For her part, Rud tries her best to make sure customers keep coming back. She employs three maids at the hotel and a sales assistant in the small grocery store she opened at the hotel earlier this year. The staff are paid 2,000 rubles ($63) for two weeks' work with additional premiums if they do their jobs well, although this doesn't happen too often, Rud said.

Rud, who seemed a tough boss, said her rules are simple.

"The client is always right, even if he is 10 times wrong," she said with a smile, adding that she always tries to handle customers herself. "Men are not good for this kind of work, they lose patience way too quickly. I don't even let my husband deal with customers."

Rud's charms seem to have also helped overcome obstacles like corruption and the local bureaucracy. Rud said she has never had any problems with the tax authorities and enjoys support from the local mayor.

Rud said her only major problem was a lack of free time.

"This summer, [my family and I] didn't even have time to go for a walk in the forest nearby," she said. "The ideal rest for me would be not to see anyone but the family, but that doesn't seem to be possible."

When Rud does have a few spare moments, she dedicates them to her biggest passion: pets -- all of which live in the hotel.

"Oh, he just loves yogurt," Rud said as she fed a three-legged hedgehog called Tisha, who grunted with pleasure.

Her mini-zoo already features six parrots, two turtles, two guinea pigs, a dog and a small herd of goats. She is also eagerly awaiting two small monkeys that are due to arrive from Moscow soon.

"Yeah, yeah, and soon we will be buying a crocodile," her son Anatoly, now 22, joked. "And a small elephant," her husband Vladimir, 46, responded.

"My new car is sitting in these cages," Vladimir added in a mock complaint about how much of the family income is spent on living quarters for the animals.

The current family car, a minivan, has also suffered from the pets, Rud said. The goats recently tore off its exhaust as they fought to poke their noses into the pipe to inhale the fumes.

Rud said her goats for some reason have a strong love of nicotine and other types of smoke and pollution. The whole herd periodically ventures down to the nearby railroad station to clean up cigarette butts left on the platform by train passengers.

The only billy goat in the herd, Vanya, is even bright enough to demand cigarettes from visitors to get his daily fix of nicotine. When guests fail to share their tobacco with him, he occasionally charges at them, providing comic relief for the other guests.

"You know, I believe he's already famous," Rud said with a laugh. "I am sure I saw him on one of those television programs where they show funny home videos. There was a smoking goat there that looked exactly like our Vanya."