Notes from Sakhalin: A hat fit for the Wild East

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The Independent Online
I have been a week on Sakhalin now and naturally I am keen to hold forth on Pacific salmon, or social customs, or dog breeds, or the oil industry, or the problems of dissociation with the Russian capital, Moscow, 7,000 miles away. On all these I have brand new, half-informed opinions at the ready.

Russian buildings all smell the same. Russian women wear so much make-up. Russian men can be surprisingly gallant. Russian money bears no relation to reality, at either end of the scale. (About pounds 1 for dinner for two, or 1p for a postcard, but try about pounds 20,000 to connect electricity to our future house.)

Driving is horrific; I see an accident on almost every excursion. Volodya and his wife have just divorced because he wants to keep his late father's tiny dacha as well as his own even smaller apartment, but you are allowed only one property a family. Cows wander the filthy, pot-holed roads, mistaking the heavy industrial traffic of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for a village. Sakhalin is the long thin island lying like an open-mouthed snake against the coast of Siberia, north of Japan. The southern half was Japanese this century, until 1945. But while Sakhalin is now securely Russian, some of the nearby Kurile Islands are still disputed and the war seems far from dead.

I arrived on a cold, sunny day, the little plane stuffed to the roof with my luggage and a new windscreen for Volodya's minibus. We crossed the coast of Russia and then jolted down over the sharp mountains of Sakhalin to where Yuzhno lies, concrete apartment blocks like relentless plantations along the flat valley bottom. The airport reception ladies were confusing: dressed to encourage, but thunderously unsmiling. Through them, through customs - no, the windscreen will not be for sale - and out into the airport building. This is Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital of the island, population 170,000.

There is not much visual that seems post-perestroika to me, on my first few days. Lenin still towers in Lenin Square - leading to Communist Prospect. There are queues and depressingly empty shops, and not one building, road, wall, phone-box, vehicle, drain, staircase, window, bathroom fitting or signpost is in a state of good repair. Visually, it is the end of the world.

But pretty soon I meet a visiting American called Fred, whose card declares him Professor of Entrepreneurship, and I realise that man, place and time have coincided in an inspired way. Sakhalin is alive with prospects. The island sits on the Pacific rim with oil, gas, timber, furs, fish and already a casino. It is the Wild East of Russia.

And the analogy with America's Wild West holds good. It is a melting pot of people from the old Soviet nations and foreigners are just arriving; social, legal and commercial structures are embryonic and all kinds of malpractices are trying to find a footing along with new enterprises.

Everyone has something to buy, to call, to offer, to trade. All they need, they say, is 'credit'. Not money - just something to get them started; not quite a loan, of course, just - well, just a credit. They even ask me for credit, whose closest run with business hitherto has been administering my high street bank account.

These are the things I am learning about. What I can write about with more, but far from complete, authority, is last night, my first Russian social occasion.

It began in the subterranean studio of a new jeweller-artist friend, in deep darkness because of a power cut. Jozef came here from Central Asia some years ago, but soon abandoned his government job and is self-employed. He makes elaborate jewellery with themes, such as Summer Sea, Year of the Goat, or Homage to Pasternak. It was like a stifling cave in there, as we admired his work by torch and candlelight. Then we moved to a primary school (light and cold, the heating was off) where Jozef's friends Sasha and Yana teach music. Sasha is Ukrainian; Yana's grandfather was banished to Sakhalin by Stalin. She was born here and loves it. There were also three charming geophysicists from St Petersburg. We sat, the eight of us, drinking what appeared to be industrial-strength alcohol, flavoured from a separate bottle of cherry brandy. Sasha played his accordion, Yana sang, one of the geophysicists sang.

We discussed Grieg and music in the cold north, and whether people listened to Mussorgsky in Britain, and whether Byron or Beethoven better expressed the human spirit. It was like a mind-expanding, time-warping Sixties seminar, and Seriously Intellectual, but leavened more and more often with bursts of the Beatles, or abandoned dancing.

At a latish stage, two of the geophysicists spilt their drinks almost simultaneously over my white skirt - one hurrying to help the other's mishap - and Yana took me out the back to sponge and remove it. My return in the only alternative we could find, a long, sequined dress, complete with high, jewelled head-dress, occasioned a tremendous bout of toasting and dancing and sealing of friendship. It was entrancing. It was Russia. I was initiated.

Today I feel terrible. Partly the alcohol, but also because they persuaded me to keep the beautiful hat, and I am sure the costume is not complete without it. I shall have to find a stylish way of returning it. And no, I have not forgotten the oil industry, and salmon, and politics on Sakhalin. Or the dog breeds. But could they wait until I am feeling stronger?

The first article in a series from an island off Siberia's coast.