Ainu a Feminist

I don’t come across many hardcore feminists in person either in my line of work or social life, but I had the occasion to do so in the form of my artsy friend Angela around February this year.  One of the things she said to me in the early stages of our brief acquaintance was that she was a feminist and, after I probed that statement, she told me she believed behavioral differences between men and women were wholly the result of social conditioning.  To support this theory she said she used to play with trucks as a child, and not dolls.

My response was to ask her to imagine a set of men and a set of women being assigned the following task: each person has to wrap a Christmas present of an awkward shape, such as a pair of socks.  Let each go away and do so, and then view the results.  I said the presents wrapped by women would be very neat with the ends folded into little triangles and Sellotaped in place, whereas the men’s would be an utter mess of crumpled paper and excess tape.

The likely results she did not dispute, but our reasons for them differed: my theory was that men simply don’t care about the presentation of gifts they receive – especially things like socks – possibly because they know it’s going to be ripped off in a second anyway, and so don’t see the point in putting in effort to wrap things nicely for others.  By contrast, women tend to care about the presentation of gifts – both given and received – and so put more care and attention into the wrapping.  Angela wasn’t convinced.  Her hypothesis was that society places an expectation on women to wrap presents well and so they do, whereas men have no such expectations placed on them.  I didn’t press the point any further, and took a slug of the strong cocktail I was holding at the time.

If Angela’s hypothesis is true, then seemingly disparate societies are a lot more similar than we think.  Back when I was working in Sakhalin for an oilfield services company which did, among other things, industrial insulation of pipework we set up a training centre in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  One of the conditions of us being granted a quota for bringing foreign workers into the country was to hire and train local labour, which was fair enough only anyone who was unemployed on Sakhalin between 2006-2008 was incapable of holding down a job.  An exception to this was a handful of Ainu women who we brought down from the north of Sakhalin and put through our training centre.

From what I could tell, the Ainu had only partially integrated into Russian life.  They spoke Russian, ate Russian food, and dressed in non-traditional clothes, but were treated by the Russians as an altogether separate people (as Russians are wont to do with their ethnic minorities).  I’d probably describe them best as looking like Eskimos, with one or two being rather attractive, but the rate at which they aged showed they lived hard lives.  Almost every one had a husband who was either an alcoholic, had taken off, or was in prison, although I never found out if they were ethnic Ainus or Russians.  Anyway, what we found when we put the Ainu women to work insulating pipes was that they worked very slowly but very accurately, and the result was insulation around the bends of pipes which was incredibly neat.  And they did so with more than a little pride.  By contrast, the (Russian) men who we were training turned in work which looked as though it were done wearing boxing gloves.  None of us involved was particularly surprised by this outcome.  (Incidentally, the Ainus were the only women we put through the training centre: ethnic Russian women simply wouldn’t sign up to this kind of work.)

So if Angela was right in her thinking, the tiny Ainu society – which would know about the wrapping of presents only insofar as they have seen their Russian neighbours do it and adopted their customs – imposes such gender-based expectations on its womenfolk that they will go to a yard run by foreigners and wrap a piping spool in fibreglass with more care and attention than any number of men.  And if I was right, it is simply because women – of any ethnicity, society, and background – are simply pre-programmed to care about this sort of stuff more than men.

I’ll leave it to my readership to choose which theory they support.

Job vacancy opens on Sakhalin

Like NKVD chiefs under Stalin and Hamas leaders, it appears being governor of Sakhalin oblast’ is a risky business:

Alexander Khoroshavin, the governor of the Sakhalin Region in Russia’s Far East, has been arrested along with three of his associates on suspicion of taking a substantial bribe. According to an investigation into Khoroshavin’s activities, the governor received $5.6 million for his part in approving a contract for the construction of a local thermal power station.

On March 4, law enforcement authorities searched the government building of the Sakhalin Region as well as Khoroshavin’s official residence, dacha and apartment in Moscow. In the course of the investigation, the agents found large sums of money, as well as a large amount of valuables.

Khoroshavin had held the post since 2007 when his predecessor was forced to resign, allegedly due to non-action when an earthquake struck the island but possibly because he “wasn’t persistent enough in the battle against foreigners”. I blogged about this here.

This being Russia, the arrest took place as depicted in the picture below:

Because having FSB agents dressed like the Provisional IRA arresting a governor decked out like a football hooligan does wonders to dispel stereotypes about Russian law enforcement.

Shooting in Sakhalin Cathedral

Sakhalin doesn’t get in the news much these days, and rarely for reasons unrelated to the oil industry.  However, friends on Sakhalin posting on Facebook alerted me to this:

A gunman has opened fire inside a cathedral on the eastern Russian island of Sakhalin, killing a nun and a churchgoer, say reports.

Six other people were wounded in the incident – most were said to have been shot in the legs and were not critically hurt.

An employee at a private security firm was detained at the scene in the main city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

The motive of the man, who is said to be about 25 years old, were not clear.

I doubt there was much of a motive, it sounds like the random act of a nutcase.  Being rather low-paid work, the average employee of a private security firm in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and is often an ex-conscript unable to find any other type of work.  It would hardly be a revelation if one of their number had mental health issues.

There was no apparent link to the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi about 7,500km (4,700 miles) to the west.

Well, yes.  If you want to make a statement about a major international event, getting within 7,500km of the place where it is underway is normally the way to go about it.

An Unenviable Job

You all know about the exploits of an engineer working in the Sakhalin oil and gas industry through my witterings on here.  But probably few will have read about a day in the life of a camp administration girl on one of the construction sites in the north of the island.  My friend Natasha, a Korean Sakhaliner, gives us a glimpse:

Another guy, or actually two guys. Someone took someones bed and they couldn’t decide who will sleep on the top bed and who on the bottom(a bunk bed? not sure about correct name for the bed). So they decide to come around to a Reception office and let me decide who should sleep where and who s wrong etc.  I never knew I could shout at the 40 ish y.o. man that loud and scary. Of course at first i was calm and tried to keep the situation under control, after about 20 minutes of listening two babies cry I when the phrase “I want justice” I lost it.

Around 10 “I want to change my room, the guys are snoring and there is a wind coming in from the power socket”
me- “So they do snore in my room and the wind blows from the sockets, and they will snore in another room and the wind will blow too, if not from the socket, then from the night light that was screwed into the wall all the way through out. Furthermore i don’t have a spare bed just to put you in”

Poor girl.  Read the whole thing.

How to register yourself in Russia

As I mentioned in my previous post, during this trip to Russia I am staying in the apartment of a friend.  Unlike all previous occasions where I have either spent the first night in a hotel or have been here working, this time around I have to register myself.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the idiocy with which Russia is run, there is a requirement that all visitors register themselves with the local authorities within 4 working days of arrival.  As a public service to all those who might find themselves in a similar situation in Russia in the future, here’s how the registration is done.

1.  Host (the person in whose apartment you are registering) makes a call to his mate in the local passport office to find out what the latest rules are and what the best way of registering is.  Rules in Russia change often, with nobody really having a clue what they are at any given time.
2.  Receive advice from mate in passport office to register at the post office and avoid the local OVIR office like the plague.
3.  Go to post office, join lengthy queue at special counter for registrations, Western Union, and other foreigner-related services.
4.  Wait 15 minutes.
5.  Approach counter, request forms for registration and enquire about other requirements.
6.  Receive information that this post office is too small to deal with non-CIS registrations and you must go to the central post office on Lenin Square.
7.  Receive helpful advice that you will need to go to a bank and pay 200 Roubles ($6) in taxes before you can register at the central post office.
8.  Go to bank, notice they are on a break until 12pm.
9.  Hang about on the street with host looking gormless until 12pm.  Don’t worry, you’ll fit right in.
10.  Go into bank, join queue.
11.  Wait 20 minutes.
12.  Pay 200 Roubles, obtain receipt.
13.  Go to central post office, notice they are on a break until 1pm.
14.  Go to local cafe, order overpriced food and beverage, kill time until central post office opens.
15.  Enter central post office, join lengthy queue at special counter for registrations, Western Union, and other foreigner-related services.
16.  Wait 10 minutes.
17.  Approach counter, request forms for registration and enquire about other requirements.
18.  Receive double-sided A4 form which requires no end of pointless duplicate information and instructions to fill out two such forms.
19.  Hang about waiting for host to fill out form, sitting beside herd of Azeris wearing tracksuits and drinking beer.
20.  Notice that the central post office sells canned food, noodles, hair dye, and bathroom cleaning products.
21.  Wait 20 minutes for forms to be completed by host.
22.  Join queue at special counter for registrations, Western Union, and other foreigner-related services.
23.  Wait 10 minutes.
24.  Hand in forms, be informed that copies of passports (host and visitor), forms, and immigration card are required.  Copying services are not available in the post office. Cans of pilchards and hair-curlers are.
25.  Leave central post office, walk short distance to shop providing photocopying services.
26.  Join lengthy queue at kiosk providing photocopying services.  Note the three or four kiosks not providing photocopying services manned by staff sitting idle.
27.  Wait 15 minutes.
28.  Hand over documents to be photocopied.
29.  Wait 5 minutes.
30.  Receive photocopies, pay 30 roubles.
31.  Return to central post office, join queue at special counter for registrations, Western Union, and other foreigner-related services.
32.  Wait for herd of Azeri men in tracksuits to finish registration and their beers.
33.  Hand over documents and photocopies for clerk to process.
34.  Wait 10 minutes, and slowly understand why long-life foods are available for purchase in a Russian post office.
35.  Receive blank envelope and two somewhat strange and identical blank itemised bills from clerk.
36.  Wait while host writes address on envelope and completes itemised bills, applying signatures where required.
37.  Hand envelope and itemised bills back to clerk.
38.  Wait while clerk applies stamp to twenty three separate pieces of paper, stapling bundles of them together and adding them to a huge pile sitting beside her left elbow.
39.  Receive stack of papers all stamped and stapled indicating registration is complete, and bask in the knowledge that the Russian Federation is that little bit more secure.

Total time = 4 hours.  Still, at least it required fewer steps than buying lightbulbs.

I mentioned this to a local friend of mine, who laughed and guessed that in the UK this probably takes no more than 15 minutes.  He seemed surprised when I told him that there is no such requirement in the UK and that of the 36 countries I have visited in the last 10 years, the only one which requires visitors to register with the local authorities is Russia.

How to Buy Lightbulbs in Russia

I’m back in Sakhalin for two weeks, having finally managed to obtain a visa for $200 thanks to an efficient agent in London and my second passport (Brits are allowed multiple passports).  I’m here purely on holiday to catch up with friends, most of whom will themselves be leaving soon, and to see the place probably for the last time.  I’m staying in an apartment of a friend of mine who is working up in the north of the island, and one thing I noticed when I moved in is that a few of the lightbulbs had blown.  It is impossible to find quality lightbulbs in Sakhalin, the only ones on sale are cheap Chinese or Indonesian junk.  If they do not shower glass over your head when they inevitably blow you are lucky, and it is not uncommon when unscrewing a lightbulb in Sakhalin to find the metal part scorched black with carbon or the glass and metal parts separated altogether.  Anyway, I thought it would be a nice gesture to replace the bulbs, plus reading in gloom hurts my eyes.  However, buying lightbulbs in Russia is, as with so many other things, not quite the same as buying lightbulbs anywhere else.  So if you ever find yourself needing to buy lightbulbs in Russia, here’s how you do it:

1.  Go to a hardware store.
2.  Approach glass counter underneath which four dozen different lightbulbs are arranged in a grid, each with a label underneath.
3.  Wait at counter in the hope of some assistance.
4.  Grow a beard.
5.  Take note of the six or seven staff loafing about nearby doing nothing, all of whom ignore you completely.
6.  Identify the man in charge of lightbulb sales, wait for him to finish serving other customer.  By this time, beard will have grown completely and you may shave and start again.
7.  Greet the man in charge of lightbulbs cheerfully, show him existing, broken lightbulb and ask for 15 new ones exactly like it.
8.  Wait for the man in charge of lightbulbs to write your order on a scrap of paper.
9.  Head for Kiosk No. 3 and wait in line.
10.  Trim beard.
11.  Hand kiosk girl scrap of paper.
12.  Ask kiosk girl to repeat herself, preferably using the type of Russian found in textbooks.
13.  Hand over money, receive change and receipt.
14.  Take receipt to man in charge of lightbulbs.
15.  Wait for him to finish serving other customer.
16.  Collect lightbulbs and slightly torn receipt from man in charge of lightbulbs.
17.  Go home, attempt to install lightbulbs.
18.  Realise man in charge of lightbulbs has given you the ones with a fat screw end rather than thin screw end.
19.  Judge shop to be closing in few minutes, with distance too far to cover in available time.
20.  Watch sunset, attend local nightspot, get hammered, sleep.
21.  Return to hardware store.
22.  Approach glass counter underneath which four dozen different lightbulbs are arranged in a grid, each with a label underneath.
23.  Wait for the man in charge of lightbulbs to finish serving other customer.
24.  Stroke beard, now at chest-length.
25.  Explain problem to man in charge of lightbulbs.
26.  Thank Christ man in charge of lightbulbs remembers you and accepts your receipt.
27.  Watch man in charge of lightbulbs disappear behind some doors.
28.  Wait for man in charge of lightbulbs to return with a form in his hand. Beard.
29.  Watch man in charge of lightbulbs fill out the form, which is in three parts, takes up an entire sheet of A4, and is ludicrously complex.
30.  Provide passport details when asked.  Seriously.
31.  Sign completed form in two places.
32.  Take signed form, slightly torn and now scribbled-on receipt, and random scrap of paper to Kiosk No. 3 and wait in line.
33.  Shave, recommence beard growing.
34.  Hand kiosk girl signed form, slightly torn and now scribbled-on receipt, and random scrap of paper.
35.  Cover ears as kiosk girl bellows for man in charge of lightbulbs to come to her kiosk.
36.  Listen to heated exchange between man in charge of lightbulbs and kiosk girl, the latter being unhappy that the form only contains my passport number instead of all passport details and my address.
37.  Receive receipt from kiosk girl.
38.  Take receipt to man in charge of lightbulbs.
39.  Collect lightbulbs and slightly torn receipt.
40.  Go home, install 8 lightbulbs.
41.  Wait 3 hours.
42.  Replace 2 blown lightbulbs.

Which island?

I’m planning a trip back to Sakhalin in August, mainly to take one last look at the place given the chances of my ever going back are slim, and to see a few friends.  For the first time in years I have had to organise my own visa to Russia, but I remembered the website I used in the past to get a quick letter of invitation, the document which must accompany your visa application.  Sure enough the Moscow-based agency is still going strong, and I filled out the application form listing Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk as a place I will be visiting.

A couple of hours later I got this reply:

Please be advised that Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a city of a strict passport control. To visit this city, you are supposed to have an invitation issued by local migration authorities.

Drawing on my experience of having lived there for three and a half years, I can quite confidently tell you that the strict passport controls in place in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk consist of ordinary passport control at the airport and, erm, that’s it.  As for the invitation issued by the local migration authorities, I saw people come and go on many weird and wonderful business and tourist visas, not one of which had to be issued by local authorities.  I expect they have picked up the story that in late 2006 the FSB announced that Sakhalin would become a special border zone, but missed the one about them changing their minds five months later.

Still, it’s good to know that the tradition of Moscow not knowing what the hell is going on in the provinces is still alive and well!

Goodbye Sakhalin

Apologies for the lack of postings over the past couple of months, and the general decline of postings in general over the past year or so.  There are good reasons for it, mainly the nature of the job I held between May 2009 and my getting sacked a month ago, but also a general weariness with Sakhalin (which I alluded to here) which manifested itself in an inability to write anything.

On 1st March I demobilised from Sakhalin Island having lived there on a residential basis since 12th September 2006, a period of 3 years, 5 months, and 19 days.  I’d known people who had been there 8 years and more so I’d not broken any records, but given we only intended to be there for a year before the experience gained would enable me to easily get a super job somewhere more civilised (ha ha ha ha ha!), we did pretty well especially considering we only had a handful of proper holidays in that time, one of which was utterly ruined by machinations at work.  Certainly, upon leaving Sakhalin, I don’t think I could have used my time there any more fully.  It was a magnificent experience, the best part of which was the wonderful people I met, befriended, and will likely always know who number in the dozens, both Russians and expatriates.  I worked for three companies on Sakhalin, had five or six bosses who ranged from the best yet to the utterly incompetent, and the work itself was unmatched in terms of exposure, responsibility, and experience but enough to make even the sanest contemplate volunteering for internment in the local loony-bin.

I will miss Sakhalin like hell, even if I no longer find superheated steam coming out of my cold taps with mildy scolding water from the hot, the electricity supply remains constant without 330V coming through your apartment one day and destroying everything with a transformer or motor, and the lifts do not need to be inexplicably switched off across the whole region come ten o’clock.  I will miss it like hell because it was the place I enjoyed being more than any other, where I met friends and forged relationships I never want to lose, and – I should admit – made a shedload of money which allowed me to purchase outright the Phuket apartment in which I am now sitting.

I doubt I will ever return to Sakhalin, not for the foreseeable future at least.  There is a 20% chance of some work there next year, on site up in the north, but by that time I expect I will have moved on, as will almost everybody I know there, who themselves represent a dwindling fraction of those who I knew from the beginning.  Of the ones I left behind, all but two or three – and this includes the Russians – have concrete plans to leave within 1-2 years, most much sooner.  Should I go back, I might be disheartened by the fact that it has become a different place from the one I left, as surely as the place I left was unrecognisable from the one I arrived at in 2006.  I owe Sakhalin a lot.  I expect I will owe Sakhalin my career, hopefully future wealth, and a lifetime of friends.  There has been a downside, several of them even.  Life on Sakhalin takes its toll on people, but I’ll write a separate post on that later.

There will be many posts later.  I now have time, I am unemployed and sitting in an apartment with a wooden balcony which overlooks a fancy pool and the sun shines every day.  If there is a time and place to write blog posts in large numbers, this is it.  There are many stories to tell of Sakhalin, the work, the companies, the people I encountered, and stories involving all three at once.  I will tell the whole lot here, in all their gory details, soon enough.

This winter saw a lot of snow fall on Sakhalin, much more than I’d seen in the previous three winters (cue the old-timers popping up in the comments to take a deep breath on their pipes, lean closer into the fire, adopt a grandad voice, and begin the tale of the winter of 2003.  Or was it 2004?).  On my last full day in Sakhalin, I pulled a Russian’s car out of the snow with my much-admired Toyota 4wd.  I’d done this several times this winter, the unwritten rule being if you have a 4wd and somebody is stuck, you pull them out.  I don’t know why, but on this last occasion I felt quite good about myself.  Pulling some fellow out of the snow to shouts of spasibo seemed like a good note to go out on.

I’ll miss it like hell.