Ice Carvings at New Year

No self-respecting Russian city would be complete without a huge Christmas tree and ice carvings in its main square for New Year, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is no exception.  In fact, we’ve gone one better and have a Christmas tree and ice carvings in not one but two squares in the town, Lenin Square and Victory Square (not to be confused with the tree-less and carving-less Glory Square).  Today I decided to take a wander down to Lenin square and take some pictures.

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia

There was a lot of snow along the way.

Lenin Square, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

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After the Storm

For the last two days, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk has been holding out against a fierce snowstorm which came in from the north.  Some roads disappeared completely, more were made impassable, and even the main road from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to the port of Korsakov was closed, along with the airport.  About two feet of snow fell in a couple of days, and the drifts in some places were a few metres deep.  Visibility was appalling, which did nothing to influence the driving style of the locals, hence there were a load of crashes and a few of them got killed (including, sadly, the brother of one of our accounting staff).  Snowploughs, graders, and bulldozers fought to keep the roads clear and succeeded, as evidenced by the enormous snow mountains which now stand at each corner and at the back of every car park.

But by this morning the storm had passed, the snow had finally stopped, and the sun was out in style.  These pictures were taken this morning from each side of our apartment.

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia

I would normally be out this morning taking more pictures of the snow, but I have a heavy cold and I am trying to recover in time for the celebrations tomorrow night.  Hopefully I’ll be able to get some good shots in the New Year.

The Sound of Russia’s Wealth

Had any sentimental expatriate taken 25th December off work and attempted to have a peaceful family Christmas day at home, he would in all likelihood have soon wished he hadn’t.  For nowadays it is almost impossible to spend a quiet day at home in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and unfortunately this often applies to the weekends as well.

The economic boom which Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is enjoying is on a par with that of Moscow or St. Petersburg in relative terms, if not in absolutes.  Whilst many far-flung Russian towns and cities are collapsing both physically and metaphorically, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is an exception thanks to its proximity to the enormous oil and gas reserves lying helpfully off the north shore of the island.  Despite the protestations of many Russians, environmentalists, and the anti-globalisation crowd in the West, the local residents are doing extremely well as a result of the foreign oil and gas companies setting up shop in their town, and when you compare their fortunes to most of the Russian Far East they could be forgiven for thinking they are the chosen few.  As I mentioned when I first arrived, rental prices for apartments are between $2000-$3000 per month, in a country where the average wage is only a few hundred dollars.

So where is all the money going?  For those at the top of the money tree, much of it is ending up in St. Petersburg or Moscow real estate.  There is at least one billboard in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk advertising apartments in St. Petersburg, and my friend in that city who works as an estate agent tells me an awful lot of the money being used to buy the properties comes from the oil towns of Siberia and the Far East.  But for those Sakhalin Islanders who find a million dollar apartment on the Finnish Gulf slightly beyond their reach, they are all doing what the moderately wealthy in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been doing for the past few years: renovating their own apartments.

Home refurbushment has hit Russia in a big way, and it has landed in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk with the speed and force of a meteorite.  Having spent 30 years living in dingy apartments which had seen no maintenance or improvement since they were built, Russians have (very sensibly) decided that the best way to spend their cash is on improving and decorating their homes.  They are also very wary of keeping large amounts of cash, most having lost an awful lot in the financial crisis of 1998, and ploughing Roubles into property can insulate against this type of thing in the future. 

The first things to get ripped out are the rotten wooden windows plugged with paper to keep the draught out, to be replaced by ultra modern triple glazed UPVC windows, adverts for which are on every street and every TV channel.  Then the ceilings are painted, the walls repapered, the light fittings swapped for ones more modern, and the Bakerlite switches and plug sockets tossed in the bin to be replaced by white plastic ones.  Unfortunately, folk sometimes overlook the wiring and it is still very common to see an entire apartment run off a few hair-thin wires connected to a handful of wobbly plug sockets at waist-height in the walls (why they never put them at ankle height I don’t know).  At the same time, the decrepit internal doors are thrown in a skip to be replaced by much nicer ones with glass in and proper handles (the external door remains the half-inch thick steel job installed in 1991, it being sturdy enough to survive the building itself by a century or more).  Lastly, the floor is repaired and covered, often by the carpet which has spent the last 30 years hanging on the wall (this is Asia, after all).  If the occupants then save for a few more years, they will refurbish the bathroom, toilet, and kitchen and the apartment will be like new.  Those with a bit more money sometimes tear out all the internal walls and replan the whole place to make the most of the available space (Russian apartments are not as unreasonably small as we are led to believe, they are just appallingly planned for space).  A tough decision is made as to whether the toilet and bathroom should be combined (more space) or left separate (more convenient).

All this means that on any given day in any given apartment, your head is rattled by a cacophony of smashing, sawing, hammering, drilling, scraping, and planing.  The chap who lived next door to our pevious apartment must by now have a living room wall like a collander, such was his enthusiasm with a drill.  And lo and behold, in our new apartment  the next door neighbour is having major renovations carried out, making so much noise that our stuffed toys have checked themselves into a hotel.  Sacks of rubble keep appearing by the lift and lengths of splintered, rotten timber get tossed on the landing.  The apartment buildings being huge, single structures noise carries along the walls and floors with ease, so if the noise from next door was bad enough you have all the other work going on in the building to contend with too.

I suppose all of this is a good sign, as it shows that lives are improving for some Russians and they can now afford to live in a much nicer home.  But for anyone trying to enjoy his turkey in peace last Monday, he’d have wished his neighbours spent their money in the casino.

Russia prepares for New Year

Yesterday was Christmas day across most of the world.  It wasn’t in Russia.  Russian Christmas follows the Orthodox calendar and falls on 7th January, and this is celebrated to a certain extent.  But the big event is New Year, and this is celebrated in the same way as it is in the West: by the entire population going out and getting completely hammered.

But whereas in the West the New Year party marks the end of the festive holidays and everyone returns to work with sore heads and utterly depressed on the 2nd January, in Russia the party is only just starting.  Or at least, it is officially.  The public holidays in Russia run from 1st to 8th January, but as of today getting any cooperation out of a public body or ministry is nigh on impossible.  Even in the private sector, productivity is falling rapidly as eyes focus not on their work but on the looming festivities.  And from what I hear, the New Year holidays in Russia are as much a matter or survival as they are of celebration.  For not only do the Russians continue their New Year celebrations well into the morning of the 1st, they often carry on until the 2nd and sometimes even the 3rd.  Then as the New Year parties fade into the background, other parties spring up for no other reason than everyone is off from work and they might as well get drunk.  Usually this involves the people who you were not able to spend New Year with, and then once this party is over, you meet up with the lot you spent New Year with and raise a glass or two to the occasion once again. 

The holidays might officially last only until 8th January, but the party spirit goes further.  Not ones to usually bother seeking an excuse to drink and party, Russians have seized on the concept of Old New Year, which falls on 14th January, as justification for extending the festivities for another week.  So the wisdom imparted by Russians is don’t expect anything to get done in the time between 28th December and 15th January, as the entire country will be completely drunk and in no mood to do anything which might resemble work.  Apparently, this includes such activities as filling up ATM machines with cash, meaning you have to hoard it all under your mattress before the revelling starts lest you find yourself short and – horror! – unable to buy more drink.

My wife and I have not planned anything for the holidays aside from committing to be at an all-you-can-eat-and-drink party in the local Indian restaurant (yeah, I know, but it was cheap and the food is great) for a few hours on New Year’s Eve.  I am bringing a warm coat and hat in the certaintly that everyone will stagger onto the street to watch fireworks and yell at each other in congratulation.  Other than that, nothing is planned, and as you’d probably expect from the Russians, nobody else seems to have planned anything either.  But rest assured there have been plenty of promises, which could sound like dark threats to the untrained ear, that “we will drink together” over the next week or two.  This could be my toughest Christmas yet.

The Welcome Death of Turkmenbashi

As I read about the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, president of Turkmenistan, I was reminded of this article in The Economist, written back in May, which warned of the danger of Niyazov’s sudden death:

There is, though, much speculation about the 66-year-old Turkmenbashi’s health. He has had heart surgery, and has a team of eight top-notch German doctors constantly on call. This raises other problems, most obviously the lack of a mechanism for an orderly transfer of power, coupled with the lack of any democratic tradition in a conservative, tribal society. Pessimistic Turkmen fear that a lost generation, uneducated beyond the Ruhnama, may fall prey to Islamic radicalism—and create a nasty failed state that could destabilise an already volatile region.

Fortunately, I think his death may have come too early for Islamic radicals to move in.  Had Niyazov been around for another decade, education in the country would have been almost eliminated in all meaningful sense.  As the same Economist article describes:

Every Monday at 8am, Turkmenistan’s schoolchildren line up to recite the oath of allegiance to the president, part of a youth-indoctrination programme that is progressively replacing the conventional curriculum. Its core is the two-volume Ruhnama, “The Book of the Spirit”, a homespun collection of thoughts on Turkmen history and culture that pupils are required to spend hours studying. Visits to bookstores reveal shelves lined with nothing but the president’s works. Meanwhile, mandatory education has been reduced from ten years to nine and most rural kindergartens have closed, as have all libraries outside the capital. Russian-language teaching has been largely phased out, music and ballet schools closed and almost all teachers of ethnic-minority origins sacked under rigorously enforced “Turkmenisation” policies that demand racial purity, traceable back three generations, for all workers in state institutions, including hospitals.

Higher education is severely run down. The annual intake is now under 3,000, a tenth of the pre-independence figure, courses have been cut to two years and standards are so poor they are unacceptable abroad. Worse, the president has ordered that no foreign degrees will henceforth be recognised. Anyone with a qualification gained abroad is either being sacked or refused a job. One economist says that all but two of her high-school class of 30 have emigrated because they see no future at home. “You have students returning with degrees from the world’s best universities—MBAs from Stanford, for instance—who can’t get jobs,” she says. “We are the last educated generation,” sighs another professor.

Had this been allowed to continue, or indeed if it does continue, then the country will likely join the likes of Somalia and Afghanistan as fertile grounds in which to establish Islamic fundamentalism.  But with a lot of luck, and in the hope that Russia and the US can cooperate to help get Turkmenistan back on its feet without squabbling to the point where things are left to get worse, the situation should improve.  In this respect, and indeed in any other, Niyazov’s death is welcome and could not have come too soon. 

Following on from this, in the coverage of his death I am unimpressed with the last line of this BBC article:

If Turkmenbashi’s death unleashes instability, the rest of the region, and indeed the world, may miss him too.

I hear this kind of nonsense a lot in the left leaning media, most recently in the form of “removing Saddam has destabilised the region”, but also “Russians were better off under the Soviet Union”.  What is so ignorant about statements of this kind is the failure to understand the inevitability of a painful recovery once a totalitarian system has been put in place.  I liken the situation to somebody suffering from heroin addiction, in that there is no easy method of weaning them off the stuff which will not make them for a period suffer a whole lot more than when they were using.  Yet unless action is taken, the end result is death and an almighty mess all round.

Nobody in their right mind other than those directly affected should mourn the passing of Niyazov or any other dictator.  Any “stability” they may have brought was always at the expense of others, and will always result in a period of uncertainty and instability afterwards, and that time will at some point inevitably come to pass.  Thinking that the best interests of the region, or indeed the world, are served by Niyazov continuing to run a totalitarian state in which political dissent was forbidden and proper education all but erased is akin to thinking a heroin addict’s best interests are served by sparing him the pains of withdrawal. 

Russian lifts and the idiots who wreck them

So, we’ve moved into our new apartment in the centre of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and all we are waiting for now is for the landlady to install a new wardrobe to replace the five pieces of chipboard hastily banged together in China and poorly veneered in tasteless dark brown plastic which she tried to hoodwink us into accepting as fit to do the same job.  Plus I need to get my ADSL connection sorted out sharpish, but other than that we are pretty much there.

Our apartment is on the eight floor of a nine storey block, which means we have the luxury of a lift.  Unfortunately, the lift is tiny and jerks its way between the floors with a noise which sounds as though somebody has replaced the ball bearings with gravel for a laugh.  More unfortunately, the lift stops working after 10pm, which is pretty much standard in Russian apartment blocks, presumably because the bloke you call when you find yourself stuck between the floors knocks off around that time.  However, of the three occasions I have thus far had to clamber up the stairs, on two of them I was completely plastered and hence didn’t really notice the effort involved. 

And most unfortunately of all, the lift – as with the lower sections of the communal stairwell – stinks to high heaven.  I think somebody died in the lift a few months back and spent the time since decomposing gently until somebody hauled him out.  But there is room to be grateful, and that is for the fact that unlike many Russian lifts in apartment blocks, only a few of the buttons have been melted beyond recognition and even these are perfectly useable.  Many a lift have I got in to find all the buttons melted so you have no idea which one to press and half of them out of action altogether.  One I remember in Moscow was so badly damaged you had to stick your fingers in the charred holes and poke around amongst the contacts.

For there is a rather odd hobby amongst degenerate Russian youths which is melting stuff in lifts.  Now I can understand that the exuberance of youth exacerbated by a bottle or five of vodka may lead a gang of said reprobates to torch a car, a rubbish bin, or even a warehouse.  But I cannot for the life of me understand why the hell anyone would melt the controls of a lift when they are still inside the damned thing.  Reports abound that the life expectancy of a Russian male is depressingly low, and the figures are usually attributed to the harsh climate, abundance of vodka, and the unwavering demands of their wives (okay, I made the last one up).  But to my knowledge nobody has yet to consider the utter stupidity of some of their number in perhaps bringing this statistic to a level several notches lower than it otherwise needs to be.  Maybe one day someone will.

Gornii Vozdukh at night

Over the weekend we moved apartment to one which is larger, closer to the centre of the town, and offers a superb view of Gornii Vozdukh, the mountain situated behind Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk which I wrote about here.  Last night the authorities lit up the ski run for the first time this year and thus gave me an excuse to engage in a little night photography from our living room window.  For anyone who wonders why I forswear the superb little compact cameras currently available in favour of something which resembles what Hamas carries around the Gaza Strip, the answer is it enables me to take photographs like the one below, which is simply impossible with a compact.  Click on the picture for a bigger version.

Gornii Vozdukh, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

A Benefit of Blogging

Quite apart from the fact that I owe my marriage to my blogging activities (Nathan emailed me with details of an Uzbek girl in Dubai, who later introduced me to the girl who became my wife), I like how my writing stuff on the internet occasionally brings about situations in the real world.

A few months back, an Australian chap called Mike recently got a job in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and started browsing the internet for some information.  There is in fact very little decent information for expats which would prepare them for making such a move, and having come across this blog, Mike sent me an email asking a few questions (such as is it too cold for my crocodile?).

Despite Mike being an Aussie and this being an Ashes season (a subject I will never mention again), I replied with a few answers (one of them being a recommendation to buy a pair of the excellent Sorel boots).  Mike wrote back and asked a few more questions, and over the next few weeks we started a correspondence, which included at least one indecipherable email which was bashed out by Mike after consuming perhaps a few too many. 

Anyway, Mike showed up in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk a couple of weeks ago and we decided to get together for a drink.  This we did, and Mike showed himself to be a damned good bloke, and was very restrained in his laughing talking about the cricket.  Then last Saturday we met up again along with a couple of his mates and after God only knows how many vodkas I think I left him at about 4:30am somewhere in the murky depths of a dancefloor.  Much fun was had by all, and I could see the already full social calendar regularly featuring some Australians.

Sure enough, yesterday evening we met up again for a beer and pizza, and my wife came along as well.  We stayed for a couple of hours but were all pretty tired, so at 10pm we headed for home.  Problem was, as we were getting our coats two of my Russian mates walked in and I felt compelled to join them for a drink, as did Mike and my wife.  So back we went into the bar and carried on for another two hours.  But what was really funny is that Mike already knew a bit about these two, they having been willing participants in both the crab-buying expedition and the snow barbecue, and Mike having read both stories beforehand.  And thanks to my writings on this blog, Mike was also able to join in our laughing at the tales of the Ossetian (through whom I met both these fellows, one of them being his cousin).

It’s good fun this blogging lark, and I’m getting quite a few people asking me questions about Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk prior to coming here.  I’m sure that Mike won’t be the last I person meet I meet in this small island town on the right-hand edge of the world who knew me on my blog beforehand.

(Incidentally, by pure coincidence, a day or two after Mike’s arrival he took a picture from his office window of some idiot making a solitary climb up the ski-slope behind the town, which just so happened to be me!)