Of Murders Past and Present

With there having recently been the high-profile assasinations of Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and Andrei Kozlov and the mysterious death of Ivan Safronov who fell from a window, more than a few people are worried about whether Russia will return to the bad old days of the past when murder seemed almost commonplace.  Whilst certainly a serious concern, in discussing these recent deaths it would be sensible to remember just how bad the situation was in Russia just seven years ago.

A list of high-profile personnel murdered in the first part of 2000 alone reads as follows:

January 10, 2000: Ilya Vaysman, 36, director of the St. Petersburg Baltika brewing company, was shot in the head and heart from a fifth-floor ledge a few feet from the kitchen window of his apartment. Suspected motive: a dispute over the disposition of expected investments. (Baltika’s general director of marketing, Aslanbek Chochiyev, was shot to death as he was getting out of his Mercedes on July 1, 1999.)

February 2, 2000: Valeriy Potapov, 36, the general director of the Baltisykaya Zarya timber company, was shot twice in the back of the neck near his house. Suspected motive: Property dispute.

March 11, 2000: Dimitri Varvarin, 40, general director of the Russian-American Orimi company, was shot in the back of the neck at point-blank range as he left his car. Orimi was created in 1990 with the American firms NSTE and International Forest Technology, and controls recently “privatized” businesses in timber, furniture, and fuels, and is one of the biggest sellers of tea in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Varvarin personally owned a large block of shares in shipbuilding and timber businesses in Russia, and had taken part in the “privatization” of dozens of enterprises in St. Petersburg, Leningrad Oblast, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Suspected motive: a real estate battle.

March 22, 2000: Sergei Krizhan, 44, general director of the Russian Construction and Trading Group joint-stock company, was shot to death while driving in his Jeep, along with his son, 20, an economics and finance student at St. Petersburg University. Krizhan owned and founded about 10 St. Petersburg firms specializing in export and import activity, consumer goods trade and production, repair and construction work, and realty operations. Three of the firms were directly related to Orimi.

April 4, 2000: Gennady Ivanov, 45, director of the Kvarton firm, was killed on his way to work by a round of automatic weapon fire aimed at his Volvo. Eyewitnesses saw the killer slip into the archway of an apartment block where a car was waiting for him. Kvarton, with 4,000 employees, was created in St. Petersburg in 1994 and sells sewing threads, furniture fabric, and hosiery. It holds large blocks of shares in textile enterprises in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Pskov.

April 10, 2000: Igor Bamburin, 47, head of Shatl and founder and cofounder of several equipment and automobile firms, was shot in the head four times as he arrived at the home of his daughter, a Technical University student. Despite reports that five or six people witnessed the shooting, no arrest was made. Bamburin was previously an officer of the Regional Administration for Combating Organized Crime.

April 26, 2000: Georgy Pozdnyakov, 44, co-owner of the “Hollywood Nights” nightclub, was shot three times in the head and chest at the St. Petersburg Railways University sports complex. Suspected motive: criminal conflict connected with the repartition of property. (Pozdnyakov belonged to the entourage of St. Petersburg oil magnate Pavel Kapysh, killed July 26, 1998 on Vasilyevskiy Island.)

May 22, 2000: Dimitri Ogorodnikov, 36, chief of the Samara Internal Affairs Administration Department for Combating Organized Crime, was shot in the head five times in his automobile in the center of the city of Tolyatti. He was a 10-year veteran of the Special Rapid Reaction Detachment of the Regional Administration for Combating Organized Crime.

June 14, 2000: Alexander Sinayev, 47, the owner of the Leneksbank commercial bank, was found shot twice in an Audi in Krasnodar in what the Territory’s Public Prosecutor’s Office called a contract killing. “Leneksbank was one of the first bankrupts in the Kuban,” TASS reported, “but Sinayev was able to pay back the deposits of over 15,000 depositors. He promised to settle up with all deceived depositors.”

June 16, 2000: Alexei Kachkov, 40, who owned several flower shops on Leninskiy Prospect in Moscow, was shot six times at point-blank range in northeastern Moscow.

July 10, 2000: Oleg Belonenko, 51, managing director of the huge Uralmash machine tool company, was shot twice in the head, days before he was to meet with President Putin, an example of how contract killings have reached high up into the business world. Belonenko’s driver was also killed.

July 26, 2000: Sergei Novikov, 37, head of the only independent radio station in the Smolensk region, was shot dead outside his apartment block, 300 miles outside of Moscow, reportedly the 120th journalist killed in Russia since December 1991.

July 31, 2000: Sergei Isayev, 49, the rector of the Russian Academy of Theatrical Art, was murdered in a contract killing in the settlement of Valentinovka, near the town of Korolev. “Never before in Russia have contract killings of leaders of cultural establishments and higher educational establishments taken place,” said Russian Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoy in an Itar-TASS interview following the murder.


None of the above listed murders was solved. 

A crucial difference between the recent murders and those of 2000 were that the latter were almost all business related, whereas the recent cases appear to be purely political.  This is of serious concern, and one thing is for sure: Russia was a rough place before, and it’s a rough place now.  And don’t hold out much hope for an eventual prosecution.

The Thaw Begins

Despite us still getting some fluffy snow falling in the evenings, the spingtime thaw is rapidly taking hold in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  The mountains of snow which lined the streets are slowly receding, and in many places the tarmac surface of a road or pavement can be seen for the first time in months.

Like the winter, the thaw period is a time which most Russians want to be over quickly.  Bereft of any kind of drainage system, the melting snow first forms a brown slush which lies ankle-deep on every pavement, and later turns to lakes of dirty water which straddle entire roads and covers a car in filth within minutes.  Drivers care little for pedestrians and don’t make any efforts to avoid soaking them with a puddle, meaning those on foot have to walk the pavements alongside the buildings, thus risking a large chunk of melting ice falling on their heads an killing them, as happened to an unfortunate man in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk a week or two back.

The roads, although not as slippery, get much worse once the snow and ice melts.  The snow serves to fill in the potholes and smooth the uneveness of the roads in the winter months, making the driving a lot less bumpy.  As of last week, enormous craters large enough to swallow a hippo have started to appear in the roadways, many filled with thick, brown mud, and you once again have to weave back and forth across the carriageways trying to find the smoothest route through.  In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, simply driving to work can result in you winning the Camel Trophy.

Thawing snow, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Few Sakhalin islanders outside of the ski-resort owners can be hoping this thaw gets drawn out by more snow.  Most of us are hoping the sun comes up and gets rid of the brown filth in record time, leaving the city engulfed in clouds of dust and gigantic mutant mosquitos.

A Weekend at Okhotskoe

Last weekend my wife and I went with four other couples to spend the weekend in Okhotskoe, where there is a little place which rents a couple of chalets and has barbecue facilities along with a banya

The chalets were beside a frozen lake covered in snow, and beyond the lake were some woods, which we all went into to admire the beautiful scenery, savour the peace and tranquility, and be at one with mother nature…

…on snowmobiles!!

Snowmobile, Okhotskoe

These things are damned good fun!  We were able to rent them there for $50 an hour, big two seater things capable of 50mph which we drove through the forest in convoy for two and a half hours.  But the one I’m sitting on above belongs to a mate of mine, and is a much smaller, lighter, sports model capable of 100mph.  Beyond the lake beside which we were staying was a much larger lake, probably three or four miles across, and frozen perfectly flat: perfect for thrashing a snowmobile.  I managed to get it up to 70mph before my face started to freeze (it was seriously cold out there), whereas the machine’s owner, who had a fully enclosed helmet (as opposed to my woolly hat) got it up to 90mph.

They are bloody noisy things, two-stroke, high-pitched engines puffing out exhaust fumes everywhere, depleting the planet’s precious resources – all the things which would enrage the holier-than-thou environmental campaigners, which of course made riding them about all the more fun.

The view from the chalet was rather nice too.

Sunset, Okhotskoe

Andrew Meier’s Visit to Sakhalin

A couple of years ago I bought a book called Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After The Fall by Andrew Meier, and American journalist who spent 1996 to 2001 as Time magazine’s Moscow correspondent.  For one reason or another I never got round to reading it until now, and it appears I have been missing out on what is an excellent book.  But in one way I am glad I left it on the shelf so long, because one of the places Meier travels on his journey is Sakhalin Island, and obviously the chapter which he devotes to the place is a lot more meaningful to me now than a year ago. 

Meier opens the chapter with a quote, from an American who spent years on the island trying unsuccessfully to run its largest timber concern, which made me guffaw loudly.

I arrived on Sakhalin thinking Russia would be like Germany or Japan after the war.  But it turned out to be more like Germany or Japan during the war.

Yup.  That’s Sakhalin.

Russian Salaries

It is a well known fact that Russian salaries are very poor, with the average monthly wage in many Russian towns being little more than a few hundred dollars, which is often barely enough to live on.  In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the wages are much higher than the Russian average because of the presence of the oil companies and their dozens of suppliers and subcontractors, but the absolute salary paints a false picture because the cost of living in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is higher than any other city outside of Moscow, and many times higher than towns of similar size.

There are probably several good reasons as to why salaries in Russia are so low, but one of them revealed itself in all its splendour as I was preparing an annual budget this morning.

Under Russian law, employees are entitled to 28 days paid holiday a year.  In addition to this they also get 11 days paid public holiday per year, making a total of 39 days.  If the employee works in the Russian “Extreme North” region, which includes Sakhalin Island, they get an additional 16 days paid holiday per year, making a total of 55 days.

By Russian law, the working week is 5 days; 40 hours long for men and 36 hours for women.  55 days per year on a 5 day week equates to 11 weeks paid holiday per year, which is over a fifth of the working year.  Spread evenly over the entire year, an employee in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk could get away with a 4-day week with a man working 32 hours, and a woman putting in just under 29 hours to justify her salary.

Furthermore, overtime must be paid at a rate of x1.5 for the first two hours per day, and x2 for any hours worked over that.

It’s a small wonder that salaries in Russia – especially those of women – are shockingly bad.  Who is going to pay anyone a high salary for putting in an average of 30 hours per week?


Since I moved to Sakhalin 6 months ago, a fair number of people have contacted me after reading this blog to ask questions on what life is like here, what kind of accommodation is on offer, etc., usually with a view to take a job here or even having already signed up to come.

Considering the number of expats here and the size of the oil and gas projects both present and future, it always surprised me how little information is available to anyone coming here, or indeed for anyone who is already here.  Whereas most oil towns have a multitude of websites where people can read about the place, Sakhalin doesn’t really have any, and my blog seemed to be providing information that people obviously couldn’t get elsewhere.

So I’ve taken it upon myself to set up a web forum which can bring Sakhalin’s expats together with the aim of generating an online community here, and also to provide a place where people can come and have their questions answered before they get to the island and find some support once they arrive.

So, to all my Sakhalin-based readers, please head on over to SakhalinExpats.com, register, and start talking!  Registration is quick, easy, and free. No LOI is required, nor a hefty fee for a shady “facilitator”, and you do not need to renew your registration every six months by taking an expensive three-day trip to Seoul.