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.