Apartment Hunting, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 2006

A woman with short black hair and a fur coat waited outside the entrance to the building, holding a clipboard. She turned out to be the agent showing us the apartment and after greeting us she punched in a code on a keypad and heaved open a heavy, half-inch thick steel door with a handle made of bent rebar welded to the outside. Leaving Igor with the car, Marina and I followed her inside and up a short flight of concrete steps lit by a weak bare bulb hanging from a wire that jutted out of a bird’s nest of electrical cabling. The place smelled of garbage and urine. We went into a small foyer and the agent pressed a button and a lift clunked into life, then scraped its way down to meet us. It arrived with a bang and the doors slammed open. We squeezed in. The agent peered at the buttons, muttering to herself. Most of them had been melted with a cigarette lighter, reducing them to charred lumps of twisted plastic with the numbers erased. A helpful citizen had taken a marker pen and written the number alongside what remained of each button, but my head blocked the ceiling light, casting everything in gloom. Eventually she hit the number six and the lift jolted, and began to rattle its way upwards. Nobody spoke, and I studied the melted buttons and the hole where the grille for the emergency intercom had been ripped out and stuffed with what looked like newspaper and chewing gum. There were thick black soot marks six inches long above it, and I wondered who would be stupid enough to start a fire in a lift they were travelling in.

We bounced to a halt and spilled out onto a concrete landing in front of another steel door. This one looked as though it came off a warship, and hadn’t been painted since its service on the high seas. The agent rang a buzzer, and after a period of silence shuffling noises came from behind the door. Somebody fiddled with locks for what seemed like an age, and eventually it opened a little and the face of an elderly Asian woman peered out.

“Mrs Kim?” said the agent. “We’re here to see the apartment.”

“To see the apartment? I don’t understand,” the old woman said.

The agent checked the apartment number on the paper attached to the clipboard. “This is number forty-two? Mrs Kim?”

“Yes, but -”

“We’re here to see the apartment. It’s for Mr Merrion, he’s from England.” The agent pointed at me. I waved as if she’d not spotted me yet.

A man appeared behind Mrs Kim, a Korean in his forties wearing a shiny black Adidas tracksuit. “Mama! Mama, it’s okay, let them in!” he said, taking his mother’s place at the door as she shuffled back into the apartment, a confused look on her face. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Come in! I’m Boris.” Once I was safely over the threshold he shook my hand, flashing a row of gold teeth as he grinned at me. The agent, Marina, and I elbowed each other as we removed our shoes then, in our socks, followed Boris down a short, dark corridor into a living room.

The largest wall was covered floor to ceiling with wallpaper printed with a photo of a birch forest in autumn, viewed as if you were stood among the trees. A grey couch sat against it with a pink blanket thrown over the back, and in the centre of the room was a small table six-inches high with an Asian tea set on top. A flat-screen Samsung television hung on the opposite wall, looking like alien technology beside a dark brown dresser filled with glassware of the sort that’s won in raffles at British church fetes. The room was hot and stuffy with a strong smell of foreign cooking along with something else I couldn’t place. Set in the far wall was a double window and a door leading onto the balcony, which was enclosed in double glazing. I crossed the room to look outside and jumped when a giant black face popped up to greet me from the other side of the glass.

“What the hell is that?” I said, more to myself than anyone else. The dog was the size of a small horse and hairy as a bear, and took up the entire balcony. Mrs Kim appeared through a door and told me not to worry, rushing to the defence of her pet who now had its paws on the glass and a red, wet tongue the size of a sock lolling from its jaws. Boris opened the door and went onto the balcony, waving at me to join him.

“It’s okay, he’s friendly,” he said, ignoring the possibility I might not understand Russian. I stepped onto a freezing tiled floor, tufts of dog hair sticking to my socks which I was still finding in my boots a month later. The dog nudged my leg with its nose, nearly pushing me over. I wondered how much meat it ate, and at what cost. The view from the balcony was onto a range of heavily forested mountains, closer than those I saw from the plane. The low sun caught the folds of the terrain making a jumbled patchwork of shade, the dark greens and browns broken up by gleaming patches of snow. Behind in the distance were higher peaks, their summits bare and frozen white. The cold, dry air sharpened the view and made everything appear closer, as if I were looking through a telescope.

“Nice, yes?” said Boris, raising a thumb and grinning.

I grinned back. “Yes.” Nice was wholly inadequate to describe a view like that.

We left the balcony and Boris showed us into the bedroom, where a low double bed with no headboard and a suspicious sag in the middle competed for meagre space with a set of drawers and a wardrobe that looked ready to topple over. I gently pulled open one of the doors, enough to see it was full of woman’s clothes, blankets, and junk. Mrs Kim, who had been hovering inside the bedroom door looking increasingly anxious, pulled her son aside and spoke to him in a low, hurried voice. “Is he moving in here? Where will I go?”

“Mama, don’t worry, we’ll find you somewhere.”

“Where?”

“Mama,” said Boris, getting irritated. “I said we’ll find you somewhere!”

I’d seen enough. “Boris, what happens to the dog if I move in here?” I asked in English.

He looked at me, confused, then at Marina and the agent. I waited while Marina translated.

Boris smiled, his gold teeth flashing. “He can stay here with you!”

I laughed at that.

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Bridges to Sakhalin Island

This story has popped up every year or two since I can remember:

An epic 8,400 mile railway route will link London to Tokyo in an ambitious project proposed by the Russian government.

Vladimir Putin’s officials are currently in serious talks with Japan about constructing a 28-mile bridge to enable trains to cross the sea.

Serious talks? I’d love to get hold of the Russian version this is based on.

The blueprint for the project, once mooted by Stalin

Projects which have been mooted for seventy years rarely come to fruition. The glaring exception was the Channel Tunnel, on which early efforts were made in the 19th century.

You can guess why I’m interested in this, can’t you?

Russian’s vice premier Igor Shuvalov said: ‘We are seriously offering our Japanese partners to consider the construction of a mixed road and railway passage from Hokkaido to southern part of Sakhalin.’

Sakhalin is Russia’s largest island – and it would take a 28-mile bridge or tunnel to link to Hokkaido in northern Japan, which is connected to the country’s super-efficient rail network.

Shivalov said: ‘We are close to starting our part of the job.’

Hmmm. Technically it’s probably feasible, although that straight line from Sakhalin to the mainland looks as though it was done by an intern at the Daily Mail. Why you’d build a bridge at an angle like that I don’t know, starting from some random spot along the coast of south-west Sakhalin. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever in that area other than a few decrepit and largely abandoned towns that were once fishing collectives. I know this because I’ve been there and took some photos, so you can see for yourselves. It would be far more sensible to take the line up to the midpoint where the mainland is closer and put the bridge there; I suspect the word “proposed” in that part of the drawing is somewhat misleading.

But even if this is technically possible, as an economic prospect it’s laughable. If the Japanese want to get to Europe they can fly and, with their being short, leg-room isn’t a concern even on long-haul flights. Why on earth would they choose to go by train which would take anywhere between one and two weeks? Okay, there is a certain romanticism still attached to the Trans-Siberian railway and die-hard travellers still take it and enjoy it. I never did it, but I have spent 3 days and 2 nights on a train between Moscow and some snowfield near Nizhnekamsk in Tatarstan and let me tell you, the novelty is gone an hour or so into the second day. The biggest problem by far is that Russia, when viewed from the train, is mind-numbingly boring for 90% of any given journey. I’ve done a fair few trips on Russian and Ukrainian trains and mostly I remember vast snowfields the size of France and as flat as a billiard-table stretching out of sight in all directions. And for some confounded reason they line the damned tracks with birch trees so you couldn’t see anything anyway. On Sakhalin we had mountains to look at (through gaps in the brown sludge that adheres to the windows) and it was nice enough for a few minutes, but hardly something you’d pay very much to do. As the Daily Mail says with a certain tongue in cheek:

Passengers would be able to marvel at the snow-capped mountains in Siberia before discovering the stark and deserted countryside of Russia for bulk of the trip.

Uh-huh. Of all the people I knew in Russia, just one did the Trans-Siberian from Khabarovsk to Moscow: a Dutch girl who was mad as a hatter and would later go on to build schools in Zimbabwe using her hands. She loved this sort of stuff, but I doubt many others would.

As a freight route it would be equally useless. The population of Sakhalin is around 200-250k people; the biggest population centre is Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk with 174,203 people according to Wikipedia. This hardly represents an enormous, untapped consumer market just waiting to be opened up. Some Russians might appreciated being able to nip to Japan for the weekend by train, but it’s hard to see why any Japanese would go the other way except for a few who like to shoot bears and the fewer still who like to get yelled at by staff in restaurants. What about the connection to the mainland? Well, back in the construction boom I was sending men and materials from Sakhalin to De Kastri and they’d take the overnight ferry from Kholmsk to some absolute shithole of a port on the mainland whose name I forget. The ferry was some stinking thing from the Soviet era and most people opted to sleep in their vehicles. Anyone not lugging scaffolding around took the plane. In short, nobody is very much interested in going between Sakhalin and the eastern mainland unless by plane, and even then it’s not many. With sea freight costs being what they are, the idea of taking goods halfway around the world by train, or sending them from one wasteland to another, doesn’t make much economic sense.

A bridge between the Russian mainland and Sakhalin has been costed at around £4 billion, while a link to Japan is likely to be more expensive.

The scheme was unveiled at Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum hosted in Vladivostok by Putin.

I bet Putin wasn’t around when this scheme was unveiled. This is a PR stunt for some company or technical college, nothing more. Well done to the Daily Mail for covering it, though.

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Shock as World Learns Rex Tillerson is an Oil Company Executive!

This is amusing:

Leak reveals Rex Tillerson was director of Bahamas-based US-Russian oil firm

screams The Guardian.

Rex Tillerson, the businessman nominated by Donald Trump to be the next US secretary of state, was the long-time director of a US-Russian oil firm based in the tax haven of the Bahamas, leaked documents show.

Tillerson – the chief executive of ExxonMobil – became a director of the oil company’s Russian subsidiary, Exxon Neftegas, in 1998. His name – RW Tillerson – appears next to other officers who are based at Houston, Texas; Moscow; and Sakhalin, in Russia’s far east.

I’m not sure what the issue is here.  Presumably the dolts at The Guardian had never heard of ExxonNeftegas, unlike pretty much everyone else in the oil industry who pays attention, and thinks it is some sort of shady shell-company set up to launder Putin’s personal cash float, or something.  The reality is a lot less interesting: ExxonNeftegas is merely the consortium set up to operate the Sakhalin I project, as its website tells us:

Sakhalin-1 is comprised of Russian, Japanese, Indian and American participants and is operated by Exxon Neftegas Limited, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil — the world’s largest non-governmental oil and gas company.

Anyone who has spent time in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk would have seen the ExxonNeftegas building on the corner of Prospekts Mira and Kommunistichesky, and they would have encountered lots of young Russians employed by the firm each of whom had a business card with the company name and Sakhalin-1 logo printed on it.  (They may also have encountered a Canadian with more air miles under her belt than Voyager 2.  Let’s see if she’s reading this.)  Secretive it is not.

Maybe The Guardian takes issue with the fact that the information regarding Tillerson’s directorship of ExxonNeftegas had to be leaked for them to find out.  And they would have a point, were ExxonMobil not silly enough to include such top-secret information on their corporate website:

But as The Guardian tells us:

Though there is nothing untoward about this directorship, it has not been reported before and is likely to raise fresh questions over Tillerson’s relationship with Russia ahead of a potentially stormy confirmation hearing by the US senate foreign relations committee.

There is nothing untoward about this directorship, but as Guardian journalists didn’t know about it then it’s a scandal worthy of a newspaper column.

ExxonMobil’s use of offshore regimes – while legal – may also jar with Trump’s avowal to put “America first”.

Fair point, but it might be a bit of a stretch to complain that ExxonMobil isn’t insisting its Russian operations are headquartered in the United States.  The company’s registration in the Bahamas is probably new information to most: I knew about it because I have signed contracts with ExxonNeftegas Limited and their corporate address is stated in them (along with a stipulation that any arbitration will be heard in the courts of New York).  The incorporation in the Bahamas may seem odd, but it is not unusual.

ExxonNeftegas’ counterpart in that corner of Russia is Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (SEIC), which is the operator of the Sakhalin II project.  SEIC is registered in Bermuda, probably for much the same reasons ExxonNeftegas is incorporated in the Bahamas.  SEIC has been majority owned by Gazprom, the government-owned gas company, since 2007.  If there was anything untoward in these consortia being registered outside the Russian Federation on balmy island tax havens, the Russian government would likely have done something about SEIC by now given they have had control of the company for the past 9 years.  That they haven’t suggests there is nothing illegal or improper going on.  As The Guardian reports:

[ExxonMobil] said the oil firm had incorporated some of its affiliates in the Bahamas because of “simplicity and predictability”.

“It is not done to reduce tax in the country where the company operates,” Exxon said. “Incorporation of a company in the Bahamas does not decrease ExxonMobil’s tax liability in the country where the entity generates its income.”

Indeed.  Only among Guardian readers is this a story.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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