MOSCOW: Katya, 14, passed me in the metro. She was hard not to notice. She was wearing a multi-colored coat, black stockings with white stripes, black hightops, purple and yellow scarf, green hat and maroon dress. And she was carrying a single orange-colored flower given to her at school by the boys as part of the Woman's Day celebration. Katya had just finished school for the day but was on her way to additional German language classes. Her English was already at a high level. I asked her what she would like to be when she gets older, certain she would say something like 'artist, designer.' She said she wanted to be a surgical pathologist. "It is interesting to know how the human body works and about diseases. I want to help the world to cure deadly diseases. Surgical pathologists know everything about the human body and their diagnosis are always right."
Khabarovsk: Nastya, 19, who grew up in a small town near Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. Nastya's mom divorced shortly after she was born and had to sell cigarettes on the streets in late 90s to pay rent. Her mom, who studied accounting, later got hired to manage the books in a convenience store. In 2000, Nastya's mom took a big risk, borrowing money to buy the convenience store. Her mom's timing couldn't have been better. Russia's economic growth was about to skyrocket over the next decade. Her mom quickly paid back the loan and eventually opened a second store. When Nastya entered university, her mom agreed to give her spending money only in her first year. "It was her principle," Nastya said. "She said she wanted me to be responsible and independent. She said I will thank her in 5-6 years." After a stint working in a cafe, Nastya is now trying to earn money after classes by doing manicures.
Khabarovsk: They said the were on their way to the Amur riverside "to get some fresh air." While it was rather warm for Khabarovsk, not sure it was really time to be wearing sneakers...
Khabarovsk: While many people do seek to leave Khabarovsk, there are those that move here as well. Sisters Eliana (left) and Diana were leaving the Chinese market in Khabarovsk when I met them. Diana, 23, said there parents were born in the Caucasus, met in Khabarovsk, but moved back home after they got married. Diana was born there. But their parents returned some 15 years ago to seek better opportunities. Eliana was later born in Khabarovsk. Diana, who recently finished her degree, said she plans to stay in Khabarovsk and has already started a family of her own. "I really like Khabarovsk - it's a big and beautiful city," said the mother of two. ''As for a job, she is confident she will find one post her studies. "Of course you need to search hard for a good job, but I will find one. I am a very driven person."
Alina, 16, was walking with her friend Vanya in the center of Sakhalin. Alina said she enjoys playing basketball and listening to rock music. Her favorite groups include Slipknot, Panic! At the Disco and Bring Me the Horizon. Alina joked though that it feels like her and her friends ''spend 24 hours a day on the Internet - social media, youtube, news sites.'' I asked if her opinion of the west had changed amid the political disputes. ''I really don't follow politics. It is a war between governments, not people, so my opinion hasn't changed.'' She said she might study energy at university as it is an important part of the Sakhalin economy. I asked her if she and her friends consider leaving Sakhalin for mainland Russia. ''Compared to 3 or 4 years ago, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk has become a lot better. There are lots of new buildings and restaurants. But it is still small - one and the same faces - so people try to leave.'' Vanya said he would like to become an archeologist, a childhood dream inspired by such films as Jurassic Park.
Khabarovsk: Vlad was wearing a Kangol 'bucket' hat, bright sneakers and jeans as he talked with a classmate on the chilly streets of Khabarovsk. Vlad, 19 and a 2nd year university student, said he wants to pursue a career in marketing, which he says he is passionate about. When asked if they would like to stay in Khabarovsk, many students say they would like to move to western Russia, St. Petersburg in particular. Vlad said he would like to live and work in the nearby Asia-Pacific region as likes the culture and atmosphere. When I asked what changes he would like to see in Khabarovsk, he mentioned both tangible - more roads and a metro - and intangible - attitude. "I'd like to see more polite and positive people on the streets. That is the main thing for every place and Khabarovsk too."
Daniil was walking back from school in the center of Khabarovsk with a winter hat that read 'DOPE.' I wondered if he knew what the word meant. As I stopped to talk to him, he said ''We can speak English if you like'' in quite a good accent. I asked where he learned his English. He said his parents sent him and his older brother to study in Los Angeles. His brother ended up living there two years before returning home. Daniil said he only spent a few months there and was ''surprised by the size of LA. You need two hours to get from one end to the other. It takes less than 30 minutes to get from one end of Khabarovsk to the other.'' I asked him what he would like to see in Khabarovsk. ''Big modern buildings, more parks and places to bicycle,'' he answered. Daniil keeps up his English by watching US movies and TV serials on his Apple laptop at home. ''I don't like Russian serials. They are made for old people.'' Daniil said he would like to make films or videos some day and prefers detective genre.
While in Khabarovsk, I poppoed into a new 'hipster' bar called Beer Beard and met some of the interesting patrons. Elizaveta, 18, was with her friend Zoya at the bar. She lives in a village of about 600 people some 30km from Khabarovsk. She studies at two universities in Khabarovsk and gets up between 5am and 6am to prepare for classes. She said she has been working since 11 - after her father passed away - to help her mom, a village school teacher. Her mom saved up and sent Elizaveta to the Black Sea in the south of Russia last summer for her 18th birthday - the first time Elizaveta flew on a plane and saw the sea. "I cried from happiness - like a child," she said of the experience. Elizaveta - like many other young people I met in the Far East - would like to move to St. Petersburg. "It is an amazing city...romantic..each street full of history."
This 21 year-old mother (left) was pushing a child in a sleigh along the icy streets of Poronaysk on her way to the park with her friend. Many parents on Sakhalin were using such sleighs to get around town with their young children. Sakhalin has a very attractive financial package for young families with more than one child. Sakhalin residents, it seems, tend to start their families in their early 20s.
Sakhalin: Masha, 31, is a native Sakhalin resident and works as a translator. In her free time, she photographs her Island. I asked her about what changes she has seen on Sakhalin, an oil and gas region, over the years. "15-20 years ago there was nothing here. One Chinese market, a few stores. There was no choice. Now you can find anything. About 6-7 years ago, good cafes, restaurants and hotels started to open." The city has become less grey, she said, something one can see from the housing refurbishment program. But, the cityscape isn’t the only thing that is changing. She has noticed behavioral changes that are also present in Moscow. ‘’If five years ago it was popular to stand on the street and smoke, many people now try to lead a healthy life.’’