MOSCOW: Raised in a village on Sakhalin Island, Artem said he moved to Moscow in the early 1990s with this family after the collapse the Soviet Union. Following the 1998 default, he borrowed a $1,000 to buy a used computer, printer and scanner and started to make books and pamphlets. It wasn't initially easy as he had to learn the technology. But nearly 20 years later, his business is still in operation with about 40 people employed and printing books for major publishers. However, his passion is dancing. He started taking locking dance classes at the age of 33 after having downloaded videos that cost him $600 in Internet charges. Despite feeling like 'a tree' at his first few classes, Artem stuck with locking dance. Today, he teaches others and attends dance battles, juggling his passion with the responsibilities of being a business owner and father. Artem recently opened a cafe that is run by his wife, a former Starbucks barista. Artem said he wishes he could move back to Sakhalin as he prefers nature to city life. In the meantime, he is building a home outside Moscow near a forest and river.
St. Petersburg: Andrei, 18, and Katya, 20, had just finished taking their final exams at a St. Petersburg music university and were headed for a walk. Katya said she grew up on Sakhalin and moved to St. Petersburg to study. She now lives with Andrei. ''We hit it off pretty quickly,'' Andrei joked. Andrei is studying singing, while Katya is studying to be a conductor. Andrei said he has been playing the bayan, or Russian accordion, since age 9. He said his parents didn't encourage him to study it. Rather, he saw a friend playing it and decided for himself to sign up for classes.
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.
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.’’
Stanislav, a high-school student, was walking along the streets of Poronaysk early one February evening, sporting a Yankees winter hat and yellow sneakers. He said he wanted to leave Sakhalin for the Russian mainland as ''there aren't a lot of career opportunities'' in Sakhalin. Stanislav, who likes to play soccer, said he would like to become a policeman. ''They rid the world of crime,'' he said, explaining his career choice. ''I want to be on the side of the law.''
Dmitry said he moved to Sakhalin with his mom as a young boy from Siberia after his father drowned. He went to work for a pulp and paper factory after schooling, but that company went out of business during the Russian economic turmoil of the 1990s. He then joined the Russian military in 1993, serving three years. The military food rations were large at the time and ”lasted a year,” Dmitry said. ”Unlike many others, we lived fine during the 1990s.”
Masha grew up in a village with three residential buildings and 50 people, including her parents and three siblings. Like most tiny villages, there was no plumming, which made a lot of basic chores more difficult. Masha got a scholarship at a university on the Russian mainland, has received another two higher degrees and is working on getting her fourth. She works for one of the largest companies in the world and plans to adopt a child.
She owns a clothing shop at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk’s outdoor market in the center of town. A native Sakhalin resident of Korean ethnicity, the 60-year old was dressed colorfully on this slow day. She said her clothing sales have suffered because Chinese goods have become more expensive in ruble terms. She said she travels every six weeks to China to buy clothing….
Sakhalin: Kristina, a highschool student, was standing near the Lenin statue in the center of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on a recent Russian holiday offering people to ride a horse for a fee. She said she has been riding horses since age 9 and can race 80km/hour and do jumps. Kristina said she rides with her dad on the weekend for two hours. I asked if he taught her to ride. "I taught him," she said. "I said dad, why don't I teach you. He said 'why'? I told him so that we could ride together." She said it took two months to teach him to ride confidently. Kristina said she would like to become a veterinarian.