As we traveled by car in the small Sakhalin town, we passed a group of children playing hockey in front of a Soviet-era residential building. There were seven boys and one girl. She said her name was Yana and that she was 11 years old. She was too shy to say much more.
He was helping load the back of a truck with vegetables from a store. He said his name was Dima, perhaps a Russified version of his real name, and that he was 24 years-old. He said he came from Kyrgyzstan and would probably be on Sakhalin another year. His two colleagues were also migrants. Dima was one of many Kyrgyz that I met during my short stay on Sakhalin. Most seem to be active in the construction industry as Sakhalin revamps many of the Soviet-era grey housing.
She was walking down a narrow street covered in snow, pushing a baby carriage as she passed the colorful wooden homes. She said he had given birth 11 days ago to her third child. Her other two are twin girls. She said her children are fourth generation Sakhalin residents. When asked if she would like her children to leave Sakhalin for mainland Russia, she said ''they will decide where to live,'' adding that Sakhalin ''is in any case better than the mainland. Everyone comes here to work.'' Sakhalin offers parents with three children one of the most generous housing packages in Russia in order to encourage people to have children and stay on the Island.
Vasya, 31, a Sakhalin native, said he started fishing to earn money at age 13 while still a school boy. He would do it in his free time, especially during the summer breaks. Vasya said that he ''loved having money in my pocket'' from fishing outings. Thus, he didn't bother pursing a higher education, either at a technical school or a university. He now says he regrets that decision. Job opportunities without a dipolma are limited. ''I would love to get a diploma, but I don't have time.'' He works mainly as a driver and fisherman, but would love to be a mechanic, even though it may not be an admired position. ''I like to work with metal, but people don't consider such jobs to be prestigious. Everyone wants to be a lawyer or an economist and work in an office. That is not for me.'' I asked him what he will be doing in five years. ''I definitely won't be fishing,'' he said. ''It takes a toll on your life. You don't notice that when you are young because all you care about is the money.'' Vasya said he is telling his younger brother to learn from his example and to ''study, study and study.''
Sakhalin: I was invited by Dmitry, a 45 year-old Sakhalin fisherman for tea at his home. As we pulled up to his standard grey, Soviet-era building, I expected to see the usual, depressing entrance of such buildings.
However, the entrance and first floor walls were covered in various flower designs and a Mickey Mouse figure.
I asked Dmitry who drew the paintings. ”My granddaughter,” he answered. Was this some kind of government program to improve the building, I asked? ”No, she asked if she could pain it and I said sure as long as you don’t paint any bad words,” Dmitry answered….
Sakhalin: Minato was walking down the street in Poronaysk town, when my guide recognized her as one of the native peoples of Sakhalin Island. Minato said she was an ethnic Oroki, one of nearly 400 in Russia. Minato said she teaches her native language, making her probably one of a handful of Oroki teachers in Russia. A mother of two, Minato said she would never have been born were it not for her 'strong and courageous' grandmother and then told us the following story. A plague hit Sakhalin and ''whole villages were dying.'' Her grandfather told his wife to take the children and flee immediately, telling her ''not to take anything from the house'' in case the items were contaminated with the disease. Her grandmother, whom she said was nearly two meters tall, ''walked and walked through the Taiga'' with her three children, saving them. Her grandmother never again saw here husband, who died from the plague.
Sakhalin's high salaries attract people from around Russia and the former Soviet Union...including these Gypsies from Saratov on the Volga. This 22 year-old father said he arrived in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk just a few weeks ago. He already bought a car to help him and his wife get around town to sell blankets and clothing. He was watching after their one year-old in the car as his wife went into a store.
Sakhalin: Alexandra was walking down a road that lead from the sea as the sun shone bright and the snow stood tall in this small town in southern Sakhalin. I asked if it were difficult to raise children in this climate - with snow so high for so long. Alexandra, who has two daughters, said she grew up in the north of the island where temperatures get down to -40c and where the snow is even greater, so southern Sakhalin was relatively warm. Alexandra said she had no intention to leave the island for mainland Russia as she enjoys the nature and thinks the local people are kinder. As for her children, "I won't insist that they stay," she said. "It will be there decision." Alexandra said she hopes to have another child. "My husband wants another daughter, but I would like a son for a change.''
He was riding a bicycle along the snowy and icy streets of Poronaisk, a town of about 15,000 on Sakhalin Island, with his fishing gear on his back. He was coming from the river, where hundreds of people were ice fishing. He said it was difficult to bike as the roads were icy. He described himself as a retired electrician that has been fishing his whole life. ''Fishing is in our blood,'' he said.
Rita, 18, was helping her mom at a convenience store in a town near the Sakhalin coast that also served hot food and drinks, including borsch, pancakes and instant coffee. Located near the inter-city bus stop, it had a decent flow of customers. Alla was born in Vladivostok and moved to Sakhalin with her family were she was about six years old. Rita, who is finishing high school, wants to attend university in Vladivostok. ''I have relatives there, so I am not worried about her leaving home,'' said Alla, who has three children in total. Rita said she wants to leave Sakhalin as there are limited career opportunities on the island, a complaint many young people have. She said she would like to study interior design, but doesn't have good enough Russian language scores to get into that department, so she may chose public administration.