Crossing 2

Russell Scott Valentino

Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, is writing a series of posts from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway.

One of the first times I went back to Russia after the USSR was no more—it must have been about 1993 or 4—I stopped in at one of our old student haunts, the European Hotel, across from the Philharmonic Hall, and had to sit down to compose myself. The place had been transformed from an old Soviet dive, a place where we used to bluff our way past the doorman stammering to get us to show our hotel ID cards—supposedly the place was for guests only—and on to the shvetskii stol (the buffet, such as it was) on the second floor, where for seven rubles we could get a half-decent meal amid the dimly lit, dingy hall. The harp music and waterfall were a pretty good signal that this was no longer the same place. In fact, since the remodel (and new, international conglomerate ownership) it’s now one of the most chic, not to mention pricey, spots in St. Petersburg.

Having read about various Soviet-era hotels in the customer comments online, I was half-expecting to find something of the old fare at the Hotel Mira, where I stopped for a day in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, but it was just your typical Italian-owned modern high-rise hotel. Hm... It was fine, actually quite nice, though on the menu in the downstairs restaurant they had halibut, tilapia, and sea scallops, I ordered the trout filet, and got a salmon steak. Fine. But as I’d been looking for things that might be familiar all day (first recognition: the roads!), I was comforted to note that the potatoes were Soviet, no mistaking them. Irregular shapes, vegetable-oil fried, slightly under salted, on the whole not bad, but distinctive, formulaic—definitely Soviet. Hell, old things die hard, they could have been pre-revolutionary potatoes for all I know, recognizable after all these years even amidst the Italian opera music and the imported Indian tourists obviously trying to fool me.

The day had begun a week before, when I got to the Wakkanai ferry office, on the domestic-port side of the street, at 5:30 a.m. to ask—because I couldn’t find this info anywhere online or in print—whether I could buy a ticket on the same day I wanted to travel and, if so, where I was to do this. The answer was yes, across the street, at 8 a.m. I showed up at five minutes till, the taxi driver wished me “do svidanya” (well, why not), and the gentleman in charge of opening the office in the international terminal, opened up, just for me. There wasn’t anyone else around. I asked my question again. Yes, he thought so, at 8:30, right here (he walked me there and put his feet together). I put my bags in the outline of where his feet had been, took out my camera, and took a few pictures, wondering if it was okay to do so, this being a border area and all. There was a barbed wire fence out the window, beyond which was what looked like just another part of the harbor. Sea borders have always struck me as rather arbitrary. This part of the water here is on our side. That part there is on your side. And here inside our port, let’s say this pier, this is ours up until, well, right there. Look, a fence with a gate. Out in the water the border is where the fence would be if we had a place to put a fence, but since we don’t let’s imagine it. If a guy in a dingey were rowing by, he’d go right through our fence. And you can’t have a border without some barbed wire, so some of that, too. After a few minutes, the gentleman came over—I’m thinking, uh-oh—to say that the view was better from the second floor.

At about 8:15 the Russians started to show up. I left my stuff in the front of the line and milled around as about nine or ten families, as far as I could make out, many with babies and young children, all with a lot of stuff, came in and lined up. I imagined what they’d have to pay to fly with so much and decided that this was by far the better deal. There were a couple of Japanese businessmen, or so they appeared. Solitary guys in white, short-sleeved shirts each with a small suitcase and a briefcase. I didn’t hear other languages but Japanese and Russian, but I also didn’t notice anyone who appeared to be bilingual either. Sometimes they resorted to some English, more on the Japanese side. Otherwise, everyone used a pidgin, speaking loudly, with lots of pointing and finger counting.

The room had no built-in machines of any kind, or TV monitors or loud speakers. It was pretty much just a room with some vending machines and a counter. On the days the Sakhalin ferry leaves port, the ferry company people walk across the street from the larger, domestic ferry building that services the islands of Rebun and Rishiri, bringing a portable credit card machine with them. They install themselves behind the counter, start selling tickets for passengers and baggage at 8:30, pack up by 9:20 or so, and then walk back across the street. The rest of the time it’s closed. I asked if I could buy a ticket for the Sakhalin ferry some other time from the much better serviced domestic side. No, for Russia you have one option. 8:30 to 9:20 on the days the ferry’s in service. Nor was there any schedule visible in the building, though there were a few bi- and tri-lingual signs (combinations of Japanese, English, and Russian). You can find a schedule online, with ticket prices, but there’s no info there about when, where, or how to buy a ticket. This did not seem like Japan to me.

They opened, I told the ticket clerk I wanted one ticket, and he asked for my passport, then wanted to know if I had a visa. I pointed it out to him and he stood up to go back and talk with someone else but then stopped short, wincing slightly, to point out that the beginning date for the visa was next week, at which I winced back. You can’t start a Russian visa early, and while there are special visas for Sakhalin only, you can’t get those in Wakkanai, only in Sapporo, and so… Did I mention that they have a wonderful public library in Wakkanai?

Precisely one week later, the day continued much more smoothly, despite the moderate chop, once we were under way. This time there were only three Russians, maybe four; the other seventeen I counted appeared to be Japanese tourists, one big group and then a few pairs. I got into conversation with a Russian college student on the boat (privet, Sveta!), who had just spent the last nine days traveling on her own in Japan, making friends with Americans and Japanese as she went (apparently a lot of them). We compared notes about where we’d been, especially Sapporo (which she loved) and Wakkanai (which she didn’t), and then she gave me an enthusiastic rundown on the sites in Yuzhno.

I asked her about the Japanese on Sakhalin.

“You mean, before the war? Oh there aren’t any anymore. But I have a friend who lives on one of the Kuril Islands, who says the Japanese are paying for people there to come to Japan and study.”


“Yes, Russians. Full room and board. We joked that I should move there so I could learn Japanese. But on Sakhalin there are a lot of Koreans, and of course, Chinese. Actually, my boyfriend is half-Korean.”

She showed me some pictures on her phone.

“He was born in Russia?”

“Yes, most of the Koreans on Sakhalin are Russians. With the Chinese it’s harder to know. Some come to work. But a lot of Russians go to China to study, medicine for instance. I was hoping to do that, but my grandfather passed away and it was hard. One of my friends is in her second year of college in China. She has a Chinese boyfriend and is planning on staying. She’ll have a job when she finishes.”

What about her, I asked? What kind of prospects did she have with a degree in economics?

“Not so good. Not on Sakhalin, at least. A lot of kids end up in local sales or they sometimes don’t get a job. Our young people are not always so ambitious. But there are some big foreign companies just outside of Yuzhno, mostly in the oil industry, where there are good jobs. Maybe there. Or I might end up working for my uncle’s sovkhoz…”

“Sovkhoz? He’s a farmer?” (I was surprised by the use of the word, an abbreviation of “Soviet farm.”)

“Yes. Vegetables and flowers, some from greenhouses. They have a big store in Yuzhno….”

We arrived in Korsakov more or less on time after the five-hour ferry ride from Wakkanai. The passport control and customs office was in an old, run-down building with that Russian smell in and all around it, and everyone sort of bunched up in the entry with their stuff, slowly making their way up to the two windows, where a border patrol officer stood on each side. They both looked about sixteen and a little too small for their uniforms, one man, one woman. They didn’t smile, but they also weren’t stone faced, just observant. I hadn’t filled out the entry form (the Japanese assumed I was Russian on the boat so hadn’t given me one), so I had to step back out of line and do that, after which the border guy on my side stopped traffic to let me back up, explaining to one woman, “he already came up once.” There was no interview at the passport control, which disappointed me because I’d been looking forward to it, but the customs guys were good: one asked the usual questions about what I had with me, while the other seemed to be there for color commentary; he basically asked me all the questions I had anticipated at passport control—where was I going, how long, what for—all with a friendly smile. He seemed genuinely curious. He repeated something that Sveta had said: you needed at least a couple of weeks on Sakhalin. Come back, he said.

Sveta’s parents, Irina and Sergei, were kind enough to give me a ride (spacibo Irina! spacibo Sergei!) across Korsakov, which was all torn up in various places, “for years” according to Sergei, who fumed at the state of the roads and deftly made his way around the many obstacles--pits, pipes, tree limbs, garbage--to an ATM at a Sberbank office so I could get some money. Then they took me to the corrugated steel shack called the Bus Station, where number 115 looked like it was about to die (though I’m sure it purred liked a kitten, or maybe a large, rather foul-tempered cat). Luckily a minivan Sveta called a “marshrutka” was also waiting. It technically made no stops, but as it got closer to Yuzhno, one by one the twelve sweaty people packed into the back with their stuff started calling out requests to stop in various places to the driver, who obliged them all, as he did me, on Lenin Square.

The receptionist in the hotel was Korean (born on Sakhalin), as was the woman working in the fitness room, and my taxi driver the next morning. Some of the old people, he said, are going back to Korea now. They came here under the Japanese, “in that slavery,” he said, when the Japanese brought them as prisoners to work on construction. Now the Japanese are providing for them to go back to Korea if they want. He wasn’t planning on it. Russian was his only language. What would he do in Korea? Actually, he had visited Japan a couple of times and that was a place he wouldn’t mind living. But probably he would stay where he was. It’s peaceful here, he said. He suggested we go to the "Japanese museum," which I thought might have something about the Japanese on the island, but though the building was apparently constructed by the Japanese (or more likely the Koreans working for the Japanese), there is no sign anywhere of when or by whom it was constructed, and what's on display inside skips from the prehistoric peoples of the island to a display on Soviet and Russian space exploration, leaving only about a 1,500-year gap in between. There is a Japanese tank in the park outside.

I had actually arrived to see a big holiday on September 2, with banners and music on the public address system all over town (think "Katyusha" as sung by the Red Army Chorus), and tanks on the Ploshchad’ pobedy (Victory Square). This was Victory Day, but not the one I was familiar with, on May 9, no. Here they also celebrate the official end of WWII in the Russian Far East, which the Soviets entered after the second bomb fell on Japan and it had already surrendered. Russians tend to think that the Americans didn’t really fight much in WWII, that the USSR did most of the work and the Americans only came in at the end. Soviet losses in the war, and the resources and energy the Germans expended on their eastern front, tend to support this view. But the opposite happened on the other side of the world: the Americans fought, the Soviets held the line but mostly waited, and then in the end they entered the fray. In Vladivostok I didn’t see any sign of the holiday, and a couple of people tried to tell me that it was only really important on Sakhalin because it was liberated on that day. But then several days later I saw remnants of the holiday in Khabarovsk, a day’s travel by train to the north of Vladivostok.

I should note that in the city park on the other side of the straight, back in Wakkanai, high above the ocean, there is a monument to the Japanese lost on "Karafuto" (the Japanese name for Sakhalin), including a rather strategically placed dual obelisk, through which, if you look on a clear day, you can see Sakhalin (Karafuto). The English explanation differs from the Russian: the former notes that the monument represents a pledge to rebuild, the latter leaves that part out. Another small monument at the same location commemorates the "nine maidens," telephone operators who, in August of 1945, were working at the switchboards when the Soviets invaded, helped to organize the evacuation, then committed suicide. There was a film made about this in 1974, but it was pulled from distribution after two weeks when the Soviets protested.

One thing people did agree about, which surprised me and shook my confidence in the accuracy of the maps I’ve studied since the age of about 22: I had not arrived in Siberia, not yet. That was at least several days journey by train to the west. I thought at first they were merely referring to an administrative demarcation, like a state line in the American South (you’re still in the South on either side of the North and South Carolina state lines), but no, it was more than that, they insisted. This isn’t Siberia.

Ian Frazier has a wonderfully evocative moment in his Travels in Siberia, when he is landing in the city of Omsk and the Russian passenger seated next to him turns and says, with a sparkle in his eye, “Sibir’!” He describes the magical onomatopoeia of the Russian word, which is true enough. It’s just that Russians from these places don't seem to want to  say the same of Vladivostok or Okhotsk, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk or Khabarovsk. These cities, which fall into the category of Siberia to outsiders, don’t appear to have the connotations of “Sibir’” to locals. They associate “Sibir’” with another area, with its own distinctive history and demographics and politics and economy. I began to wonder whether the monolithic entity that is “Siberia” on our maps and minds isn’t a rather abstract and intentional place, whether it exists anywhere but there.

When my cab driver in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk said it was “peaceful” there, he also meant something more than merely quiet. He was referring as well to the mixture of cultures, inter-marriages, acceptance, tolerance. He was talking about racism. I asked him if he had traveled in other parts of Russia, farther west, beyond Baikal, in Sibir’, for instance. He said, no, and he wasn’t very interested in going there. “It’s peaceful here with us,” he said.