The yet undiscovered beauty of Chekhov’s hell


In 1890, Russian writer Anton Chekhov journeyed across the belly of Russia to its eastern border. It was a voyage of 9,656 km. His trip went well beyond the kind of journey that the travelers of today seek aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Chekhov’s destination was the the remote island of Sakhalin, Russia’s most feared penal colony. His purpose was to examine the lives of its captives. Recalling his journey and the harsh conditions of Sakhalin, he once wrote, “I have seen Ceylon, and it is heaven: And now I have seen Sakhalin, and it is hell.”

The Sakhalin of Chekhov’s time was a place of near-unendurable hardship: Those who were banished there were forced into hard labor, and diseases were rife. Even today, Chekhov’s despondent images linger in the mind. The intensity of the hardships is matched by the fury of the volcanic activity and the shifting tectonic plates that support Sakhalin. But there is much more to Sakhalin, an island of tremendous natural beauty.

Getting there, though, can be a task in itself. Sakhalin Air flies to the capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, from Sapporo Chitose and Hakodate. There is also a daily ferry service during the summer months from Wakkanai to the port of Korsakov on Sakhalin’s southern tip. It was from Hakodate that I boarded a 1960s Antonov-24, a 36-seat turboprop, for the two-hour flight across the Sea of Okhotsk. Yuzhno (as the capital is called) is a small city of 180,000 that has been open to the outside world for only the past decade. Prior to the 1990s, the island of Sakhalin was off-limits to most visitors. At least one Cold War conspiracy theory argues that the doomed Korean Air flight 007, which was shot down after straying into Soviet airspace, may have actually landed in Yuzhno before being attacked. Such theories aside, Sakhalin’s location and turbulent history make it an interesting destination.

The contrast between two cultures, separated by a mere 80 km of sea, could not be greater: Hakodate, with its sanitary cleanliness and modernity, and Yuzhno, with its dusty roads and weathered buildings. It is a contrast of two worlds that, technically, remain at war. Owing to a dispute over the Kuril islands off Hokkaido, Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty formally ending World War II. It is said that crossing the Sea of Okhotsk between Russia and Japan, a cold wind can be felt in both directions.

Sakhalin is home to a fluid mix of Caucasian Russians, indigenous Nivki, Oroki and Ainu, Korean-Russians brought during the Japanese occupation who remained behind and Japanese born on Sakhalin when it was under Japanese control (then called Karafuto). And amid this mix are the newcomers. Americans, Dutch and British are all present, and an eclectic mix of others have followed as well.

There’s oil here. You can see it in the people’s eyes, smell it in the air, and it is apparent in the streets. New hotels have been built, the Japanese government has added a shiny six-story trade office, and a guarded expatriate community has sprung up at Zima, on the outskirts of Yuzhno. The luxurious American-style suburban housing and sculpted lawns cost $100 million. The influx will only grow. Sakhalin is on the verge of a new revolution. Estimates are that 10,000-14,000 new workers will be needed when the oil boom takes hold. The vast majority of these workers will come from outside Sakhalin.

Chekhov’s Sakhalin is slowly fading away. Yet, the Sakhalin of today still has a feel of what the Wild West of the United States must have been like in the last quarter-century of the 1800s. Dusty potholed roads, Russians and Korean-Russians mixing with American and British oil workers. Bars and casinos that tower over bread stands and old Russian women selling shot glasses of black sunflower seeds and slabs of sun-dried salmon. Yes, this is what it must have been like.

Remnants of Soviet life remain, too, but are gradually being lost to time. As one might expect, the main square of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk bears a large statue of Lenin, but other less conspicuous tributes silently pass unnoticed. Beautiful tile mosaics dedicated to Soviet workers crumble directly across from Lenin. The hammer-and-sickle remain on many buildings, including Sakhalin University, but bear no prominence. Under these, the flag holders that once proudly displayed the Soviet flag now simply rust away.

Gagarin Park, a Soviet-built amusement park in Yuzhno, still attracts the crowds, but the great Ferris wheel is gone and the swimming pool is empty. It is this mix of the new and shiny with the old and degraded that is the real face of Yuzhno today. Occasionally, however, one feels that there is something of the Soviet empire left just under the surface. Passports are kept by hotels the first night, so they can be registered with the police.

Yuzhno, and Sakhalin in general, remain underdeveloped as tourist destinations. For those who view with contempt the rows of tourist stalls outside many of the world’s monuments, Sakhalin will seem undisturbed. There are two, yes, two, tourist shops on the whole of Sakhalin, one located in the Tourist Hotel and the other at the Dom shopping center. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to see. The Sakhalin Regional Museum with its pagoda-angled roof occupies the former Japanese government offices and is a legacy of the Japanese occupation. The building, though, is unlike any in Japan.

Statues honoring Soviet soldiers, labor leaders and, of course, Chekhov are plentiful, as are retired military armaments. Tanks, a fighter jet and cannons are on display in and around the museum and the neighboring cultural center. There are also several open-air markets, selling everything from fresh bread and produce to fur and handicrafts. Life on Sakhalin is slow and relaxed.

In spite of Chekhov’s bitter view of Sakhalin as hell, the residents have come to honor him as one of their own. Dedications to Chekhov appear throughout the city on statues and atop the Chekhov Theater, his likeness vying with that of Lenin. Chekhov’s book, “The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin” is a must-read for insight into the Sakhalin of old.

Beyond Yuzhno, opportunities to explore the island’s natural beauty abound. It is possible to arrange a horseback-riding tour into the mountains for a stay at a Russian dacha. There, one can drink vodka while soaking in the volcanic hot springs. Trips along the rivers to fish for salmon and to take in the natural beauty can also be easily arranged.

Chekhov referred to Sakhalin as the end of the world. Yet, for Sakhalin, this is only the beginning.