In 1890, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov did not have the luxury of a 8 hour 40 minute flight to far-off Sakhalin Island from Moscow. In his two and a half month journey through Siberia, the great writer used various modes of transport including trains, ferries and horse carriages to get to the island, then a penal colony.
Just 7 kilometres separate the westernmost point of Sakhalin from the Russian mainland, but as in Chekhov’s time, there is no bridge that links the island with the mainland.
Today regular ferry services operate from Vanino in the Khabarovsk region and Kholmsk in southern Sakhalin. Islanders often complain that the ferry is a popular route for criminals from other parts of Russia and former Soviet republics to come to the now oil-rich island.
When Chekhov took the ferry across the “cold and colourless roaring sea” to get to a northern Sakhalin port, it was actually used to transport those who were considered the worst of criminals.
The way these convicts were treated saddened the great writer. “On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore fetters on his legs,” Chekhov wrote in his book Sakhalin Island. “His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.”
Long-term Russian residents also complain about the poor infrastructure in a place that is just a few kilometres away from the modern glass and steel buildings of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk that house international oil companies. The common complaints heard on the streets of Vladimirovka are the irregular water supply and the lack of safety at night.
When Chekhov arrived on the island, he witnessed the brutality of its inhospitable climate and the utter lack of facilities for the prisoners. He considered the island a frozen “hell.”
The city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk did not exist in its present form when the writer visited it, as the Japanese occupied the area after the Russo-Japan War of 1905 and almost changed it completely. But Chekhov wrote about the settlement of Vladimirovka, which is now in the periphery of the island’s largest city and administrative centre.
The settlement had 46 houses and 91 inhabitants in 1890 and was a linear-shaped colony. Among its residents were Polish deportees. Names such as Kovalsky, Kriminetsky and Krakowsky are still common on the island.
In 2013, Vladimirovka has a collection of small dachas and a few larger wooden independent houses. Immigrants from places as far away as Armenia and Kyrgyzstan stay in the smaller houses and renting a flat for these blue-collared workers, who survive on odd jobs, is next to impossible.