Yeltsin on Sakhalin

Photograph of the 
Island of Sakhalin on the Shore of the Sea of Okhotsk by Gwendolyn Stewart, 
c. 2013; All Rights Reserved


-- A sailor pushes his way into the hall where a Congress is being held.   Machine gun on his chest, he demands to know, "Where is Borya Yeltsin?"   Everyone points at Yeltsin, and the sailor yells, "Borya, get down!"   And rat-a-tat-tat, he sprays the whole dais.   -- "Joke" told by teenagers on Sakhalin, August 1990

" YELTSIN is coming!" cried Nadezhda Moon -- not that I had asked.   I had barely arrived on Sakhalin Island myself, so far east in the Soviet Union that it was just north of Japan, that summer day in 1990.   But one after another, people kept at me.  "Western doubt in Yeltsin is very bad for us," lamented city official Aleksandr Bandyukov.   "Compare him and Gorbachev," he demanded.   "Look how he deals with the Baltics," then in open revolt against Gorbachev's Moscow, the "Center."   "Think how much better our relations would be with him handling matters."   "Yeltsin gives hope and has regional thinking," said Viktor Sirenko, the number one aide to the Governor of Sakhalin.

"Gorbachev prepared the soil for the appearance of Yeltsin," Sirenko continued.  "The man who puts reform into life is Yeltsin."   Attention must be paid.   I was weakening.   But Boris Yeltsin was not due on Sakhalin for another eleven days; my visa was good for only four.   Getting it extended was no simple matter.   This was still the USSR.   Sakhalin was officially closed territory, and I was on a very tight schedule pre-approved by my Ministry of Foreign Affairs "godfather" back in Moscow.   Still, attention must be paid; I got the visa extended.   I had to enlist the aid of the Governor himself to arrange it.


At the Twentieth-Eighth Party Congress, I had been assigned by Business Week to photograph Valentin Feodorov,   Photograph of the
Valentin Feodorov by Gwendolyn Stewart c. 2015; All Rights Reserved   the newly elected Governor of Sakhalin, and he had invited me to come out to have a look.   A twinkling, diminutive Yul Brynner dapper in dark velvet jackets, Feodorov was a native-born Siberian, but he had been laboring as an economics professor at the Plekhanov Institute in Moscow when some political activists from Sakhalin had recruited him to run for the Russian parliament.   As an economist, Feodorov had been casting about for someplace in the country suitable for copying the Chinese model of accelerated development in a special economic zone, or SEZ.   "We need our own Shenzhen," he had written.   Shenzhen, right across the border from Hong Kong, had been the most successful SEZ in China.

While economic reform had had trouble getting launched in the Soviet Union, Deng Xiaoping had pushed China from reform to reform:   from de facto decollectivization in agriculture to opening up its industry to the outside world.   In an attempt to concentrate the country's efforts (and to contain any resultant capitalist contamination as much as possible), Beijing had set up four special economic zones.   Foreign investors were to be lured to them by the promise of special privileges, privileges which would include tax breaks and infrastructure development.   From the backwater village of Shenzhen mushroomed a huge new city of factories and high-rises.

Sakhalin, Valentin Feodorov had decided -- and written -- was a good candidate for the Soviet Shenzhen:   It was an island, an island far away from Moscow and very tantalizingly close to the dynamic East Asian economies.   Gorbachev's perestroika had opened a wedge for non-establishment activists.   Some of these adventurous political outsiders on Sakhalin, galvanized by Feodorov's dream of building the place into the next little tiger of Asia, had sought him out and helped him campaign -- and win.   No wonder Yeltsin was coming to check it out.


The plane from the mainland was piloted into Sakhalin and parked.   Suddenly, before anyone could leave, we were boarded by military types going down the aisle, checking the papers of each passenger.   Though all of us had already been vetted -- no one, not even Soviet citizens from other parts of the country, could enter without a visa -- each one's papers now had to be checked again individually.   Not a very auspicious introduction to the "reform" island, I thought.   Then it got worse; my name was called, and I was marched, apprehensive, off the airplane.   Surprise! -- I was merely getting special treatment as the only foreigner on the flight.   I was escorted directly into a special lounge in the airport.

Nadezhda Moon, one of Feodorov's campaign managers who was now an aide to the Governor, was waiting for me there.     A blond and blue-eyed Russian married to a Soviet-Korean, she was one of the new people in Russian politics; her husband was an engineer working for one of the private economic enterprises.   "Yeltsin is coming!" she announced right away.


Yeltsin had been elected head of the Russian parliament less than three months before; his people had quickly taken to calling the big white marble edifice in which it was housed the Belyi Dom, the "White House."   Now the "President" was on a grand tour of his domain, all the way out to Siberia and the Soviet Far East, and he had reserved three whole days for Sakhalin.   This was combination "presidential" tour and campaign blitz.   Officially Yeltsin was Chair of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic; an executive office of the presidency as such did not exist yet.   Yeltsin was actively promoting its institution.   Inspection tours, "working trips,"   are routine functions for the leader of a country in this age, and in fact, Yeltsin had made regular tours of his domain his standard practice already when he was just the leader of his home province, the First Secretary of the oblast' of Sverdlovsk.

But the situation in the USSR in 1990 was not routine.   This trip in some measure was also a carving out of "Russia" as a separate state in the USSR, and Yeltsin was the physical embodiment and symbol of that state, introducing himself and his realm to as many of its citizens as possible.   He liked to say that he had met with three hundred thousand people in his three-week tour.   He traveled by regularly scheduled Aeroflot flights (former Russian Prime Minister Aleksandr Vlasov having been criticized for traveling by "private" plane).   Sometimes Yeltsin even moved about by bus.   He plunged into crowds, mixing it up with the narod, the people, but he took time for consultations with the bosses too, working out deals with the regional leaders in person.

In a classic bit of strategy, when Yeltsin had threatened the Soviet president's rule from below by "seizing" power in the Russian parliament, Gorbachev had made a bid to the authorities in the jurisdictions below Yeltsin's to revolt against him in turn.   It was a dangerous game.   As the USSR was made up of fifteen republics, so the Russian republic itself contained an assortment of eighty-eight subunits, from provinces (oblasts and krais) to "autonomous" republics and districts.   The elaborate if largely nominal federalist structure of the USSR provided ample opportunities for setting level against level.   Telling the Russian "local" authorities to "Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow!" had been Yeltsin's counter-strategy, and this summer tour of 1990 was the occasion for unveiling it.


He was not afraid of taking on the hard places, the hot spots.   "I go where people look angry," Yeltsin proclaimed.   He had started his tour in what is now Tatarstan, the first "local" unit of Russia to revolt -- two days after Russia's own declaration of sovereignty on June 12, 1990 -- and the weightiest internal ("autonomous") republic.   The Mongol Tatars had once ruled much of Eurasia, and the peoples of Rus' had been their subjects.   The Tatar descendants had that historical memory and the cultural stamp of Islam to fuel their claim to otherness and their drive away from Moscow.   So did Bashkiria, where Yeltsin went next.   His tour swung up to Vorkuta, to the "small peoples" and miners of the North, whom he promised another kind of sovereignty.   Then he headed home to Sverdlovsk.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow, teams of bright young things slaved away on competing economic programs.   This division of labor was to become typical:   Yeltsin oversaw the regional deals and the mustering of popular support, and the technocrats minded the macroeconomic issues.   The boss did break off his inspection tour to dart back to Moscow to huddle briefly with the economists; there were rumors (denied by Yeltsin) of dissension in the working group.   Then it was back out again, to the Kuzbass, land of more miners' revolts, and to the far eastern provinces of Vladivostok, Sakhalin, and Kamchatka, spreading the new gospel of independence and taking the measure of his domain.


In 1890, one hundred years before before Boris Yeltsin had done so, Anton Chekhov   had taken it in his head to trek out to this island at the far reaches of the Russian empire, to investigate the prison camps the tsarist regime had recently planted way out there.   Chekhov is most famous for his plays -- Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and for his exquisite short stories.   But he was trained as a physician and practiced professionally.   Only thirty when he made his long, difficult way out to Sakhalin (in those pre-Trans-Siberian Railway days a journey of two and a half months), he is said to have labored under the weight of an unfinished doctorate.   He thought of writing a dissertation on this relatively new and seemingly escape-proof island dumping-ground for convicts -- Siberia's Siberia.   He spent three months there making a census of the convicts and recording their plight; he called Sakhalin "utter hell."   In the end, he abandoned the idea of a dissertation and "settled" for putting his findings in a book, The Island of Sakhalin.   The Sakhaliners were celebrating its centennial while I was there.  


A handy place for exile it was. The capital city, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, was 10,417 kilometers away from Moscow, or so the local signpost claimed (6,510 miles!). That would mean that Washington, D.C., was closer to Moscow than this outpost of the Soviet Union.  

Japan was just twenty-five miles away from the southern tip of Sakhalin across La P�rouse Strait, so that I was back in the same part of the world where as a child I had first been exposed to foreign cultures, and where I had taken my first photographs, at the age of eight, in the port city of Sasebo, Japan.   My whole life had been shaped -- warped -- by the Cold War, as my father was transferred around the country and around the world as the U.S. Army dictated, and we the family all picked up and moved, picked up and moved.

Russia and Japan had been sparring over Sakhalin much longer, since their respective, competing expansions had brought them to meet in this island and in the smaller but numerous Kuril Islands nearby.   By the mid-seventeenth century both had "discovered" Sakhalin, which had, however, its own aboriginal peoples, the Nivkhi or Gilyak, the Oroki, and the Ainu.

China had claimed a loose suzerainty over the island for centuries before its Russian and Japanese neighbors had made their way there.   Indeed, the name for the island comes from the Manchu "Saghalien."   Sakhalin was so placed with regard to the East Eurasian land mass that all three of these weighty neighbors eventually had access to it.   In the north, the island was only four and a half miles from the mouth of the Amur River (the Heilongjiang), in land then part of China.   By the nineteenth century, when Russia and Japan had both become serious about settling and developing Sakhalin and the Kurils, China was in a period of decline, and Russia wrested the land around the Amur from the Chinese by two of those "unequal" treaties of which Beijing still complains.

China having been finessed, the contest between Russia and Japan then intensified.   The rivals tried a series of approaches -- at one time sharing sovereignty over both prizes, Sakhalin and the Kurils; at another, dividing them up, Russia taking the former and Japan the latter.   In their 1904-1905 war Japan had dealt the Russian empire a shocking defeat, invading Sakhalin, and Russia had lost the southern half of the island, which Japan renamed Karafuto.   At the tail end of World War II, the Soviet Union had taken its revenge in a swift and punishing campaign through Japanese-held Manchuria and over to North Korea, "Karafuto," and the Kurils.

Now the two powers, and the U.S. behind Japan, faced each other across the Strait, the choke point to the Pacific for the Soviet fleet.   Sakhalin as military base was the result; no wonder it had been closed to the outside world.


Picture a sleepy island in the Pacific, but throw in freezing winters and oil and gas, timber and coal.   Subarctic tundra in the north, and in the south, subtropical vegetation.   Six hundred miles long in all, narrow, heavily forested, with mountain ranges east and west and sheltered valleys in between, given to earthquakes, and shaped -- so the locals say -- like a fish, so that in season the fish -- salmon and king crabs, herring and trout -- happily swim there in vast numbers.

They were swimming in swarms that warm August day I braced myself in the wet sand with the water of the Sea of Okhotsk splashing back and forth over my sandals, capturing on film the sight of men mostly in shorts flinging salmon into trucks.   The whole exercise I was witnessing was very Soviet; the cap on one "volunteer" in long pants gave away the game.   The Navy was helping bring in the salmon catch, just as elsewhere the Army helped harvest the potato crop.


At his gracious invitation, I hitched a ride with a Soviet journalist-filmmaker, Aleksandr Radov, out to a huge floating fish factory rusty in the mist.     We were transported out on a dirigible- or minisub-like orange rubber-clad boat with a naked blade running down the middle of its floor, and oily sides sloping down to it.   As I propped myself out of a hatch to photograph the rowboat we were hauling behind us, I mused on the probabilities of slipping and slicing off a toe.   Was it worth it for a photograph that seemed most likely not to turn out, given the ghostly fog?

The big ship we reached and boarded hummed. The salmon were swung on in vast nets, hoisted up metal fish ladder escalators, had their throats slit and their precious "red caviar" eggs seized on the spot, and were clapped into cans right on the ship.     I had never particularly cared for caviar, but the ship's captain insisted on treating us to samples of his prize catch, and this caviar, I found, could be habit-forming.   Perhaps because it was fresh, and not highly salted?


Nadezhda Moon and her husband took me and their sons out to watch the colorful display of a local flying club, complete with classic small planes and parachutists.   Very natural pastime for the military outpost of a far-flung empire whose Air Defense Force was charged to patrol and protect.   In such a flying club (back in his native Siberia, it seems), had Gennady Osipovich decided to become an aviator.   Lt. Colonel Osipovich it was who shot down KAL 007 en route from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, Korea, on September 1, 1983.   Or rather, three hundred and some miles off route over Sakhalin, forbidden Soviet territory.

The Korean Airliner had had the misfortune to go astray over sensitive military outposts on these final frontiers of the Soviet Union, first over the outer peninsula of Kamchatka, and then over Sakhalin, just off the mainland. Two hundred sixty-nine people on board paid with their lives for pilot error. At least such appeared to be the most probable explanation after torrents of speculation that they were instead pawns in the Cold War espionage "game."

It had been only a matter of months since Ronald Reagan had delivered himself of his "Evil Empire" speech and his Star Wars proposal, ratcheting up that Cold War. His administration promptly turned the tragedy into a propaganda coup, complete with video reconstruction presented with a flourish in the UN. Fueling conspiracy theories, the dead included a member of Congress, Rep. Larry McDonald, who was also the head of the ultra right-wing John Birch Society. Weighing on the Soviet calculations was the fact that the plane was the second Korean airliner to go astray over the USSR in a little more than five years; the first had yielded large amounts of intelligence data to the Americans. Still, Osipovich was ordered to shoot the plane down only at the last possible moment, just as it was leaving Soviet air space. Whether he himself knew that he was firing at a civilian airliner or not has varied in his telling of the story over the years. It was to be Boris Yeltsin's choice in the fall of 1992 to make a present of the recovered black boxes to the Americans and the Koreans, and to declare the incident "the most horrible catastrophe of the Cold War."

The air show that warm summer day on Sakhalin almost exactly seven years after the downing held no hint of menace, no Su-15s or MiGs shadowing 747s, only beguiling small planes and earnest enthusiasts suiting up to take their turns in the air.      


The island's population had grown a hundred-fold since in the century since Chekhov's visit, to 730,000 people. That growth might sound impressive until one thinks of Taiwan, which is less than half its size, but has more than twenty-five times its population. The indigenous stock of the island was now represented mostly by only a couple thousand of the Nivkhi, a people in the far north you would swear had to be cousins of Eskimos and Aleuts.   Besides the Slavsand other more ubiquitous Soviet nationalities, there was yet another group contributing to the diverse ethnic mix, a legacy of a different imperial past.   The Japanese had brought Koreans to work the mines, paper processing plants, and fisheries when Karafuto, or southern Sakhalin, was under their rule and Korea was their colony.   Once looked down upon, as South Korea became an economic powerhouse and their relatives' remittances flowed into Sakhalin, the Koreans there were the beneficiaries of changed attitudes; they saw their status raised accordingly.  


The Man himself arrived in the middle of a night spiked by floodlights and strobe lights.   The whirlwind demokrat bol'shoi, the "big democrat," Feodorov called him sarcastically, because Yeltsin had come on a regular Aeroflot flight -- no special plane for him!   Never mind that as a result of this showy gesture, a number of regular passengers had to lose their seats to him and his entourage, the Governor smirked.   A touch of envy speaking?

Of egos there seemed to be no shortage. When the waiting journalists wanted to know what role he had in mind for Sakhalin, Yeltsin answered, "If I flew here, then that means it is significant."   The press pressed on: "How can Sakhalin cease being a colony of the Center?" Make it a free enterprise zone, Yeltsin replied, and then it will feel freer and begin to develop more energetically.   How can we guarantee private enterprise on the island? he was asked.   And how about rights for foreign capital?   So much for the passive, un-entrepreneurial, anti-foreign Russians.

The last question was different:   "Boris Nikolayevich," someone called out to Yeltsin, "why did you not bring your wife with you on this trip?"   "My wife?" Yeltsin shot back.   "I can manage by myself.   Not like some people."   So much for Mikhail Gorbachev and his Raisa.


Sakhalin teenage humor:   Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev comes to a banya, a bathhouse.   All the men cover themselves in front with towels.   Mikhail Sergeyevich asks, "Why did you do that?"   And they ask him, "Really, Raisa is not with you?"


That afternoon I waited at the airport for Yeltsin and his crew to get back from the Kuril Islands, so I could travel around Sakhalin itself with him -- the only foreign correspondent accredited to do so.   And waited; the plane was late and getting later.   Typhoon Zola had blown him off his itinerary, and off his schedule; he had managed to visit only one of the contested islands.   The Russian music teacher-cum-people's deputy waiting with me was bored.   Suddenly she broke into "America the Beautiful."   Melody only; I supplied the words.   "We Shall Overcome," she started next.   All very noble.   "Here comes Santa Claus!   Here comes Santa Claus!" I found myself singing.   We giggled.   The large (not fat!) white-haired man we were so keenly anticipating did finally arrive, brushing that hair carefully back into place the moment he got off the plane.  

"Well," I said to Aleksandr Radov later, "either that man is vain, or else his mother was very strict when he was a little boy and told him to mind his appearance."   (In fact, when I met his mother later, it was easy enough to believe in her strictness.)   Radov --     my buddy otherwise -- was very disapproving now.   "Is that what you are going to write for the American audience?   Have you read his memoirs?" he demanded.   "Do you know what a hard childhood he had?

Radov was no slouch, no simple member of the narod, the people, easy to overpower with a whiff of charisma.   He was, the woman who introduced him to me had said in awe, a "bol'shoi publitsist" for Ogonyok, that is, a hotshot political commentator for one of the most important magazines in the country.   Radov, this sandy-haired, machine-gun-fast talker had his own compelling history.   His family was, he told me, Irish.   "Welsh" was their original name, not a good handle to be carrying under the xenophobic Stalin; it was changed to "Radov," for "joy."   (The local high school English teacher I met on Sakhalin similarly had had to drop her first name, the too-Baltic "Stella," in favor of the dictator-honoring "Stalina.")   Radov himself had not wavered in his admiration for Yeltsin.   Even when Yeltsin was an "un-person" too hot to touch, back in 1988, he had gone out on a limb and struggled unsuccessfully to get an interview with Yeltsin into the magazine.


It was Yeltsin's fight against privilege and corruption that drew Radov, as it drew many others. I was to hear about this element of his appeal over and over, from taxi drivers who were otherwise apolitical, and from professors with large apartments and polished parquet floors. When Yeltsin was ousted from the Soviet leadership in the fall of 1987, people took notice, and took to the street to demonstrate. Who had ever cared before what happened to a Politburo member?   What drove these people?   Why were they so angry?   To them, it was a question of social justice.   Radov drew a comparison with America, where, he said, "you have rich people, middle-class people, and poor people.   We have only the very rich people and the very poor people, but no middle class."   I was to hear this same argument from others, and was not wholly persuaded; even riding on the Metro, looking at people's clothes and especially their shoes, I thought I could see definite gradations between rich and poor.

But Radov and the others felt a different reality, and that is what counted as far as support for Boris Yeltsin was concerned.   Radov was angry at the top eight percent of the Soviet population that he thought made up "a special empire."   They could invest their money in all kinds of businesses, mostly illegal ones.   He was bitter about the corrupt tricks of retail trade.   "The economy had come to be so well organized," he said sarcastically, "that lots of gaps appeared, and mafiosos, especially in trade, managed to use these gaps."   This, remember, was still in the Soviet Union.

The "mafia" was not a sudden post-Soviet blight. There were "many chances for shop assistants to write off some twenty or even forty percent of the vegetables as being damaged," Radov told me. "For example, a truck with apples comes to the shop; the shop assistant sells apples of good quality, takes half of all the money for himself, and writes them off as being damaged." The loopholes of corruption took "hundreds of millions of rubles away from the state, and concentrated them in the hands of a small group of people." When Yeltsin had been brought to the capital as its Party boss, he had tried to clean out the corruption. That was more than one man could do in less than two years, but the image of Yeltsin's attempted fight against the mafia stuck in people's minds.

Others protested about the Party's own basic structuring of society, venting resentment that usually fastened itself on the Party's "privileges," another of Yeltsin's targets.     At a Moscow election eve rally for him the following June, one woman who called herself "a representative of the working people" was angry that the Communist Party brought up the children of working people as "Negry" (Negroes, black people) in order to ensure its own superiority.   The children of the lower classes, for whom the October Revolution was supposed to have been made, were pushed out of school after only the seventh grade and sent off to work in factories and plants, while the children of the powerful were singled out for the posts that required studying in universities and institutes, and they were the ones who got ahead.


The KGB did not like our singing on the tarmac!   They complained to the music teacher.   Afterwards.   In this day and age!   So, I thought, that's who the guy in the car waiting over to one side was.   Spooky.   Later I was to be introduced to one of their operatives who had to approve my trips to other parts of the island.   "I have heard about you," he said, darkly.   "What have you heard?"   I ventured to inquire.   "You have too much curiosity, and too much energy!"

We made our getaway with Yeltsin's party, and took off south for the port city of Korsakov.   Inside a big repair shop for the shipyard there, the Soviet photographers -- all men -- scrambled up on any and all available vantage points and hung over hulking pieces of machinery to get a clear shot of the leader and his instant flock.   Outside in the town, people demanded to know what Yeltsin thought about the Kuril Islands, some of which the Japanese call their Northern Territories and insist on having back.   "Kurily nashi!"   "The Kurils are ours!"   Yeltsin cried out.   Rain and all, the crowd cheered.

The Kurils had been "ours" since the end of World War II. At Yalta in February 1945, Stalin had pledged to FDR and Churchill to declare war against Japan within three months of the defeat of Germany, in exchange for the return of southern Sakhalin and the handing over of the Kurils, among other incentives. And declare war by the deadline the Soviets did, on August 8, two days after Hiroshima. The Soviet military persevered, finishing its campaign to secure its Yalta prizes some days after the Japanese Emperor conceded defeat, and all of Sakhalin and the Kurils fell under Soviet rule. Moscow put the Kurils into the jurisdiction of Sakhalin oblast', a province of the RSFSR. So in the new political realities of 1990, "Governor" Feodorov and "President" Yeltsin both had legitimate claims to an interest in this volcanic chain of islands running down from Kamchatka to Japan, the Russian equivalent to the Aleutians.

Japan had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor precisely from these Kuril Islands, but the U.S. embrace of Japan as an ally after World War II, and the transformation of "Yalta" into an epithet, quite erased American interest in rewarding its erstwhile wartime Soviet ally. The Kuril irredenta, the "Northern Territories," became the sticking point between Tokyo and Moscow. So for the sake of three islands -- Iturup, Kunashir, and Shikotan, and one group of islets, the Habomai -- no peace treaty has yet ended World War II for Tokyo and Moscow. The two governments came the closest to a compromise in 1956, only to have Japan's enthusiasm wilted by the frosty displeasure of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Japanese neutrality and the end to American bases on Japan had been the lures for a Soviet deal. In 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev was to become the first Russian leader to make an official visit to Japan, in search of a new world order and new money. Competition dictated that Boris Yeltsin had to weigh in with his stand on the Kurils too.


The next day, Thursday, August 23rd, was special. We left the rain behind and flew all the way to sunshine on the other end of the island, first in the northeast and then in the northwest. One small plane, Yeltsin and his party, Feodorov and other local officials, and a mere handful of correspondents. Yeltsin took the front aisle seat in the cabin. First one local potentate and then the other came to pay court. Misha, my new Russian photojournalist buddy, and I recorded both exchanges on film, half backing into the cockpit of the plane in order to get the two principals in the picture, even with wide angle lenses.     A bit startled at first by this act of daring on my part, he had been happy to follow my lead. When all his visitors were finished, I noticed, the "President" was left alone. The seat next to him remained empty for the rest of the flight.

We settled in. A couple of hours, and we were in Okha in the northeast, the center of the island's oil industry. To reach the prime oil sites, the ones offshore, we were taken by two orange and blue helicopters out to the Sakhalinskaia platform, off in the Sakhalin shelf in the Sea of Okhotsk. "Of course, it's a good drilling rig," said its high-level Revizor, Inspector Yeltsin;       "not built by us." But living conditions were not simple, people working in shifts: sixteen days on the platform, sixteen days on the land. The richest fields appear to lie in areas raked by high winds and ice bound half the year.

In his address later to the citizens of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the "President" said that the whole Far East was waiting for gas from that Sakhalin shelf. The coming winter was going to be hard; it would be difficult to survive. The coming energy crisis would mean that "We have to force the building of that pipeline" that would go from the north of Sakhalin to the mainland. Governor Feodorov had his own ideas. He was not so keen to see the island of Sakhalin exploited for the sake of the Soviet Far East mainland.


Afterwards, into town. Typical Soviet construction. Almost seven thousand miles away from Moscow, and yet you would have no trouble guessing what country you were in. The same standard prefab several-story cream-colored building blocks.  It says something interesting about the man that Yeltsin was later to declare that Okha seemed like "a very comfortable town, with all the features of the big city." He himself had spent years managing the construction of just these kinds of housing blocks.

The residents of Okha certainly were keen to see their new leader. So many people were lining the street that led to the town hall, it seemed the whole town had turned out. They swamped the entrance to the building; some of the younger ones even hung from the concrete canopy over it. One strange element of discipline: opening a passageway -- barely one person wide -- for each correspondent. I was somehow handed off from one person to another. A refreshing bit of respect for the Fourth Estate! But when I tried to tell Boris Yeltsin that he could not be heard all the way back in the crowd without a microphone, he waved me off. No artificial amplification for his great voice! He still could not be heard in the back.

Why did it feel so comfortable to tell the leader of Russia to speak up, to break that third wall? Hieing off together from point to point all over the island had engendered a certain camaraderie in our traveling party; a faux intimacy? And I was well used to dealing on stage and backstage with political leaders in Washington. But perhaps most of all, Yeltsin himself radiated an odd mix of approachability and distance, and here he was, needing help, in danger of not connecting with his audience -- audibly, at least.


Off to the northwest, and Rybnovsk. For the casual dropper-in, it could be embraced as picturesque. Local native peoples, the Nivkhi! Sand! Sun! And a narrow boardwalk to some poor little wooden structure purporting to be -- what? -- a landing site? Yeltsin was later to say that Rybnovsk looked to be two or three hundred years old, judging by the type of life and the buildings in "this little place. It is surprising that people still live in such a place," he puzzled. A place that time forgot, apparently. It was clear enough that the little boardwalk was never meant to accommodate a presidential party, or even a proto-presidential party. Too many bodies. Some people carefully picked their way out on the boardwalk. The rest of us spread out to the side of it and waded through the sand.   Boris Yeltsin did not cling to the boardwalk; he did not seem to think it beneath him to take to the sand, even in full Leader mode, in suit and tie. We reached the little shack that apparently served as mission center for the "airport." That was far enough, decided the boss.   He did not need to look around to see any more. "Tak zhit' nel'zia!" he intoned. Echoes of a recent popular movie by that name. "One cannot live like that."


Coming back I was a cornered captive audience, trapped into giving a TV interview in the air. "What do you think? Will Feodorov get that special prize for business if he succeeds in his economic program?" The reporter seemed quite unhappy to be informed that there was no such thing. "Oh, a Nobel Prize in economics, you mean," I finally guessed. "Business." "Economics." It was all the same to them. On the question itself I hedged a bit. I did not quite want to dampen the local enthusiasm.

Misha and I in turn interviewed the governor, and then, eyeing the empty seat next to the Man himself, I screwed up Misha's and my nerve to approach him when everybody else was pointedly leaving the president alone -- only to discover that he -- who repeatedly bragged about how little sleep he needed -- had fallen asleep. And napped until the journey's end. The plane landed, and captain and crew and Leader lined up for an instant photo opportunity. "All these pictures," he complained, "and nobody ever gives me any." I was to remember this, and later try to do my bit to make amends. "Boris Nikolayevich," I introduced myself. "My name is Gwendolyn Stewart. I am a photo-correspondent for Business Week." He drew himself up, to be sure to overmatch my nearly six feet height. "Znayu!" he said, holding himself aloof: "I know!"   I did not know yet how characteristic this was of his approach to asserting authority.


We continued our travels around the island, up a road of mud to a paper plant in Dolinsk; the timber industry was one of the mainstays of the economy in Sakhalin. I had already toured another such plant, one built by Japan when it held the southern half of Sakhalin, and "renovated," so I had read, by the Soviets in the fifties.   It looked like a scene out of a movie about the evils of old capitalist exploitation, and gave forth a stench that sent my local guide fleeing from the plant floor to get some air. The factory chosen to present to the visiting dignitary was somewhat more presentable. Boris Yeltsin was obviously used to being a Boss, as he had been for nearly a decade in Sverdlovsk, one of the main industrial provinces of the Soviet Union. When he was done with a place, he was done. He wheeled away, and woe to the rest of us if we could not turn on a dime. Boris Yeltsin expected to be followed, and he expected the human wave in his wake to follow his magnetic pull INSTANTER. Pick up and go, and keep your place. Sheer egotism, but such zest! It was easy to be drawn and to forgive.


A ll over the island people massed to try to get near Yeltsin. "It seems to me that there is a new faith," the local TV reporter said, similar to the earlier faith in the "kind Russian tsar. People thought that Yeltsin would come and dig out the potatoes." Indeed, at town meetings and enterprises, people clamored for Yeltsin to help. Why do the miners get all the goodies? What about the construction workers? What about teachers? Yeltsin did not shrink; he did not turn mealy-mouthed, desperate to placate the people angrily crying out to him. He seemed rather to come alive when he was challenged, sparking off people.

What a contrast with his performance in the set piece of the town meeting held in the capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. There he stiffly read a speech heavy with generalities. The crowd, specially chosen and on its best behavior, was respectful but restive; the formalities seemed to dull speaker and audience alike. Those energetic, daring Soviet photographers who had clambered all over the shipyard at Korsakov now clung to the wall, intimidated, cameras downed at their sides. Here I was a guest in their country, and the only female, and yet how could I not take the kind of photographs I would have taken in such a setting back in the States? I compromised by taking them, but not as many as usual, following the rules, keeping down; Misha backed me up by darting away from the wall now and then and taking his shots too.


How infinitely better when Boris Yeltsin was engaged. "What do you advise us to do?" asked one woman in Dolinsk. "Now if you want to improve your position, work well," Yeltsin threw back at her. "We'll give you freedom. Use it." Who ruined conditions on Sakhalin? he asked. "Who polluted the rivers? Who put all kinds of obstacles in the way of the salmon spawning? Who did it? Moscow? Muscovites? No, you did it yourselves. So put everything in order yourselves." The label most often attached to Yeltsin by American commentators was "populist." Whatever else might be meant by the word, it inescapably included some notion of pandering to the masses. This, then, was strange language for a populist! Not assuring people that everything would be taken care of for them, but rather telling people to take care of things themselves. A laissez-faire populist? I was intrigued.

So were people higher up in the political activism chain. Boris Yeltsin was promising freedom of action and control over resources to people who were willing to take it -- that class of entrepreneurs economic and political whose very existence foreign observers sometimes doubt. On Sakhalin there was a real hunger for entrepreneurship. When I stayed so much longer than most foreigners did, and it got out that I was an American having something to do with "biznes" (as in Business Week), I had people knocking on the door literally at all hours trying to make some connection, to get help with some enterprise or another, from mini-tractors to ice scuba wet suits.

That I was an American mattered too. The Japanese occupation of the entire southern half of Sakhalin     had left a bitter residue of anti-Japanese sentiment. Even younger Sakhaliners who were not born until well after the war were fiercely determined to avoid any hint of a new colonialism, however politely tricked out in economic form. Asia provided their easiest, most natural market, and they knew it, but for their investment and technology partners they preferred reaching out to the United States. "Why do you use a Japanese computer!" some of my interviewees demanded to know. "Why not an American one?"

Geography might not inevitably be destiny, but some realities of the neighborhood were hard to ignore. One could not, for example, avoid observing all the used Japanese cars, with their right-hand drives, on the island. Still, a proposal to set up a business council with a half dozen foreign partners on it ran into trouble when the Sakhaliners refused to sanction a Japanese slot on it. (They did give in eventually.) And when it seemed that a deal might be made to swap the southern Kurils for Japanese aid, there were protest demonstrations, and Governor Feodorov led them. "What would they have to show for it after the money had been spent and the islands were gone?" he had asked me. "What lasting good came of selling Alaska to the Americans?" -- which Russia had done in the nineteenth century.

The Sakhaliners were also fighting to change their status as a colony of Moscow. "The island is so rich in everything," Nadezhda Moon confided, and yet the "conditions in Sakhalin are horribly poor." "Nearly ninety percent of the fish are streaming away from our island through many channels," complained the Governor. "The gas pipeline led to the mainland but not to our region; the oil was streaming we do not know where; the forests -- very rich -- disappeared.   To Moscow? We do not know where.     There are lots of forests but no furniture," Nadezhda Moon elaborated. There were cans of salmon on display in the museum in the capital city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and none in the stores. "The paradox," pointed out Radov, "is that we have a poor population and a rich country." The image of the floor attendant in my hotel painfully painstakingly counting out the change for my tea stuck in my mind; every kopeck mattered. What they needed from Moscow was a new deal.


"For all my life," Yeltsin confided to the Sakhaliners at the big town meeting, "starting with my childhood, a certain picture of this area has been shaped up." It came "from movies, different pictures, magazines, newspapers, and so on. Of course I had an image that it was a place for exiles; it was a colony. It was a place where people could not live, where life was impossible -- just rocks and water." But now, "It is very nice to have a change of impression." The region "is rich; nature is rich, on the land and under the land." Sakhalin was "an island which they did not manage to destroy. They did not manage to make it messy and dirty, as they did in many other regions of Russia."   Some of the locals would probably find this picture rather rosy. "What about our river Naiva, "filled with mud, with oil," a man had asked. What about the difficulties of converting this military base of an island to new civilian uses? Feodorov found himself struggling to wrestle parcels of land from military control. And what of the wasted, desolate facilities they left behind when they did let go?     But now at least there was hope.


Yeltsin appealed to them because he promised to let them keep more of those riches for themselves. If they got the special status they were seeking and Yeltsin was promising them, Feodorov said, "We would be the real master of our island." After Yeltsin had left for Kamchatka, the next and last stop on his tour, I sat with Aleksandr Bandyukov and his friends the Bychkovs, two of the activists who had helped elect Feodorov and had themselves been elected people's deputies, for a postmortem of the trip. Before Yeltsin's arrival, the Governor had held the "President" somewhat at arm's length. What can he offer us? he had asked me rhetorically. They do not have anything themselves in Moscow. And besides, in Feodorov's eyes, Yeltsin was a Boris-Come-Lately, a recent convert to the free enterprise spirit he himself had been preaching for several years. After the inspection tour, however, Feodorov seemed mollified. Yeltsin had known more about the place than Feodorov had guessed; he had done his homework. And Yeltsin had played to Feodorov. "You are our hope," he had said. The skeptical governor eventually ended up -- for a time -- in the president's brain trust.

"We will help you with only one thing," Yeltsin had told the reformers on Sakhalin: "we will give the biggest freedom which is possible." Eventually eighty-five percent of the production of Sakhalin was to be at their disposal. They would be given the right of licensing their natural resources: fish, oil, gas, timber, fur, coal, everything -- in 1995. In 1990, by contrast, Moscow was taking ninety-two percent. Svetlana Bychkova, the economist in the family, explained that Yeltsin understood that Moscow would get a bigger and better quality share of an expanding pie if he would let Sakhalin manage more of it itself in a free economic zone. All this would add up to "one revolution more," Bandyukov said. "A peaceful revolution," Svetlana Bychkova added. "Like the Czech revolution: smooth," Bandyukov topped her.

How, I asked, could they get Moscow to quit hanging on to the percentage they were used to taking? "How are you going to get them to go cold turkey?" "They are new people," Svetlana protested. Gennady Bychkov, her husband, explained, "They are not smokers." What he meant is that they were not hooked, so they did not have to go cold turkey. The old ministries, the military officers, maybe even Gorbachev would resist, he did concede, prophetically. Still, they had to hope. "In five years," said Bandyukov, "our Sakhalin will be a new Shenzhen." For "If Sakhalin is not a new Shenzhen," said Svetlana, "then it will be a Tiananmen." The phrase, I found out, was Gennady's. "My copyright!" he chortled.


Time for one brief parting interview with the Governor. Finally he brought himself to say it: "We are building capitalism!"




MOSCOW & the GULF WAR:   Excerpt from Chapter Three

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IN THE WORKS: A book based on the exhibition of a quarter-century of the photography of Gwendolyn Stewart entitled "HERE BE GIANTS" held at Harvard.

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GWENDOLYN STEWART is both a photojournalist and a political scientist specializing in political leadership in Russia, China, and the U.S.   A former Bunting/Radcliffe Fellow, she is an Associate (and former Post-Doctoral Fellow) of the Davis Center for Russian Studies and Central Eurasian Studies at Harvard, as well as an Associate in Research of the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.   For the Fairbank Center she co-founded and co-chairs the China Current Events Workshop, which examines pressing issues in Greater China.   Her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation (Sic Transit) dealt with the role of the leaders of the republics, especially Boris Yeltsin, in the breakup of the Soviet Union.   She is currently writing RUSSIA REDUX , the story of Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, part political analysis, part travel-memoir:   Imagine wandering over the largest country on earth, not in the train of a railroad, but in the train of one of the most powerful and contradictory men on earth.   Or all by yourself.























Chapter cited in Andrew Andersen, "South Kuriles/Northern Territories: A Stumbling-block in Russia-Japan Relations"


© Copyright 2015 Gwendolyn Stewart.   All Rights Reserved.