Report: Okha

Okha (12.08 – 19.08.2014)
Merja Salo & Erika Sandman

After arriving to Okha, the administrative center of the northernmost district of Sakhalin, we settled in a hotel, which was located in an ordinary apartment building next to the pet shop, barbers and a dentist. Downstairs there was the restaurant Cafe Pharaon, which was decorated with Egyptian style pictures and other utensils. The restaurant soon became our base in Okha. We also tried some other restaurants, such as Komilfo, a newly-opened restaurant combining Wild West and Lapland style, but our encounter with local “businessmen” and their girlfriends ended in quite confused feelings. No menu was available, no alcohol was for sale, but it was allowed to bring your own bottles. However, the entrance fee after 20.00 was 200 rubles. One whispering proposition was made: “Do you want our “special tea”?”

Okha is located c.a. 850 km north of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. According to the census 1989 there were 36 100 inhabitants in the town, but now the population is estimated to be 21 500, and it is still declining. The same trend is taking place in the whole district; only 9 villages out of the 37 are inhabited any more. Many old Nivkh dwellings have also been abandoned. In 1995 devastating earthquake hit the village of Neftegorsk, 98 km south of Okha. The few survivors moved to the town, where a church was built to honor the memory of the victims.

Okha is the center of Sakhalin’s petroleum industry. Oil was found in 1880. Nowadays the town provides education for petroleum industry workers. Local economy is also based on wood processing, ferroconcrete, masonry, mechanical, and fishing industry. Okha was occupied by Japanese troops from 1920 to 1925.

The next day (13th of August) we went to the village of Nekrasovka (with 900 inhabitants) and visited the Nivkh cultural center Kykh-Kykh (‘Swan’) led by Fedor Sergeyevich Mygun. In the cultural center we met one of our best language consultants, Mrs. Zoya Ivanovna Lyutova (born in 1946), who had accomplished a long career as a reporter. From her we got a lot of interesting sociolinguistic information, as well as material on grammatical topics such as Nivkh numeral classifiers and weather expressions. In Kykh-Kykh we also enjoyed many traditional dishes of the Nivkh people, including dried smelt, rowan berry jam and a salad made of crowberries, fish fat and sugar.


Outside Kykh-Kykh.


On the 14th of August we did some more interviews in Nekrasovka and participated in a local festival, which involved the opening of the children’s playground. Administrators from Okha and some members of our group, professors Janne Saarikivi and Anna Bugayeva, gave speeches and the children sang some pop music. There was also an ethno fashion show introducing Nivkh costumes. Mrs. Lyutova was wearing a shaman’s costume and playing a drum, and she was the absolute star of the fashion show.

On the 15th of August Juha Janhunen, Janne Saarikivi, Jouko Lindstedt and Andrew Logie went to farther north, to the Shmidt Peninsula. Most of our other group members stayed in Okha and enjoyed a tour in the regional museum, a guided walk in the center of Okha and a trip to the beach nearby. On our way to the beach we paid attention to many abandoned apartment buildings that were surrounding the town and wondered about reasons behind this phenomenon. After the trip to the beach we had a chance to spend some time in the shopping center in the main street of Okha and we found, among many other shops, a very fancy footwear shop selling a shoe brand KENKÄ, which despite its Finnish name was manufactured in China.

On the 16th of August a part of our group went to Nekrasovka and the other group members stayed in Okha. We conducted some more interviews in the regional museum and in the afternoon we were taken to the local Nivkh cultural center. It was located in an ordinary apartment and the interior was quite modest. However, it was a meeting place for about 30 active people who were involved in organizing various events related to Nivkh culture, including language courses. In the cultural center we met another great informant, Mrs. Alexandra Yakovlevna Prokofyeva (born in 1947), a mechanic and a worker in fish industry, who had a rich knowledge of Nivkh social history and the traditional way of life, as well as a good command of Nivkh grammar. When we asked about the connections to the cultural center Kykh-Kykh in Nekrasovka, we found out that the two cultural centers unfortunately do not have much collaboration.


Nivkh fashion show.


On the 17th of August we all went to Nekrasovka to finish our interviews. After the interviews, which mainly involved sociolinguistics and toponymy, we went to the beach to see the tide, swim in the sea and collect sea shells. On our way to the beach through forest we also had a chance to collect many local plants, which were donated to the Helsinki Botanical Museum after the trip. We were accompanied by a cute little dog Ais (‘Gold’) from Nekrasovka, who became very attached to some of our group members.

On the 18th of August we left Okha by bus and headed towards Nogliki. After 6 hours in the bus, we still had a chance to enjoy the delicacies in Cafe Olympic before leaving to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk by the night train.

On the 19th of August we arrived to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. It was time to say goodbye to professor Anna Bugayeva and the delegates from the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk regional museum, who went back home. Our group continued the trip by boat from Korsakov to Wakkanai.

Photos: Andrew Logie