Sakhalin's residents may have much to gain from an oil-rich future. The region has one of Russia's lowest per capita incomes — about $30 per month. With the Soviet-era pulp mills and coal mines shut down, the population has fallen from 700,000 to 600,000 and salmon poaching may be the leading local occupation. For most of those stranded there, life remains as bleak as it was when Chekhov made his famous Sakhalin pilgrimage, the basis of his study of the penal colony, The Island of Sakhalin, just over a century ago.
But the island's residents also have much to lose: bountiful natural riches, colonies of birds, seals and whales — and a destitute indigenous population of Nivkhi, a people that has lived on Sakhalin for centuries. ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch/Shell face global pressure to operate in an ecologically responsible way, and they are certainly bound to do less damage than Russian oil companies might. But the oil boom has spawned a local Green movement that unites Communist legislators, duck hunters, fishermen and ecologists. They have ample cause for concern: last summer, fishermen in the north came across something they had never seen: a mountain of dead herring stretching for kilometers on the shores of Piltun Bay.
Dmitri Lisitsyn, head of the Environmental Watch of Sakhalin, expects no help from Moscow and talks ominously of "Putin's assault on the environment." In May, Russia's President signed a decree scrapping the State Committee for Environmental Protection and transferred its portfolio to the Natural Resources Ministry, which doles out licenses for developing Russia's petrochemical fields. That, say the ecowarriors, is like handing over the lamb to the wolves.