Sakhalin, a remote island in the West Pacific, is situated between the Sea of Okhotsk to its east and the Sea of Japan to its southwest. It's the largest island under Russian jurisdiction, being part of Sakhalin Oblast, and covers an area of about 72,492 square kilometers (27,989 sq miles). Approximately 500,000 people live on the island, with most being Russians. The Indigenous peoples of Sakhalin, known as Nivkhs, Ainu, and Uilta, remain today, albeit in small numbers. Traditionally, the Nivkh were fishers and hunters, and bred dogs. They led a semi-nomadic lifestyle, staying near coastlines during the summers and moving inland by streams and rivers during the winters for salmon fishing. The region they occupy has a taiga forest landscape with snowy, cold winters and mildly warm summers with limited trees. It's believed that the Nivkh were the area's first settlers, originating from a Neolithic group that moved from the Transbaikal region in the Late Pleistocene.
The Russian Empire gained complete control over Nivkh lands in the second half of the 19th century. The Nivkh suffered severely from the colonisation. The Russians established a penal colony on Sakhalin, which operated from 1857 to 1906. They transported numerous Russian criminal and political exiles there. As a result, the Nivkh population was soon outnumbered. They were sometimes employed as prison guards. Diseases like smallpox, plague, and influenza, introduced by the newcomers and exacerbated by the unsanitary conditions of the prison, devastated the Nivkh community.
Under Soviet rule, the Nivkh were forced to join large agricultural and industrial labor collectives known as kolkhoz. Soon, the Nivkh found themselves living and working as a marginalized group among the dominant Russian workforce. This collective system profoundly changed the Nivkh way of life, leading to the disappearance of their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The Soviet leadership held up the Nivkh as an example of a culture rapidly transitioning from “Neolithic to “socialist” one. They prohibited the use of the Nivkh language in schools and public spaces and enforced the Russian language, leading to the Russification of the Nivkh.
In 1962, the Soviet authorities relocated many Nivkh communities, reducing the number of Sakhalin settlements from 82 to 13 by 1986. This reshuffling was facilitated through the elimination of kolkhoz collectives, which the Nivkh had come to rely on heavily. The shutting down of state-supported facilities like schools or power generators often drove people to relocate to government-designated areas.
Following the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the kolkhoz collectives were destroyed. Thus, the Nivkh community faced increasing impoverishment.
Yulia Kortneva, a director, created a documentary about Sakhalin, which can also be watched on YouTube, where the life of Nivkhs today is described.
In this first documentary, which Kortneva filmed on her own and has since got around 180,000 views, she went to Rybnoe, one of the dying villages, which was populated mainly by Nivkhs.
The village is mainly accessible by helicopters in winter, and they rarely come. Another mode of access is via snowmobile over ice on the bay, but this 52-kilometre journey from the nearest accessible village takes over three hours in the biting cold.
People make a living by fishing; there is rarely electricity and no running water.
Nivkhs traditionally bred dogs, some do it today, too.
One of the older Nivkhs living in the village showed Kortneva a photo of his school class, where most of the pupils were Nivkhs.
Now, there are mostly pensioners living in the village, and it is no longer possible to be registered as living there.
The latest census estimates that the population of Nikhs in Sakhalin has decreased: if in 2002 there were 5,287 people identifying as Nikhs in Sakhalin, by 2021, only 3,842 named themselves as belonging to that group.