‘Everything that could fall had already fallen’ 25 years ago, an earthquake destroyed the town of Neftegorsk in Russia’s Sakhalin region and killed two thousand people.
In the fall of 1995, Neftegorsk was officially declared dead — only a memorial, a chapel, and a cemetery were left standing. Earlier that year, on the night of May 28, 1995, the deadliest earthquake in modern Russian history completely destroyed the town. According to official data, 2,040 people were killed — more than half of the town’s residents. Meduza correspondent Alexey Yurtayev spoke with survivors of the earthquake, visited the site where the city once stood, and reconstructed the tragic events in detail.
“I’m going to die”
Late in the evening on May 27, 1995, ninth-grade Neftegorsk resident Inna Klimova was watching a concert on TV. When the clock struck midnight, Inna went to her room to study; in a few days, she was supposed to take an exam that would determine whether she could enter the 10th grade.
Inna was sitting on the edge of her bed when she heard a “sharp, rising hum.” The lights blinked, then went out. She had the thought that it must be an earthquake: “This is just like in Spitak, and I’m going to die!” She wanted to get up and grab her bag with her documents, but something heavy hit her in the head and knocked her out. When Inna came to, she found herself in a “hut” of rubble, surrounded by pieces of her wardrobe and the ruins of her walls, including the shredded remains of a poster of her favorite band, Ace of Base.
The 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck on May 28 at 1:05 a.m., local time. The first tremor lasted only 17 seconds. Aftershocks followed, but the majority of buildings in Neftegorsk were destroyed in the initial quake’s first few seconds.
The last song
The former residents of Neftegorsk referred to it as both a village and a city — officially, it was considered an “urban village.” On the night of May 28, 1995, the majority of its residents were at home, but others were working, out with friends, or attending a dance at the local recreation center.
The dance was supposed to last until 1:00 a.m. A few minutes earlier, however, the lights were switched on in the main room and an employee known to most people as “Aunt Galya” announced that the dance was over; it was time for everyone to go home. More than 20 people were still on the dance floor.
Lyudmila hadn’t wanted to go to the dance, but her 11th-grade sister, Vika, had convinced her. Their mother had gone to work at a TV tower on Neftegorsk’s outskirts and their father was still at home. “Dad, we’re going to the club!” the sisters had said on their way home. It was the last time Lyudmila saw her father alive; their apartment in building No. 17 was completely demolished.
To this day, Lyudmila distinctly remembers the smell of fresh paint on the dance floor and her sister’s warm touch. “The last song played for a minute and a half, then the lights suddenly went out. [When the tremor began,] Vika took me by the hand and said, ‘Let’s go!’ We took a step, and that was it. The ceiling of the two-story building collapsed on all the kids. It hit me in the head and in the back. I thought I stayed conscious, but I probably got knocked out.”
Lyudmila came to when people around her started shouting, “Is anyone alive?” Coughing from the dust, she asked what had happened — an explosion? An earthquake? “I called out for Vika, but she didn’t answer. When I crawled out, I could still feel the tremors. Outside of the club was a car with headlights on. I lifted my head and saw the ceiling shaking. I thought it might collapse again, and I ran home.”
In 2002, the head of the Neftegorsk police, Victor Novoselov, recalls how survivors started their cars and turned on the headlights after the earthquake so that the people crawling out of the rubble could find their way in the dark.
When she got home, Lyudmila found only ruins.
A naked police officer
On the morning of May 28, 1995, twenty-six-year-old Neftegorsk police officer Andrey Glebov was supposed to visit a nearby village for an inspection. The day before, his wife and son had flown to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to see relatives, but Andrey stayed behind in his two-room apartment with their one-year-old daughter.
A few hours before the earthquake, Andrey and his parents agreed that they would look after his daughter in the morning, as they lived in the same building. The following day, Andrey found his parents under the rubble and “dug them out myself,” he told Meduza. They hadn’t survived.
The evening before the earthquake, Glebov put his daughter to bed and watched some TV. After midnight, he turned off the television and went to run a bath. He pulled his daughter’s bed out into the hallway so that he would hear her better if she woke up. After he undressed and got ready to take a bath, his daughter started to cry. Glebov wrapped a towel around himself, ran to the bed, and picked up his daughter. At that moment, the television suddenly exploded. Glebov then felt a strong tremor under his feet.
The earthquake knocked over the building and Glebov, naked and carrying his daughter, quickly got outside (he doesn’t remember how). “It was like you were going to a nude beach!” his neighbors later joked. But at the time, there was nothing funny about it — a naked man with his one-year-old daughter in his arms, standing on a pile of rubble in a cloud of settling dust. He thought there must have been a gas explosion.
The temperature that night was a brisk 10 degrees (Celsius, or 50 degrees Fahrenheit). When Glebov started climbing down from the ruins, he heard screaming, moaning, and crying. When he made it to the ground, he met an acquaintance who was sitting in an oil truck. When the acquaintance turned on his high beams, Glebov saw how all the houses in the area had collapsed.
“If this isn’t the end of the world, we’re going to end up underwater”
For several hours after the earthquake, 24-year-old Svetlana Parshina was sure there had been a flood in Neftegorsk, and that she would drown, trapped under the ruins with her five-year-old son, Vadik.
“When we were in school, our geography teacher told us how, every year, Sakhalin goes under two centimeters of water. I sat and thought, ‘If this isn’t the end of the world, we’re going to end up underwater,” she told Meduza. “I sat with my son on my knees, waiting for the water to come. It became clear that it was an earthquake when the aftershocks hit.”
When Svetlana regained consciousness in the dark, her leg was pinned down by the television and heavy pieces of debris. She was able to free herself as soon as she heard her son crying. She made her way to him and then crawled to the broken pieces of the bed, carrying the boy on her back.
“Humans don’t know what they’re capable of. We have hidden reserves inside that we can’t even imagine,” said Parshina.
Svetlana’s husband, Edward, was in the bathroom; she recalls how they shouted back and forth for a while. He was saying that he was “crushed by the bathtub.” After a few hours, Edward said goodbye to his wife and stopped answering. That’s how she learned of her husband’s death.
At first, Svetlana and her son yelled and called for help as much as possible, but they eventually decided to save their strength. They even decided to go to sleep several times. She didn’t want to eat, but she really wanted to drink and smoke. She didn’t know what was happening outside, but several times she saw a thin ray of light shining into the room, and that’s how she learned it was daytime.
Two days later, early in the morning on May 30, their cries were finally heard. According to Svetlana, this was during the “quiet hour,” when the heavy machinery was turned off, and the first responders listened for sounds under the ruins. At 5:30 a.m., rescue workers cut a hole in the wall, gave them glucose with tea, and warned them to drink it “in sips.” The rescue operation lasted about five hours.
According to Svetlana, when she finally made it out, she felt “ashamed.” “I was just in a nightgown! And there were men there! But they gave me pants and socks, and I pulled them on and crawled out around 11 a.m. — they put me on a stretcher. And I said, ‘You don’t need to! I’m all in one piece!’ I remember, someone joked: ‘At least let the men take you!’”
After undergoing an examination in a field hospital, Svetlana and her son were taken by helicopter to a hospital in Okha. Seeing the destroyed village from above for the first time, Svetlana was horrified. In Okha, she was moved to her mother-in-law’s, but she returned to Neftegorsk several times again that summer — to bury her husband, her mother, and other relatives, and to get her documents restored.
Svetlana’s five-year-old son cried at night for several months after the earthquake, always just after midnight. Svetlana herself still tries not to spend too much time in the bathroom. “I wash up very quickly, even though before the earthquake I could lie in the bathtub for three hours with a book — then it was like my memory had been shot. Now, very rarely, I can lie in the bathtub for half an hour instead of a shower, but I was really scared, at first.”
In the first weeks after the earthquake, everyone in Okha was scared; they didn’t spend nights in their apartments and opted instead to live at their dachas or to sleep outside under the stars, according to Svetlana. With time, she overcame her phobia. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the same death can’t happen twice — since I survived an earthquake, my death won’t be from an earthquake.”
“We can handle things ourselves”
“It’s the ninth day of rescue work, and they’re no longer finding people alive,” a correspondent for the TV show “Viewpoint” declared on June 5, 1995. By mid-June, officials had confirmed 1,841 deaths. By the year’s end, the number was up to 2,040 — a figure that includes missing and unidentified people. Their names are recorded on a memorial in the town’s former center.
The rescue operation was led by a Federal Emergency Management Agency head Sergey Shoigu (now Russia’s defense minister), then just 40 years old. In an interview with Izvestia, he called the 1995 earthquake “the most difficult trial,” recalling how “we [the Ministry] first encountered our own powerlessness in the fight against death.”
Yuri Levin, director of the Sakhalin branch of the Geophysical Service of the Russian Academy of Sciences, described the young Shoigu to Meduza: “He ran the meeting pretty dramatically, with cursing and shouting, but honestly, too — everything was accomplished,” Levin said. “Someone whispered to him about me, and he turned to me and said, ‘What do you need?’ I mentioned the [closed] seismic station. Shoigu called for a group to be organized to discuss the issue, then asked, ‘Is 8 million [rubles] enough?’ This was a lot at the time. I said, ‘I don’t need money — I need permission to open the station.” He gave me permission and we got to work, the next day.”
Yuri Zainashev, a correspondent for the news site Vzglyad, recalls how Japan, which had experienced an earthquake in Kobe in 1995, offered to help with the rescue operation in Neftegorsk. “I asked, ‘Sergey Kuzhugetovich, why didn’t the Japanese come?’ Shoigu looked away and said, ‘We’ll handle it ourselves,’” Zainashev wrote in his column.
Japan was ready to send tents, sleeping bags, blankets, and medical supplies to the victims, but Boris Yeltsin himself rejected the offer. Kommersant attributed the following quote to the president: “We haven’t accepted [foreign aid], so far. We can handle things ourselves for now, because they could say afterward, ‘Give us the Kuril Islands.’”
Eventually, however, the whole world sent aid to Neftegorsk. According to the Emergency Management Agency, more than 100 foreign governments contributed something, though it’s still unclear how much of the humanitarian aid actually reached the victims. Many of the former Neftegorsk residents who spoke to Meduza say they’re certain that many essential items ended up with local bureaucrats.
After the earthquake, town officials treated the victims “lousily,” says Svetlana Parshina, who learned about the aid when she was in the process of burying her husband and restoring her documents. When Parshina went to the city administration for help in June 1995, she was given a blanket, underwear, and pantyhose, as well as a t-shirt for her son. Her mother in law, however, was good friends with the woman in the administration responsible for distributing aid to the victims (Svetlana didn’t give her name). Later on, when Svetlana and her mother-in-law went to the woman’s house, Svetlana saw a large number of imported aid products in her apartment.
The smell of death
In early June 1995, there was a heatwave in northern Sakhalin, and the bodies left under the ruins started to decompose, making the first responders’ work even more unbearable.
Therapist Vladimir Slabinsky was living in Vladivostok that year. He learned about the earthquake in Neftegorsk almost immediately; he’d spent a lot of his childhood there, and his friends from Neftegorsk called him right away. Images of the aftermath weren’t shown on the news for almost a week after the earthquake hit, so Slabinsky didn’t fully understand the scale of what had happened, but he and his colleagues decided to travel to the island to help.
When Slabinsky arrived in Neftegorsk, the first thing he noticed was a “strong, awful smell” pervading the town. “It was all very concentrated: the smell of corpses mixed with the smell of concrete and destruction — very specific,” Slabinsky told Meduza. “I’m a doctor by education, I’ve been in an anatomy lab, in a judicial morgue — but this was something different. This was actually the smell of death.”
The therapists were given a trailer, outside of which they could hear rescue workers using construction equipment to save people from the rubble. From time to time, they felt aftershocks. “There was one consolation: there wasn’t anything left to destroy. Everything that could fall had already fallen.”
Every day, about eight to ten people would visit their trailer. The therapists worked in “non-stop mode,” from 5:00 a.m. until late at night. “Classic” therapy was impossible in these conditions, explains Slabinsky, who says the point of their work was to help those who had lost loved ones to find meaning in their lives while moving forward. Even a decent funeral can help people find meaning, Slabinsky says.
He recalls how many of the former Neftegorsk residents found their relationship with death changing; some men, for example, made coffins for the victims and even slept inside of them while building them.
“There are people here, and we need to fight for them”
In the Okha library, there’s an old laminated copy of a page from the newspaper Civil Protection with a forecast of the 1995 earthquake. One line is circled: “The period from June 20 to 30 will be distressing for residents of Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, and Kamchatka.”
According to seismologist Yuri Levin, people constantly ask him the same question: “Is it possible to predict earthquakes?” Predicting earthquakes with 100-percent accuracy — in other words, naming the specific place, time, and strength of a future earthquake — has never been done, Levin says.
After serving in the army, Levin ended up at a seismic station and caught the “golden years” of Soviet seismology: the 1980s. By the early 1990s, however, eastern Russia’s unified network of stations was starting to fall apart. In March 1994, the seismic station in Okha, where Levin worked, was shut down, as well. Levin got a job as a locksmith at a water tower and quit seismology, until May 1995. After that, one seismic station in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was responsible for monitoring the entire eastern region, a territory consisting of 3 million square kilometers (almost 1.2 million square miles).
When the Neftegorsk earthquake struck, Levin was living in the former seismic station in Okha with his family, renting the space after the station closed down. After the initial tremors, he ran outside and found that the buildings in Okha were still standing. Levin called people in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and they informed him that the epicenter was in Nyvrovo, an abandoned village in the northern part of the island, which meant there was no cause for concern.
Yuri learned about Neftegorsk’s destruction from some friends the next day. After seeing the first images taken on the ground, he rushed to the town. He forgot about his work at the water tower and didn’t show up for the next two weeks, but he wasn’t fired; instead, his employers supported him. Levin became a local celebrity after he personally convinced Shoigu to reopen Okha’s seismic station.
That’s when people began asking him about future earthquakes.
“Everyone was calling me and saying, ‘I felt it shake just now!’ They were feeling the aftershocks and asking me for forecasts,” says Levin, who now lives in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, on the opposite end of the island, more than 500 miles to the south.
At first, people were so scared that they tried to stay close to the seismologist. “They even lived on the station’s premises. There were borrowed cots everywhere. Some people slept in their cars, some slept on the ground, and the children were given rooms. People thought, ‘This works! He’s a seismologist, so we’re not going to die! It’s safe around Levin!’” he said.
After the Neftegorsk earthquake, the government started reopening the seismic stations throughout the east and outfitting the facilities with modern equipment, but there are still only 47 stations monitoring seismic activity across Russia’s Far Eastern region, which includes Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, the Primorsky and Khabarovsk Territories, and the Amur and Jewish Autonomous Regions. For comparison, on the nearby Japanese island of Hokkaido, there are roughly 500 seismic stations, which provides much more accurate monitoring.
“The population of the Sakhalin region is 500,000, and this would require how much money?” explains Levin. “Take Severo-Kurilsk, where the population is 2,500 people. It would require several billion rubles to establish a network. Who needs this for so few people? Only the seismologists. By global standards, there’s no population here, but there are people here, and we need to fight for them.”
“No village, no problem”
Sakhalin’s population has declined steeply since the early 1990s, from almost 800,000 people in the late 1980s to 488,000 in the late 2010s. According to Alexander Pozemsky, an Okha city employee, 400 people “disappeared” from the town in 2019 alone, and any growth in recent years has been due to migrant workers.
It’s unclear how many people left the island as a result of the earthquake, but many sources who spoke to Meduza attribute the population decline to seismic activity. According to data from the Russian government, Sakhalin lost a total of 33,000 people in 1995, including those who died or went missing in Neftegorsk.
In June 1995, seismologist Yuri Levin met often with high-level authorities visiting northern Sakhalin. Mostly, he commends their work, but he recalls one behind-the-scenes incident when an official let slip: “No village — no problems.”
Levin says the conversation related to a social situation that existed before the earthquake: local oil reserves were being depleted and there was nowhere else for residents to work. Oil production on Sakhalin declined until 1996, when offshore projects began. According to Slabinsky, several people who survived the earthquake but lost loved ones didn’t make it to the 2000s; some of them died by suicide, some died from alcoholism, and others died of natural causes.
“Some people lost their entire family, but rallied and became husband and wife"
Neftegorsk residents eventually did manage to restore their town, albeit in a digital format. In a closed group on the social network Odnoklassniki, they collected hundreds of archival photos and videos, as well as many stories. People initially shared news and chatted, but they now spend more time notifying each other about people’s deaths.
The survivors see each other offline, as well. Every year on May 28, residents of the former village try their best to meet in northern Sakhalin. They visit the cemetery and lay flowers at the memorial in the town center. People who aren’t able to travel to Neftegorsk meet in other cities, too.
Eleven years ago, at one of these meetings in St. Petersburg, Inna Klimova met her classmate — he was the first person she spoke to after escaping the rubble in May 1995. Soon after the meeting, they got married. Svetlana Parshina, whose husband died in the earthquake, also married a fellow Neftegorsk resident who had lost his relatives in a fire.
“Our village is small — no more than 3,000 people. Basically, everyone knew each other, went to the same school, and somehow we were all neighbors,” says Parshina. “Now, in Okha, I don’t even know who lives in the apartment across from me. After the earthquake, couples really found each other — some people lost their entire family, but rallied and became husband and wife.”
Meduza thanks the Berlin-based NGO “Dekabristen e.V.” and Evgeny Melikhov for their help preparing this article.