sihanoukville – They came from Russia, with love. And Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan. Citizens of almost every former Slavic Soviet republic have found what they call an unexploited piece of paradise in Sihanoukville—and made it their own.
And while their nationalities distinguish them, their language—and similar cultures—unite them in a place more than 5,000 km away from the countries they left to find better opportunities for work, start the business they had always dreamed of, raise young children born in Cambodia, or just bask in the perpetual sun.
Aside from the 5,000 to 6,000 Russian-speaking tourists that flock to this seaside town every year, Sihanoukville is now a permanent home to about 200 former Soviet citizens—and the community is growing.
The Russian-speaking community has gained such a strong foothold in Sihanoukville since the late 1990s that in addition to their own Russian-language newspaper, a monthly Russian community meeting, six Russian restaurants, street signs in Russian, and a vast Russian-owned beachside disco, Sihanoukville may soon be home to its first Russian Orthodox Church.
And one man stands behind almost all of it: meet Nikolai Doroshenko.
“Everyone knows everybody else and they have freedom,” explained Mr Doroshenko as he sipped coffee out of an ornate teacup at his beachside cafe surrounded by plush chairs, miniature gold-plated statues of Greek Gods and a large flat screen TV tuned to a Russian news channel.
“The ocean, the air, the water are nice, no one bugs them, there are good visa requirements, no factories, ecological sites, and it’s always warm,” said the 51-year-old, whose cafe is next to his Airport nightclub and restaurant which feature a real Antonov-24 twin propeller airplane. The nightclub is located just a few kilometers from the $3,000-a-night VIP rooms on his island resort. Just down the road from the nightclub, Mr Doroshenko also runs a snakebite clinic, a zoo full of snakes and crocodiles, and a guesthouse.
But why Cambodia? “It’s perfect,” says Mr Doroshenko, wearing a T-shirt printed with the word ‘Russia’ in large, bold red letters.
At the cafe, a Lexus, Mercedes Benz and Hummer are parked outside. Inside the Airport nightclub, which is like a plane hangar, a bikini-clad young woman and her boyfriend frolic in the sand; Mr Doroshenko’s 29-year-old son Ostap plays ping pong to the tune of nostalgic old Soviet pop with a friend while men sit at tables nearby talking business in Russian in between cigarettes and vodka shots.
“I love Khmer people and Cambodia is the best place in the world,” said Mr Doroshenko, who after years in the country speaks fluent Khmer.
His life today is a far cry from that which he had back home.
In 1990, he was working at a research institute in Uzbekistan that made anti-venoms and medicinal ointments from snake poison when it closed at the fall of the Soviet Union.
Suddenly without a job and the economy plummeting, like many others, Mr Doroshenko started looking for a way out.
“People were going to Europe, to America to work, but I came here,” he explained, “because of the unexploited white beaches, the flora and fauna.”
“It opened up an interesting opportunity for a biologist.”
And the opportunities were varied.
Soon after arriving in Cambodia in 1991, Mr Doroshenko set up an NGO that helped rescue and treat endangered animals being smuggled across the Vietnamese border, helping to build the Phnom Tamao zoo in the process.
After money dried up and his wildlife rescue organization went belly up in 1994, Mr Doroshenko worked for a Chinese company as a biologist before joining, he says, the Cambodian People’s Party, and also landing a gig at the Ministry of Agriculture.
As a card-carrying member of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party, Mr Doroshenko says he began buying land in Sihanoukville while it was still cheap. He bought land, built houses on it, and sold it. That’s when he started turning a profit. And the rest seems to be history.
“Europe was afraid of investing in the country after Pol Pot,” he says.
In addition to his Snake House guesthouse and snaked-themed restaurant, the aircraft-hanger nightclub and land investment company, Mr Doroshenko’s most ambitious undertaking is a luxury resort on Koh Dek Koule (Kul) Island off Sihanoukville’s coast, to which he gained a 99-year lease in 2005.
“It’s a place artists, wedding parties, businessmen, Russian celebrities and other important people go to rest in private,” says Yulia Vereshchaka, Airport Club’s 31-year old manger who arrived in Sihanoukville with her husband three months ago from Ukraine.
“I’m never going back to Kiev. I love it here,” she says.
Mr Doroshenko appears to be single-handedly building a post-Soviet culture and community from the sand up here. Next on his to do list? A Russian-Orthodox church.
“There are things you need, things that become more necessary-kids need to be baptized,” he says.
And though Mr Doroshenko estimates the permanent Russian-speaking community here to number only 200 people, he launched the “Kambodzhuyckaya Pravda” earlier this year, a newspaper that comes out once every two months that means “Cambodian Truth”. Its slogan dedicates the newspaper to “Life in Cambodia in the Russian language”.
“Russia is very difficult and very cold,” said Vadim Kostiuminskii, 39, who with his wife and two daughters recently scoped out Sihanoukville to see if the family wanted to move here permanently from Yakutsk, Russia.
Just like the old Soviet Union as it threw off communism, Mr Kostiuminskii said he sees a similar potential in Sihanoukville.
“There are a lot of opportunities for businessmen here,” Mr Kostiuminskii said.
“It is very similar to perestroika, when people didn’t know where to put their capital. In Cambodia, all these horizons are open.”
But the positive parallels that he sees between Cambodia and Russia also come with the bad.
“The same problems are here that were in Russia-cheap alcohol, drugs, prostitutes,” he says. “It’s not safe for our children.”
“It’s scary,” he said, adding almost as an afterthought that “I might change my mind” about Cambodia.
Indeed, the Russian presence in Sihanoukville has not been without controversy, particularly in the case of Alexander Trofimov, the alias of wanted Russian pedophile Stanislav Molodyakov, who is serving an eight-year prison term in Sihanoukville after his 2007 arrest and subsequent conviction for having sex with children and engaging in indecent acts with 15 underage Cambodian girls.
Molodyakov was the executive director of the Russian-owned firm Koh Puos (Cambodia) Investment Group Ltd, which is pumping a reported $417 million into building a resort community of private, luxury condominiums and villas on Snake Island off Sihanoukville’s coast.
Koh Puos Investment has tried to distance itself from Molodyakov – who is still wanted in Russia for the rape of children there – and declined to be interviewed for this story.
Mr Doroshenko, who said that he is not involved with Koh Puos investors, wants to forget all about the scandal.
“It’s in the past,” he said.
Impressed by the seemingly deep pockets of his Russian residents, Sihanoukville Governor Sboang Sarath said he hopes to attract a lot more to the town.
“I hope in the future, many more Russian visitors come because Russian investors invest in condominiums, hotels, and the business sector,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)