Islands only a mother could love

Simon Winchester visits the heartbreaking Kurile Islands -- ceded to Russia, claimed by Japan and lamented by the lonely soldiers who have to live there.

Topics: Russia, Travel,

Some years ago I stood on a high headland on the far northern tip of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, and through powerful binoculars — costing 100 yen a minute — I gazed across the sea to one of the strangest and most unyielding legacies of the Second World War. A couple of miles away, shimmering in the sea-haze, rose a tiny island, and on the island was a small wooden hut. A ragged flag flew over it, and a couple of men could just be seen idling by the door. They seemed to be in uniform, and they were carrying guns.

What kept me and a score of Japanese tourists all gazing through the binoculars, pumping in coin after coin, was that the flag was the tricolor of the Russian republic and the men were soldiers of the Russian army. They were standing on an island that until the very last days of the war had been indisputably Japanese territory: They were so close you felt you could shout at them. Several Japanese tried to: Get out! they cried. Go home!

Recently, I happened to see the situation in reverse. I had been traveling on a rusty Russian icebreaker, going between Kamchatka and Vladivostok, and the captain, acting on a whim, decided to stop in the southern Kuriles, because he knew I was interested, and to underline his own passionate belief that these misty, slippery, windswept and foggy rocks were as Russian as the islands in St. Petersburg’s harbor. Thus I found myself on an island called Kunashir, taking tea with the very Russians whom the Japanese gaze down at, and whom they demand should leave.

Statesmen of the far away and the long ago were responsible for this bizarre situation. When Stalin met with Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta in 1945, the Soviet leader promised that his army would join the war against the Japanese on the condition, among many, that the Kuriles be declared Soviet territory. The Westerners innocently agreed, caring little for the Japanese fishermen and farmers who were living on what the Japanese then called their Northern Territories. So once the war was over, they were all deported back to Japan, a handful of Russian soldiers and settlers promptly moved in and the problem has festered ever since, an irritation that has kept Japan and Russia from ever formally ending their own state of war.

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And yet, seeing the islands at first hand, one has to wonder at the madness of it all. The four islands that the Russians occupy are lonely, wretched ruins, settled by disconsolate people, guarded by a demoralized rag bag of boy soldiers who all want to go home, away from the eternal fogs and the bone-chilling cold.

Their capital is a bleak shantytown called Yuzhno-Kurilsk, still only half recovered from having been swamped by a tidal wave six years ago. There was no wharf; the tender that brought me in from the icebreaker had to tie up against a sunk and sagging wreck, from where — after an hour’s scrutiny of my papers by a dozen border guards — I was allowed in, up a dusty street strewn with fish-bones and sick-looking dogs. The houses were in ruins, a few whey-faced inhabitants stood queuing for bread and beer. The only sign of modernity was a white Japanese fishing boat lying in the harbor, arrested for illegal netting in these aggressively patrolled Russian waters.

I spoke to some soldiers: They had had no pay for six months, no letters from their homes in Khabarovsk and Irkutsk; they had nothing to do other than be present, to do the bidding of politicians in a Moscow that was thousands of miles and eight time zones distant. It seemed lunacy, said one. Why don’t we just let the Japanese have the islands back? They are of no use to us. At least the Japanese would put some money in, spruce up the houses, make something of the place. His officer heard him talking and bade him shut up. No Japanese, he said. Never.

But this man took me in his old jeep to a headland at the south of his island. Across a narrow strait of blue and tide-ripped water, where great red buoys marked the international boundary, rose the cliffs of Hokkaido. I looked through the soldier’s binoculars. In the distance I spotted a gleaming Japanese car climbing a winding Japanese road, heading toward a collection of modern buildings that were topped by what seemed to be a viewing stand. That’s where I had been, many years before.

Up there maybe tourists were looking down at us, at this ragged Russian soldier, this unidentified civilian, perhaps wondering what we were talking about.

I can tell them: What is Japan really like? the soldier was asking me, over and again. They say it is much more advanced than Russia. I would so like to see for myself.

But then he spat. Until this situation changes, he said, I can never go, I can never find out. Until those fools in Moscow change their minds, he said, these binoculars will have to do.

Simon Winchester is a contributing editor for Salon Wanderlust. He has previously written about Hong Kong, the Kurile Islands and China.

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