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Another postcard from the edge: life on the Kuril Islands

For many Western readers the Kuril Islands are famous chiefly for being the subject of an post-WWII territorial dispute between USSR/Russia and Japan. Amidst the political wrangling, the Kuril islanders continue to go about their daily lives, reports Ksenya Semyonova, a native of nearby Sakhalin.

Road-building

A historic event took place recently on Kunashir, one of the four inhabited islands in the Kuril archipelago. Almost five kilometres of road were asphalted for the first time ever. Not long ago, something like this would have been beyond the islanders’ wildest dreams, but now the residents are promised that the road-building programme on Kunashir will only grow and grow.

Despite the breathtaking views and fresh air, the lack of
basic conveniences mean that few are prepared to settle 
on the Kuril islands 

This morsel of good news is an excellent illustration of the current state of affairs in the Kuril Islands. On the one hand, people can see that the quality of life is improving in this far-flung territory. On the other hand, what kind of changes are we talking about? Roads. Certainly not the nanotechnology so feted by our government.

But my how have the locals already managed to sample the delights of the roads! Now no longer do passing cars kick up clouds of dust on to neighbouring houses — instead it is loose car parts flying off at speed that the local homeowners have most to fear. Intoxicated by the unprecedented freedom and speed on offer, many local drivers have taken to racing along the new asphalt as if they are Forumula One drivers.

The neighbouring island of Iturup has also begun a road building programme. Though construction work has started, it will still be a very long time before road markings will appear. That hasn’t deterred the local arm of the law – the traffic police – from fulfilling their monthly quota for catching offenders crossing the double white lines, however. One can only envy the visual memory of these police officers, who carry in their minds’ eye the burning image of double white lines running along grey asphalt.

Sea transport

No less glorious a development for the Kunashir islanders was the recent opening at the local port of a new deep-water mooring complex, which cost more than 170 million roubles to build. Many readers might not automatically sense the importance of this. Suffice to say that until now, Kunashir residents travelling by ferry from Sakhalin needed to disembark on a pontoon boat. Getting on to that boat, especially during the frequent Kuril storms, was something that terrified even experienced sailors. The new port complex, however, means that the ship can come right in to the shore. A deep-water docking facility is also being constructed on Iturup (the biggest fishing company in the Kuril Islands has had a similar facility there for some time, but only for the use of its own company ships).

Transport remains a crucial issue for the islanders. Of course, they are used to living far away from civilisation and big cities; they are also used to buying food at prices twice as expensive as on Sakhalin – where things are already far from cheap. But they also expect to be able to leave the island at least once a year — onto the ‘mainland’ i.e. Sakhalin, and from there perhaps to the ‘big mainland’. They want to walk the asphalted streets, see shopping centres, go to the theatre and the cinema, see their friends and family.

‘The pull of the Kuril Islands is the extraordinary natural beauty of the wild landscape. And the absence of fellow man ... Where there are so few people, the air is different, there are no huge rubbish dumps, or enterprises which pollute the environment with their waste products. There’s fish in the river and sea eagles in the sky.  Whether a scientist or a philosopher, one could find no better place to seek out the meaning of life at one with nature.’

There are currently two ways of getting to the Kuril Islands (Paramushir, Iturup, Kunashir and Shikotan): by sea or air.

There is still just the one ship operating between Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. It bears the name of a governor of the region, Igor Farkhutdinov, who died in a plane crash. (Some 3 years ago a boat called the Marina Tsvetayeva used to sail to the islands, but then it was sold to a commercial shipping company for private runs.) 

As goes without saying, one boat for such an important destination as the Kuril Islands is far from adequate. Demand for it is enormous, especially in summer months when the islanders go on holiday and people from all over Russia who want to work during the salmon fishing season need to get to the islands. A 4-berth cabin can often have 8 or 10 passengers in it at peak times.

While the question of providing other ships for this route is still to be addressed, the construction of new airports is already well under way. A new airport as Kunashir a new airport terminal has been opened and the runway is being reconstructed; and new airport is also being built on Iturup. These new facilities will be able to accept flights, if not in any weather conditions, then certainly a great deal more frequently than they do now. Today, flights are frequently cancelled because of bad weather conditions (often fog, which reduces visibility levels needed for take-off and landing). If you have managed to get to the Kuril Islands and away again on dates of your choosing, you’ve been very lucky indeed. It is not unknown for tourists to get stuck here for 7 or even 10 days.

Visiting – yes, but living there?

Travelling on the islands, I wondered if I could actually live there.

Map of the Kuril Islands (click to enlarge), showing
borders as of 1855, 1875 and 1945 respectively.
Few locals pay attention to the ongoing territorial
dispute that so occupies the Russian and Japanese
high command. 

The first obvious pull of the Kuril Islands is the extraordinary natural beauty of the wild landscape. And the absence of fellow man. Each of the inhabited islands has a population of no more than 6000 – it may not be a huge area of land, but it’s not insignificant either. 

And where there are so few people, the air is different, there are no huge rubbish dumps, or enterprises which pollute the environment with their waste products. There’s fish in the river and sea eagles in the sky.  Whether a scientist or a philosopher, one could find no better place to seek out the meaning of life at one with nature.

But as for the cons….well, how many do you want? Food is expensive and there’s a pretty poor selection (often no fruit or milk). Leisure facilities are badly organised if there at all. There are no cinemas or theatres, and the cultural centres don’t have much to offer either. Young people go there of an evening and what they get up to is entirely predictable: drinking and fighting. There aren’t enough schoolteachers or hospital doctors.

And then there is the matter of the territorial dispute, which continues to be assessed as hugely important at the top. To simple islanders, however, it is  a subject of almost no concern. Given the abundance of problems listed above, this is hardly surprising. In 2011 Kuril islanders and Japanese people celebrated 20 years of visa-free travel, which speaks much eloquently of the relationship between the two regions.


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