Magazine article Insight on the News

Russian Emigrants Tread Water off Japanese Bay

Magazine article Insight on the News

Russian Emigrants Tread Water off Japanese Bay

Article excerpt

Facing spartan conditions and a watery economy, Russian inhabitants of the Kurils live in limbo. Although pro-Japanese sentiment is on the upswing, many people just want to go home.

At first sight, the spare, windswept island of Kunashir off the northern coast of Japan looks like the end of the world. The airport has been closed for repairs for three years. The rusting hulks of a half-dozen fishing boats lie abandoned on the beach at the capital of Yuzhno-Kurilsk, and most of the boats still afloat in the harbor are virtual wrecks. There isn't a paved road on the island. Half the houses, most without indoor plumbing, are for sale, but there are no takers.

Yet Kunashir -- along with the islands of Iturup and Shikotan that make up the Kuril chain -- has for decades kept two of the world's major powers from signing a World War II peace treaty and held up billions of dollars in aid and investment.

The original dispute between Japan and the Soviet Union broke out in the final days of World War II. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the invasion of the Kurils three weeks after Japan surrendered to the United States, despite the fact that the Soviet Union never fought Japan. Although Tokyo long ago forsook claims to Sakhalin Island and the northern Kurils, which alternately had been Russian and Japanese anyway, it refuses to sign a peace treaty with Russia until the southern Kurils are returned.

With Washington's support, Tokyo argues that the islands have been Japanese ever since the first Russian-Japanese treaty in 1855. (The original natives, a tribe called the Ainu who were known for their bushy beards and fierce dispositions, had successfully resisted Japanese colonization until the late 18th century.) Japan bans its citizens from visiting the Russian-occupied islands, and though Kunashir actually juts into a bay of the Japanese island of Hokkaido -- just seven miles away and perfectly visible on a clear day-there is virtually no traffic across the bay. It is Russia's last closed border.

Today, the 15,000 residents of the islands are suffering more than most Russians from the collapse of the economy. The majority had moved here from the mainland in the 1950s and sixties, attracted by salaries two and three times higher. But rampaging inflation has eaten up their savings, salaries now arrive months late or not at all and the subsidies for cheap food and fuel have evaporated.

"We want to leave, but we have no money to move back to the mainland," says Yevgeni Dubinin, an unemployed cannery worker. About 1,000 people emigrate every year anyway. "Most people would like to leave," agrees Maria Sevchenko, director of the local museum.

This year, the sense of hopelessness led to the previously unthinkable. In Shikotan, the smallest of the three inhabited islands, a referendum revealed that 84 percent of voters favored returning the island to the Japanese. Last April, in the first local democratic vote, a pro-Japanese activist named Mikhail Lukyanov, long known as a dissident and head of a pro-Japanese organization called the Society of Countrymen, won a seat on the island's council. He lost his job as a docker after leading a strike in 1987 and since has spent much of his time digging up, collecting and selling Japanese artifacts. "We need to return the islands for two reasons," he says. "First, because historically they are theirs. And second, because Japan represents the best hope for the future for the inhabitants."

His views are shared by many of the island's residents. "If we had a referendum here today, 99 percent would vote for a giveback," says Ludmila Ivanova, an unemployed store clerk. "At least the Japanese would help us resettle on the mainland."

But the pro-Japanese sentiment has limits. "We don't want to live here under the Japanese; we think they would treat us like second-class citizens," says Andrei Platonov, a fisherman. "We know how they treat the Koreans. …

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