Islanders caught in a tug of war

SUN JOURNAL

Territory: Japan's demand that Russia return the southern Kurils has divided residents, whose nationalist attachments have been strained by hardship.

January 04, 1999|By Russell Working | Russell Working,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KURILSK, Russia -- When Raisa Makhankova moved to the Kuril Islands in 1946, she used to flirt with the men by playing her accordion.

Once the young woman threw her arm around one of the Japanese residents of Iturup -- one of the tiny Japanese islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II -- and began singing a teasing song: "I came to the Kuril Islands to process fish, and if our guys don't marry me, I'm going to marry a Japanese."

For that, Makhankova, now 79, was jailed overnight and interrogated by the Soviet border guards. "Who hired you as a spy, and why did you come here?" a major demanded. Any hint, even joking, that the island's Japanese might have a right to settle down and marry Russians was potentially treasonous. By 1948, the Soviets had expelled all the Japanese from the Kurils.

Today the residents of the southern Kurils are divided over Japanese demands that Russia return Iturup and three other southern Kuril Islands to Japan as a part of a proposed peace treaty that would formally end their World War II enmity.

The future of the southern Kurils was on Japan's agenda in November when Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi visited Moscow. Russia's response was, there is nothing to negotiate -- the islands are Russian.

The issue divides some Kurilsk residents, too. Some, such as Makhankova, insist that the destitute islands separating the North Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk must remain Russian.

Others say they have been deserted by their government and forgotten by the world, and life under the Japanese couldn't be any worse.

"My family would definitely stay here if they [the Japanese] provided jobs for us," says Anna Yerokhina, a shopkeeper. "What has our government done for us? My son graduated from Vladivostok University as a construction engineer, and he hasn't been able to find work in three years."

Throughout the southern Kuril Islands, which lie off the Japanese island of Hokkaido, life is hard and getting worse as Russia crumbles economically.

Yet for every resident like Yerokhina who thinks things might improve under the Japanese, others will argue that the islands -- the southern tip of a volcanic chain that extends from the Kamchatka Peninsula -- are as Russian as the Volga River valley.

For a nation whose vast territories have always been its strength, any talk of giving up land stirs deep anxieties.

About 26,000 people, almost all Russians, live on the four islands claimed by Japan. Both nations can point to historical links to the Kurils, known by the Japanese as the Northern Territories. Russian Cossacks began exploring the Kurils in the 1600s, but the southern Kurils population was predominantly Japanese before World War II.

The islands have a remote, desolate beauty, with volcanic peaks rising from the sea and twisted cedars on the hillsides. But the villages are desperately poor. The 34-mile road from the airport to Kurilsk is so bad that trucks carrying passengers veer off and drive for several miles on the beach, past the hulks of wrecked ships.

Kurilsk's streets are paved in mud, and recently electricity has been shut off for 19 to 24 hours a day -- except for the mayor's office and the telephone and telegraph station. The buildings are sided in bare wood and tar paper. Humanitarian aid from Japan provides clinics, medicine and food.

There are glimpses of old Russia here, 6,000 miles from Moscow, with haystacks tucked behind peasant cottages. The only reminders of Japan are a few stray nondescript buildings such as the library and the army officers club, and a corner of the cemetery filled with rounded river stones engraved with Japanese characters.

Vita Gorbachevskaya, 35, an art teacher from Lvov, came here four years ago. "I was struck by the negligence and destruction," she says. "I think people are basically here for a short time and they leave."

Others say their roots run deep in the islands. Anatoly Zhelez-nyakov, 53, a public-health doctor, says there is a simple reason: "Patriotism. It is our land. [former Russian President Viktor S.] Chernomyrdin told us we don't have any extra land, and we support that statement."

Such sentiments have rallied many Russians. The proposal to return the islands has drawn angry reactions from former ambassadors and from Yevgeny Nazdratenko, governor of the Far Eastern Primorye region.

In the Kurils, patriotism can take a curious form -- a nationalism that spurns Russia itself. "Of course we don't want Japan," says Svetlana Guseva, 48, who owns a store with her husband, Alexander. "Better to give Kuril to the Kuril residents, and separate from the Russian federation."

She says things aren't so bad on Iturup: Unlike nearby Shikotan, where desperate residents are collecting signatures to lease the island to the Japanese for 99 years, Iturup has no homeless people and no beggar children. The shops in Kurilsk have enough food, she says -- though others say it is impossible to find fruit.

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