Russia’s Kuril Islands in the Pacific Ocean
by Olivia Kroth
The Kuril Islands (Курильские острова) in Russia’s Sakhalin Oblast form a volcanic archipelago that stretches about 1.300 kilometres in the North Pacific Ocean. The 56 islands and rocks are divided into the Greater Kuril Ridge and the Lesser Kuril Ridge, with a total land area of more than 10.000 square kilometres and a population of 20.000 Recently, the Kuril Islands were in the spotlight of politics, as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin visited the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, where he held talks with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about the current status of the disputed two southernmost islands.
“We do not trade territories although concluding a peace treaty with Japan is certainly a key issue and we would like to find a solution to this problem together with our Japanese friends”, Vladimir Putin told journalists of Bloomberg in Vladivostok, on the 1st of September 2016. A few days later, he went into greater detail clarifying the legal status of the two disputed islands at a meeting with journalists during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, on the 5th of September 2016.
“The Soviet Union obtained this territory as a result of World War II, and this was cemented in international legal documents. The Soviet Union, following lengthy and difficult negotiations with Japan, signed a treaty in 1956, Article 9 of which states that the two southern islands are to be handed over to Japan. After the Japanese parliament and the USSR Supreme Soviet ratified the treaty, Japan renounced its implementation. They took the view that the treaty did not give them enough and decided to lay claim to all four islands. In the end, neither side implemented the treaty and it was simply left in suspension. Later, the Soviet Union declared too that it did not intend to implement the treaty. Later on again, the Japanese asked us to return to discussions. We agreed and talks began. This is where we are at today”, the Russian President explained.
Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin:
Russia’s gateway to the Pacific Ocean is of strategic value, not to be given up. The islands of Kunashir and Iturup are resource-rich and are believed to have an abundance of rare earth metals. The islands, with their virgin forests, volcanoes and waterfalls, also hold immense potential for tourism.
“Over the last few years, Russia has stepped up its military activity around the islands. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu ordered the speeding up of the construction of military facilities on the Southern Kurils. The increased Russian military activity on the Southern Kurils is largely in anticipation of the opening of the Northern Sea Route, a shipping lane that connects the Kara Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The route runs along the Russian Arctic Coast and will provide both military and economic advantages to the country. The route effectively makes Russia a major Asia-Pacific power. The islands of Kunashir and Iturup are an integral part of Russia’s Asia-Pacific defense and economic strategy” (RUSSIA & INDIA REPORT, 11.06.2015).
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu:
In September 2016, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu told the press about plans to use Matua Island, which is part of the Kuril Archipelago, for logistic purposes. Sergey Shoigu is also president of the Russian Geographic Society and said at a meeting, “We are to answer a number of specific questions this year. We plan to resume using that island very actively as a north-south and east-west transport hub.” He explained that scientists were to estimate in what way mud flows and volcanic activity might affect the runway in the process of its operation and upgrading. A special pier would be created on Matua for the delivery of building equipment. Furthermore, Sergey Shoigu also called for research into ecological issues, including the effects of human activity on the migration of birds and the types of energy sources that could be used on Matua. A joint expedition of the Russian Defense Ministry and the Russian Geographic Society was dispatched to the island this year. Sergey Shoigu said the Pacific Fleet’s specialists were to look into the possibility of creating a base on the Kuril Islands (TASS, 14.09.2016).
Volcanic rocks on Kunashir Island
The Kuril Islands have about 100 volcanoes, of which 40 are still active.The highest elevation is the Alaid volcano, 2.340 metres above sea level, on Atlasov Island at the northern end of the island chain. The island chain also contains many hot springs and fumaroles. Frequently, seismic activity is noted in this region. The beaches are rocky, with small sand banks and cliffs. Some of the islands have wide rivers and streams, grasslands, crater lakes and peat bogs.
The flora of the islands varies greatly from north to south. Due to the harsh climate in the north, vegetation is sparse on the northern islands of Paramushir, Shumshu and others. The main vegetation are dwarf shrubs, alder, mountain ash, elfin wood. The southern islands are covered with coniferous forests: Ajan spruce, Kuril larch, Sakhalin fir, as well as different kinds of magnolia. Plenty of berries grow here, too: blueberry, crowberry, lingonberry. There are more than 40 species of endemic plants, for example the Kuril Edelweiss, Kuril Artemisia and Kuril Aquilegia. An endemic variety of bamboo is Sasa kurilensis, resistant to the northern climate, with leaves about 25 cm long and 7 cm wide. This type of bamboo prevents erosion, forming impenetrable thickets on the slopes of the mountains and the edges of forests.
Kuril Bamboo (Sasa kurilensis):
There is varied fauna on the islands, due to their remoteness from civilization: brown bears, Arctic foxes and red foxes. The Kurilian Bobtail is a native species of cat, which has been domesticated and exported to nearby Russia and bred there, becoming a popular domestic cat. This cat is an excellent fisher and hunter, which may explain why the Kurilian loves to play in water. The Kurilian’s wild look is not reflected in the temperament of the breed. It is known for its clever and gentle nature. Several species of dear are found on the southern islands. Among terrestrial birds there are peregrine falcons, ravens, wagtails and wrens.
The Kuril islands are surrounded by waters inhabited by a wide range and high abundance of marine life: sea urchins, mollusks, squid; Pacific cod, flatfish, sardine, walleye pollock; seal, sea lion and sea otter. Furthermore, the Kuril islands are home of millions of seabirds, among them the auklet, cormorant, fulmar, guillemot, gull, tufted puffin, kittiwake. They like to nest in hummocks and cliff niches in summer.
Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo):
Regarding the islands’ economy, fishing is the primary source of income. The islands have strategic and economic value in terms of fisheries. There are also mineral deposits of pyrite, sulfur and various polymetallic ores. In 2014, construction workers built a pier and a breakwater in Kitovy Bay, central Iturup, where barges are a major means of transport, sailing between the cove and ships anchored offshore. A new road has been carved through the woods near Kurilsk, the island Kunashir’s biggest village, going to the site of Yuzhno-Kurilsk Mendeleyevo airport. Gidrostroy is the Kurils’ biggest business group with interests in fishing, construction and real estate, It built its second fish processing factory on Iturup island in 2006, introducing a state-of-the-art conveyor system. To deal with a rise in the demand of electricity, the local government has also upgraded a state-run geothermal power plant at Mount Baransky, an active volcano, where steam and hot water can be found.
Fishery on Kunashir Island:
Russian presence on the Kuril Islands dates back to the 18th century, when Kamtchatka Cossacks came here with an expedition, in 1711. Under the leadership of Danila Antsiferov and Ivan Kozyrevsky, the Cossacks landed on the northern island of Shumshu, where they met the local Ainu people. Soon these began to pay tribute to the Cossacks. In 1713, a detachment of 55 Cossacks arrived and settled in the northern Kuril Islands, and more poured in during the following years. Tsar Peter the Great sent another expedition in 1719, led by Ivan Evereinov and Fedor Luzhin. They discovered the island of Simushir. In 1779, Empress Catherine II decreed to free all Russian citizens settling on the Kuril Islands from paying taxes.
Danila Yakovlevich Antsiferov (Данила Яковлевич Анциферов) was elected Cossack ataman of Kamchatka, in 1711. Together with Ivan Kozyrevsky, he visited the Kuril Islands and was the first to describe them in writing. One of the Kuril Islands bears his name, along with a cape and a volcano on Paramushir. Ivan Petrovich Kozyrevsky (Иван Петрович Козыревский) was a Yakut Cossack of Polish origin. His grandfather had been an exiled Polish prisoner of nobility. Ivan Kozyrevsky traveled to the Kuril Islands with Danila Antsiferov. Later he became a monk, taking on the name of Ignatius. A cape and a mountain on the island of Paramushir, as well as a bay and a cape on the island of Shumshu bear his name.
Three hundred years have passed since then, from the beginning of the 18th to the beginning of the 21st century. Three hundred years of Russian settlement on the Kurils, Russia’s gateway to the Pacific Ocean, will certainly not be given up in the future, as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin might have had in his mind, when he talked to the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Vladivostok. The Kuril Islands will surely remain in Russian hands – all of them, from north to south.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.